I'm a huge fan of the original Gilmore Girls. Or really, a huge fan of the scriptwriters on that show. While the lines were delivered perfectly by the wonderful actors, the writers were the ones who crafted the dialogue that set the show's tone, deepened the characters, and popped off the screen.
Whether you're a fan or not, settle in with your popcorn and let's pull some principles from scenes of Gilmore Girls to apply to our own novels—thus creating dialogue that keeps readers reading and coming back for more.
All too often, we writers think we need to speak like our characters would in real life. But think that through.
In real life, people stammer, interrupt themselves, interrupt each other, pause to recall someone's name or hunt for the word they want to use, repeat pet words over and over, default to cliches, and fill their dialogue with "verbal graffiti" (um, uh, like). That does not make for seamless or engaging reading.
Some have pointed out that no one in real life speaks as wittily and quickly as Lorelai Gilmore. To which I reply, "So what?" Her dialogue feels real enough—true to who she is and how she engages with the world—and keeps the viewer engaged. Take a look at this scene that happens the day after Rory Gilmore, a normally straight-laced college student, gets arrested.
How compelling or entertaining would that scene be if the mom stopped to think up her next witty line, added a bunch of ums or likes into the conversation, or just asked how her recently-arrested daughter was doing? Not very.
As Alfred Hitchcock said, "Drama is life with the dull bits cut out." So cut out the dull parts and represent rather than reproduce real conversation.
It seems at times in the show that Lorelai and Rory were talking just to hear themselves talk. But the dialogue always, or almost always, achieved something.
Let's look at a seemingly pointless conversation, and then I'll address why this dialogue really matters in the episode.
In this episode, Lorelai goes out on a date with a man she met at an auction and it turns out to be a bust. As she explains to her daughter, the man went on and on about his car and the wine list until she was nearly bored to death. Plus, he had no sense of humor.
Yet in this opening scene, Luke goes on and on too. He rants about the young families in his diner, and his gruff attitude toward public nursing makes him seem far less desirable than the man Lorelai later meets. By seeing her amused and engaged by Luke, we get that this unlikely character is a better fit. This dialogue sets the story's tone, reveals their character, and foreshadows the main conflict to come. It's also somewhat entertaining.
Ask yourself why your characters say what they say. How does each line of dialogue matter to the overall plot or scene goal? What does the reader learn about the characters or the conflict? And if at all possible, get dialogue to pull double-duty, having it achieve more than one goal.
A common pitfall in writing dialogue is making your characters sound too similar. But how we speak arises from various factors, including geography, gender, age, race/ethnicity, culture, personality, and worldview.
Some of my favorite scenes from Gilmore Girls involve the community meetings conducted in the fictional town of Stars Hollow. Note how the individual voices vary.
Even in this short clip, you can see the personalities of many who spoke, from the anal-retentive mayor to the grumpy, ball-capped diner owner, to the tenderhearted teenage girl (Rory), to the humor-loving, sarcastic mom (Lorelai). If you knew nothing else about this whole series, you'd still get a flavor of the characters from this snippet.
Likewise, use dialogue in your story to show the uniqueness of each character and deepen the reader's sense of who they are, as well as what matters to them.
Sometimes the best way for your characters to communicate what they're feeling is to avoid saying it or say it such a subtle way that only someone who knows the character really understands what's beneath the surface.
Emily Gilmore, the main character's mother, is a take-charge, never-let-em-see-you-sweat woman who shows how much she loves her husband in this touching scene in the hospital following his heart attack.
All that fuss about the bedding is her way of saying "I love you, Richard Gilmore." And in turn, he responds to her need for reassurance with the funny-yet-sweet line, "You may go first."
Look for original, indirect ways your characters can express what they're thinking and feeling. And, in line with the previous point, make their way specific to who they are.
When it comes to subtext, novels are superior to shows. Unless a movie or TV show includes a narrator's voice, a character's unspoken thoughts must be implied through body language, facial expression, and words spoken aloud. Authors have the added benefit of internal dialogue on the page.
Still, we can see how important subtext is through this scene from Gilmore Girls. It's a turning point in the show when daughter Rory comes home after having accidentally stayed out all night.
Lorelai was a teenager when she got pregnant with Rory, and she brings all that past into the present. Since the writers showed us the first conversation between mother and daughter (Emily Gilmore with Lorelai), we can almost hear Lorelai's thoughts and emotions in the second conversation between mother and daughter (Lorelai to Rory). Giving every word spoken aloud that much more oomph.
What our characters say is important, but often in light of what they don't say aloud—that is, what they say to themselves about the conversation, visceral reactions they have, emotions and memories they experience. So consider carefully what you put between the quotation marks. Add subtext to give your dialogue more emphasis and power.
You're probably not writing a Gilmore Girls type novel, but all of us will have dialogue in our stories. Make sure what you include isn't dull, distracting, or distant. Instead, make conversation count by:
What have you learned about writing great dialogue from shows you've watched?
Julie Glover writes cozy mysteries and young adult fiction. Her YA contemporary novel, SHARING HUNTER, finaled in the 2015 RWA® Golden Heart®. She is also co-author of the Muse Island supernatural suspense series, which begins with Mark of the Gods, under the pen name Jules Lynn.
When not writing, she collects boots, practices rampant sarcasm, and advocates for good grammar and the addition of the interrobang as a much-needed punctuation mark.
Julie is represented by Louise Fury of The Bent Agency. You can visit Julie’s website hereand also follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
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Never saw the Gilmour Girls - but you've convinced me to check it out! There's SO much great writing in Hollywood nowadays - West Wing is the one that comes to mind first for me. Great topic, Julie!
I agree! I think the best dialogue has moved from movies to TV shows. There are a lot of great studies out there!
I was thinking the same thing, Laura. I missed Gilmore Girls the first time around. And I could swear I heard something about a reboot of the show. The original (and the book) is ALWAYS better. 🙂
I've always loved writing dialogue--sometimes, too much, I fear. Great points to make sure everything works to move the story forward, reveal characters, etc. I watch very little television, so I've never seen the Gilmore Girls, but maybe I'll check the show out. We've just gone through "Grace and Frankie" and "The Kominsky Method" from Netflix and the dialogue in both shows is great.
Thanks! And yes, Grace and Frankie has some really sharp dialogue. I'm not familiar with the other show. I'm a Netflix and Prime Video binger, when I have time.
I really enjoyed this. I write books, but I also write scripts. I know I must be a bit addled in the pate, but what can I say? I enjoy doing both.
I suspect script-writing would make you particularly good at dialogue. Several excellent authors have done both. Keep at what you enjoy!
In the TV series Fear The Walking Dead, A character repeatedly tells us through dialog that he wants to help people now to make up for past mistakes. Its good conversation but its a speech he uses too much. I think it takes me out of the moment if you have to keep reminding viewers or readers what the characters motives are. I should know if he tells us the first or no more than a second time.
Yes, you can definitely beleaguer a point in dialogue.
This happened for me with Supernatural and how often BROTHERS use one another's names—as if people do that. I was yelling at the screen, "Stop telling me his name! WE KNOW." Lol.
I love, love Gilmore Girls and watched it all the way through with my teen daughter. The funny thing is that we are very much like Lorelai and Rory, and I have a lot of fun bringing this kind of witty banter into my light hearted writing moments. Usually before something bad happens.Thanks for the fun article!
Yes, that witty banter is fun to watch, but also fun to read! Thanks, Kori.
I don't watch a ton of TV but my guy does. I've looked over his shoulder at House and The Good Place. Because both of them have AMAZING dialogue!
The Good Place is awesome, and why have I never watched House? Oh yeah, it's a medical show. Those tend to show surgeries, and I can't watch that. If someone tells me it's free of scalpel-against-skin shots, I can view it...and its apparently awesome dialogue. 🙂
House doesn't show a lot. I promise.
I try to have a good rapport between the characters and use good banter.
And your readers appreciate it!
I do enjoy The Gilmore Girls, but another show I love to binge on Netflix is BBC's Call the Midwife, about nurses and nuns who tend to families living in the London slum of Poplar. One of my favorite episodes focused on the widowed resident doctor, Dr. Turner, and Shelaigh (formerly Sister Bernadette). Throughout Seasons 1&2 their relationship deepened in sweet, subtle ways. After recovering from TB, she leaves religious life and sets out away from the city. Dr. Turner finds her in the middle of nowhere, and their reunion is incredibly romantic, laden with subtext, and positively electric.
I LOVE that show!
I've never heard of this show! But I almost always love the British shows.
A couple of friends suggested Call the Midwife, and I started to watch. But it's rather slow at the beginning. Does it pick up? Because they say the series is really good, and you're telling me the dialogue is great (which I love). So I guess I need to plunge deeper!
I love Gilmore Girls for the witty repartee, and I love Call the Midwife because it's nuanced. Personal preference, maybe
Thanks for giving us the clip examples, Julie, they really bring home your points. This is one of those "print it out-tape to wall" lists for revisions. Which I'm in the middle of right now!
Good point, Fae! I always review the dialogue in revisions to make sure it's relevant and popping off the page when it needs to.
This was great and even better for getting to watch all those Gilmore Girls clips.
Thanks! And while looking up clips, I did go down a bit of a rabbit hole watching great snippets of the show. 😉
I love Gilmore Girls! The dialogue on that show is amazing. In my high school creative writing class we did a group project where we wrote an episode of our favorite TV show. We did Gilmore Girls and boy was that fun to write - all the different personalities on the show gave endless possibilities!
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