Whenever my boyfriend and I watch a new TV show, we inevitably end up pausing it to discuss it. Sometimes we simply do so to look an actor up on IMDB to figure out what we know them from. But more often than not, we pause so we can remark upon some aspect of the storytelling: what the makers of the work did right or wrong.
We’re both storytellers in our own ways—I write books, and he helps to shape them as my editor. So we’re always on the lookout for ways to improve the novels we work on together. We watch movies and shows not just for entertainment, but as students of storytelling.
Here are a few shows that you can watch to pick up some techniques that you can apply to your own writing.
1) Gilmore Girls: Showing vs. Telling
Where to watch it: Netflix
This classic comedy-drama is known for its witty, rapid-fire dialogue, lovable characters, and the quirky, fictional town of Stars Hollow. While those aspects are also worth studying, one thing Gilmore Girls does particularly well is showing rather than telling.
To find examples of this, you don’t need to look any further than the first minutes of the pilot. You see the main character, Lorelai, walking through a quaint-looking town before entering a diner where she begs Luke, the surly diner owner, for a sixth cup of coffee. This short exchange communicates several things—Lorelai’s caffeine addiction, her snarky yet warm friendship with Luke, and the fact that she’s been in this town long enough for the diner owner to know her habits so well.
Then a young guy on a road trip flirts with both Lorelai and her daughter Rory, commenting that Lorelei “does not look old enough to have a daughter” while Rory does not “look like a daughter”. This quickly shows that Lorelai (who appears to be in her early 30s) had her 16-year-old daughter when she was very young.
In just the 3 minutes before the credits, we know a great deal about the sort of town where Rory and Lorelai live, Lorelai’s friendship with one of the show’s central characters, and the dynamic between her and her daughter. We can also see an interesting story ahead given the age difference between Lorelai and Rory.
I highly recommend watching through the whole pilot—it really is a masterpiece when it comes to showcasing so much about the show’s world, characters, and backstory without bogging the action down with boring exposition.
2) Friends: Dialogue
Where to watch it: HBO Max
Throughout its 10-year run from 1994 through 2004, this half-hour comedy was the hottest thing on television. While its New York setting and young, gorgeous main characters had plenty to do with it, so much of the show’s appeal came down to its brilliantly funny dialogue. There’s a real rhythm that you can hear as the characters trade jokes and comebacks.
Of course, a lot of the humor here can be attributed to the actors’ skill and comedic timing. But they wouldn’t have had anything to work with had the writers not provided them with such wonderfully written dialogue.
Here are just a few examples of the show’s sharp dialogue:
Phoebe: Oh, I am having the best karma this week. First, I find this woman who knew my parents, and then my client with the fuzzy back gives me his beach house.
Ross: Yeah? What about, ah, that bike messenger you hit?
Phoebe: Oh, I wasn’t talking about his karma.
(Season 3, Episode 25)
Ross: Joey, you are gonna love this guy. Gandalf is like the party wizard!
Joey: Well, why do you call him Gandalf?
Ross: Gandalf the wizard. Hello! Didn’t you read Lord of the Rings in high school?
Joey: No, I had sex in high school.
(Season 4, Episode 9)
Joey: I used to get medical experiments done on me all the time!
Chandler: Ah, finally: an explanation.
(Season 6, Episode 17)
If you want to learn more about how to write dialogue that flows well, studying this show can be very useful. It doesn’t even matter if you don’t write comedy—Friends can teach you a lot about how friends talk to one another, no matter the context. A useful thing to try is listening to the show’s dialogue without actually watching the screen—this will help you to focus more on the writing.
3) The Boys: World-Building
Where to watch it: Amazon Prime
In just 2 seasons, this superhero series has shown itself to be one of the best shows of any genre to come out in the past several years. It is simultaneously thrilling, horrifying, and hilarious. It also features a fantastic cast of characters.
One of the show’s greatest accomplishments is its worldbuilding. The Boys is set in a world where superheroes exist. But this isn’t the shiny, idealized world that the heroes of most comic books live in—this is the actual present-day world full of corporate interests and collateral damage. In this world, superheroes are celebrities with sponsors and movie contracts. Often their fame and reputations are more important to them than doing the right thing.
The first shot of the show’s pilot is a closeup of a movie advertisement for Translucent: Invisible Force 2 on the back of a bus. Two teenage boys are discussing the movie and their favorite superheroes when two real-life superheroes (reminiscent of Superman and Wonder Woman) swoop in and save them from some bank robbers.
Then we cut to Huey’s humdrum life working in an electronics store. His girlfriend, Robin, comes to walk him home and they talk about the idea of moving in together. Suddenly a Flash-like superhero mows Robin down, quite graphically killing her, and barely stops before continuing onward at warp speed.
Like Gilmore Girls, The Boys introduces several key elements in just a few minutes. The juxtaposition of the movie poster and the actual superheroes shows us that we are in a world where both of these things exist, where superheroes star in their own movies. Then comes Robin’s tragic death at the hands of a negligent superhero. Here we learn that there are going to be very serious consequences to superheroes’ actions—many of them devastating.
Great shows like these show how much you can communicate to a viewer (or reader) with simply a well-drawn setting or some great dialogue. It’s crazy how much you can learn just kicking back with some popcorn and switching on the TV.
Click here for 3 more shows you can study to improve your writing!