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.
1. Represent, don't reproduce, real dialogue.
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.
2. Have a purpose for dialogue.
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.
3. Tailor dialogue to character.
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.
4. Use subtlety to express feelings.
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.
5. Include subtext.
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.
Make Conversation Count
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:
- Representing (not reproducing) real dialogue;
- Having a purpose for dialogue;
- Tailoring dialogue to character;
- Using subtlety to express feelings; and
- Including subtext.
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.