Banter. It’s quick. It’s clean. And it’s often followed up by a much longer sentence full of intellectual superiority.
This type of dialogue is wonderful to listen to, hard to write, but rewarding when it translates. Let’s look at an example from Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel in the WB show Gilmore Girls.
In the following scene Rory (Alexis Bledel) has just been accepted to the prestigious Chilton Preparatory School, and Lorelai (Lauren Graham) has volunteered to accompany her as she picks out school supplies.
The gap between the way it’s acted in the following clip and the way it reads transcribed is interesting because it highlights just how much work is left to the actors.
Below is a transcription of some of the dialogue so you can see how something like this looks written out:
Rory: I’m going to a serious school now, I need serious paper.
Lorelai: Paper’s paper.
Rory: Not at Chilton.
Lorelai: Alright, fine. Here is your serious paper.
Rory: Thank you.
Lorelai: Ooh and here are your somber highlighters, your maudlin pencils, your manic-depressive pens.
Lorelai: Now these erasers are on lithium so they may seem cheerful but we actually caught them trying to shove themselves in the pencil sharpener earlier.
Rory: I’m going home now.
Lorelai: No, wait! We’re going to stage an intervention with the neon post-its and make them give up their wacky crazy ways.
Rory: You’re never coming shopping with me again.
Get a screwdriver.
I write stories. I have characters. I want to be funny. So how on earth can I take something like this and learn from it?
1. Anthropomorphize everything.
The humor gets going when Lorelai plays off of ‘serious paper’. What is serious paper like? Who else sits at its lunch table? What other bizarre events have transpired around these characters?
2. Play the personalities.
Lorelai wants everything to be fun. So instead of “hey, I think you’re taking shopping for school supplies too seriously,” she sees Rory’s pragmatism as a open pasture of opportunity.
3. Powers of three.
Highlighters, pencils, and pens. Trying to cram a calculator into that serious sentence of hers would have been overkill (read the following sentence aloud if you don’t believe me).
Lorelai: Ooh and here are your somber highlighters, your maudlin pencils, your dejected calculators, and your manic-depressive pens.
Also notice that Rory’s responses add to the humor: “Mom”, “I’m going home”, and “you’re never going shopping with me again” as they build in severity in a power of three.
Screenplay to page
While I can’t speak much to the script-writing aspect, I can identify some challenges I would have if I were trying to recreate the feel of this scene on paper. Specifically, delivering the rhythm, tone, and necessary plot points must be done without cluttering the text, or killing the humor.
Lorelai’s speed seems to increase with word count while Rory is fairly constant. How would you work this into the dialogue?
Lorelai is overly playful while Rory is annoyed.
How often do you mention this? How do you show and not tell?
Finally, how long do you draw this thing out? Too short and you won’t have time to ‘tell’ the joke, but too long and your reader is going to be going “you’re making fun of office supplies…I get it! Enough already!”
I think it’s fun to watch shows and ask these types of questions. We can learn a lot when we stop to consider the impact the answers have on us, and the practice of rewinding brilliance helps us appreciate it all the more.
CHALLENGE: Copy-paste the transcription above into the comments and do your best to recreate the scene!