Pretty Little Liars Showrunner I. Marlene King on the Time-Jump, Writing Plot Twists, and Disappointed Fans

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Pretty Little Liars makes its mid-season return to the newly launched Freeform this evening, and it’s sure to be a striking change for fans of the popular mystery-drama. Jumping forward five years since the reveal of “Über A,” the show will pick up with the post-college Liars reuniting in Rosewood due to new circumstances, which — in typical PLL fashion — is sure to turn dangerously mysterious. Ahead of the premiere, Vulture chatted with showrunner I. Marlene King about what to expect, the future of the show, and why PLL’s spinoff, Ravenswood, faced cancellation.

How does the Pretty Little Liars writers room operate — how far in advance do you map out each season?
Usually before the room starts I hop in there, oftentimes with my assistant or one of the other writers, and we pound out the entire mystery arc for the entire season. We put it on the board before the room starts because it keeps things more simple and streamlined. Sometimes I think, when you’re trying to write, too many voices in the room can be challenging. I usually start from the end to the beginning. Right now, I’m in the room looking at next season — season seven — and I know when it ends. So I work backwards from the end to the beginning. And when the room starts, we really fill in all of the blanks with what each character is doing this season and how we get from point A to point B, and some of the more detailed things. We get the whole season mapped out episode by episode before we start writing them.

When did you officially decide to implement the five-year time jump?
It was probably midway through season five when we knew we would do the time-jump. It really felt time for it. For a season, we were avoiding putting the girls in their classrooms because they just didn’t look that age anymore. There was a lot of no school involved with seasons five and six.

Narratively, what can we expect for this half of the season? We know the girls return to Rosewood, but what exactly summons them?
The girls have stayed friends through social media and good old-fashioned FaceTime-ing and whatnot, but they’re living in different parts of the country. It was somewhat by design that they split up, since if there’s some return of A, then they won’t all be together, and the chances of surviving are greater. An event occurs that brings them back to Rosewood, and another event occurs that forces them to stay for a while. Aria has a successful job in publishing in Boston, so she has to leave that. Hanna is an assistant to a very successful fashion designer, so she’s got to struggle to keep her job while being forced to stay in Rosewood. We will see over the course of the season some really great flashbacks of some things that happened during those five years, especially relationship-wise. Everyone knows Hanna and Caleb aren’t together when we return, but some of my favorite scenes in the entire season are Hanna and Caleb flashbacks. They’re really beautiful and cinematic, and we get a sense of why they’re apart when we first see them.

Whose idea was it for the show’s new intro?
I think it was my idea. All five of the girls, including Sasha [Pieterse], are taking turns every week doing the “shush.” Now that Sasha’s not the dead girl in the coffin anymore! It was the beginning of season five when we started talking about the new intro and that it was the right time to do it, especially with the time-jump.

Now that it’s been a few months since the big reveal of “A,” how do you think the episode was received?
It really wasn’t unlike when we revealed that Mona was “A.” It’s always very controversial for a while, and then, when people have a chance to process it and let it sink in and go back and watch it more methodically and less emotionally, they embrace it. I found that to be the key with both of those episodes.

When I interviewed Vanessa Ray after the reveal, she was clearly a big fan of the story line.
Oh, she was amazing. She did such a great job. We kept saying that you’re going to get all of the answers ... well, you didn’t get 100 percent of the answers, because there are some threads from that story line that are going to factor into the rest of this season and season seven. There are still some unanswered questions that factor into this new “Über Bad.”

Some fans have aired grievances that the show has become a bit too convoluted and full of plot holes. Do you think that criticism is justified?
I think some of the things that people believe are plot holes are not plot holes — they’ll be dealt with later. So far, I don’t know of any plot holes that we have neglected. There are some unanswered questions or things that might not make a lot of sense that will clear by the time the show ends. I think the one thing ... we did do a flashback of Toby and Alison when, chronologically, they would probably be much younger than they appeared on the screen. That’s just how we always did our flashbacks up to that point with our actors. In hindsight, we probably should’ve hired younger actors to play in that scene. That’s a thing we probably could’ve done a better job with.

Besides the flashback, do you have any other regrets?
Well, I felt terrible that people were so upset about Maya’s death. It was an important part of the storytelling, though, and important for Emily’s character to have to deal with that. I don’t really regret it, but it’s unfortunate that people were personally so upset about it. People were also very upset about the Toby and “A” reveal, but I think it was one of our best reveals or twists and turns. So, I don’t have a lot of regrets. I feel like we’re still doing a good job. It’s an incredibly complicated mystery, we’re keeping all of the balls in the air. Our fans are smart enough to deal with how complicated it is. I love that we have some of the best fans on television. We’re maturing with the girls. As the actresses and characters mature, I feel like the show is doing a good job of keeping with their level of maturity.

You mentioned Maya — a question still on many people’s minds is the events surrounding Maya’s death and whether or not she’s actually dead.
I don’t know why people think that. [Laughs.] It’s Maya, she’s dead. It was very clear. I think people really don’t want her to be dead, and they’re still hoping that there’s some way that she’ll come back.

It seems Wren is still fresh on everyone’s minds, too.
I know, I love Julian [Morris], and I love Wren. He’s my favorite Brit ever. He’s not going to be in the second half of this season. He's unfortunately working on another show, so we can’t use him. But we talk about his character, and we keep his character alive. I know Julian would love to come back to do some work on the show, so hopefully, we’ll work that out before the show ends. I’m always a sucker for a Brit.

You recently clarified that Pretty Little Liars would not be ending after season seven, but rather, the “Über Bad” story line was —
Quite honestly, we’re just talking about what the show looks like past season seven. It’s undecided yet if it’ll go past season seven.

What about a movie? Is that still an open possibility?
Yes. We’re not actively pursuing it right now, but I have a great idea for the movie, so hopefully, one day we’ll get to do it.

I’d also like to ask about Ravenswood — why do you think the show didn’t achieve the same level of success as Pretty Little Liars?
I don’t know. I think people were hoping for a show that was a lot closer to Pretty Little Liars. Ravenswood was a definite departure. I think fans were very upset with the fact that Hanna and Caleb weren’t together. Those were probably the two reasons why we didn’t get a chance to knock it out of the park. I feel, though, by the time we got canceled, that we were really understanding what that show was, what the story was, and growing into it. It all happened very quickly, so we were sort of learning on the fly.

Did the cancellation surprise you?
It did, actually. We were starting to build back the ratings, and I think that creatively, we were all really liking where the show was and where it was going. We really found our footing. So we felt like we got a great shot of being picked up.

What a bummer, it was good fun.
Tyler [Blackburn] just sent me a text that he really misses the show, too. Maybe we should talk to the network about doing a TV movie, that would be really fun!

As a successful female showrunner, what advice would you give women looking to break into the industry?
That’s such a good question. I think you have to write, write, write, write, because it’s critical for television to be able to do it quickly, it’s crazy. We break an episode over the course of a week, and you’ll have seven to nine days to write an episode. You definitely have to hone in on your skill-set and have a lot of stamina, but just start writing. Write, and have lots of samples and lots of scripts. Write scripts for shows that are on the air, write scripts that are original. That’s probably the best place to start.