Pretty Little Liars creator, executive producer and writer I. Marlene King recalls TV being her big escape while growing up in small-town Ohio and Indiana. “My friends and I would watch TV shows and then we would run out to reenact them in the backyard,” she recalls.
That Backyardigans-like childhood experience and interactivity has been a steady presence in King’s writing career and her time with PLL, the big ABC Family hit currently in its fifth season. The series was recently picked up for seasons 6 and 7.
Of course, using one’s imagination and getting the words down are quite different, which King learned early on.
“It was agonizing for me to write when I was younger,” she says. “I remember crying over many book reports. It’s surprising to everyone in my family that I grew up to be a writer.”
She did finally get the bug in one of her classes at Pepperdine University, and after graduation, she immersed herself while also working at her parents’ manufacturing company, running errands and doing grunt work.
“I did some part-time work for them, and they helped me out,” King says of her parents. “I wrote a ton. I spent all of my time writing as much as I could.”
She sold her first script with her thenwriting partner Roger Kumble to New Line, a film called The Untitled Talking Dog Movie. “It was not good, but we thought it was good at the time,” she says. “I highly recommend nobody writing a project called, ‘The Untitled Talking’ any type of animal movie.”
After writing three or four scripts annually for a few years, King finally got her big break, writing the film Now and Then, a minor hit in 1995 starring Demi Moore and Melanie Griffith.
“I wrote a script about the summer of my sixth grade year. It was the summer my parents got divorced but also just a very important summer in my life with my core group of girlfriends from our neighborhood,” she says.
Naturally, for someone who managed to bring important events in one’s youth to the screen, something clicked for King when ABC Family shared Sara Shepard’s first Pretty Little Liars book with her.
“I just loved it. I read it in one sitting, and to me it read like a pilot,” she recalls. “I knew how to make the pilot while I was reading the book.”
King’s commitment to the show has not wavered since. The 100th episode aired July 8, and the PLL spinoff Ravenswood had a brief run on ABC Family.
Jonell Lennon, who started as a PLL script coordinator and is now executive story editor, says: “I think her role has been the sort of visionary of where the show was going to go, the larger mystery arcs. She’s had that big concept—the idea of the show sustaining itself—from the beginning.”
Though Pretty Little Liars is wildly popular on social media—the series accounts for the top six most-tweeted scripted telecasts on record, generating 1 million-plus tweets each—that was a fringe benefit for King, not a goal.
“The social media world found us before we found them,” she says. “We had fans of Sara’s book contacting us on Facebook and Twitter, and we started a very organic dialogue with them.”
It wasn’t until PLL’s first episode that the crew understood the significance. “We were a trending topic on Twitter worldwide for that entire day, and that was even before the show had aired,” King notes.
King sees a parallel between her childhood days playing in the backyard and her show’s social media success. “It was sort of ‘interactive’ for us back then,” she says. “It’s so interesting we’ve created a show that’s interactive for our fans through social media…It feels like at 100 episodes we are just hitting our stride. We have not peaked yet. People are as interested in the show as ever.”
And that, of course, is especially true with Pretty Little Liars’ big mysteries. “Our fans deserve to know who ‘Big A’ is in the near future” King says. “And we are deciding when to finally reveal that big ending to the story.”