Marlene King has had a successful career in Hollywood by anyone's standards. She sold her first batch of screenplays in the early '90s along with then-writing partner Roger Kumble, before the first film she wrote was finally made: the coming-of-age dramedy Now And Then (no relation to the very series you're reading now), which starred Christina Ricci, Thora Birch, and Gaby Hoffman as the young counterparts to Rosie O'Donnell, Melanie Griffith, and Demi Moore. That film led her to contribute to the seminal 1996 HBO anthology film If These Walls Could Talk, a level of success that followed up by—well, taking time off from her career to be a full-time mom to her son.
Stories like that don't always end with the woman in question picking her career back up as though she'd never skipped a beat, but for King—who returned to Hollywood in 2010 to develop the hit ABC Family series Pretty Little Liars—few beats were skipped. Pretty Little Liars became a TV phenomenon—watched by teens and adults alike, the show broke a whole host of social media records, becoming the most tweeted show for the last two years of its run. The show led to a spinoff series, Ravenswood, and King subsequently managed to make her way to the director's chair for later episodes of Liars. Here, King outlines some of the decisions that helped her build and maintain a successful, creative Hollywood career.
After selling somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 pitches and scripts with Kumble—without actually seeing a film get made—King went solo on a spec script that transformed her career, after finally deciding to yield to the biggest cliche every writer hears: "The first [important decision I made] was really was taking to heart the advice that people really do give you, which is 'write what you know.' I really took time to see what the story that I wanted to tell was," she says. "It was a very personal story that seemed to flow very easily from me, and I would say that was really the first smart thing I did. I really wanted to tell the story of the summer of my 6th-grade year, when my parents got divorced and the world really changed for me." That film—Now And Then—piqued further interest in King's work. "That really sort of launched, I would say, that hot period of working in the '90s."
One advantage to writing what she knew was that King was able to tell a story that resonated deeply with people in part because there are a dearth of stories like it. "Now And Then was made in 1995, and still to this day I get tweets and Facebook posts every day about how that movie has influenced people, and how it's a new generation's favorite movie, because those movies just don't get made anymore," she says. "I'm really proud of that."
King followed up Now And Then with another woman-centric, female-directed movie: the 1996 HBO anthology film If These Walls Could Talk, which told the story of various women in the 20th century and their experiences with abortion. But not long after her hot period, she gave birth to her first son, and by 2002, her focus was on "being a mom for a while," she says.
When King decided to get back into the game, she did so with a spec script called The Grandma Wars, which—while it wasn't produced—put her back on a lot of radars, which led to a general meeting at ABC Family. "It was just a group of fantastic young female executives over there," she recalls. "We had loved all the same movies and all the same books—it was just a very fast meeting of the minds."
When she took that meeting, television wasn't on King's agenda, but she ended up launching a hit series as a result. "I thought my future was strictly going to be movies, but I decided to be open to taking a meeting at ABC Family, which was really hardly a network at the time," she says. "I think they only had one sort-of hit TV show, so I think it was really trusting in myself. I remember people saying, 'Really, you're going to do a television show for ABC Family?' and it was really just trusting that I loved this material so much that we could create something special. That was the second big change for me in finding my voice—not just as a writer but as a person—that I'm going to take a chance on something that I really believe in."