Nowadays, microbial communities are frequently monitored over long periods of time and the interactions between their members are explored in vitro. This development has opened the way to apply mathematical models to characterize community structure and dynamics, to predict responses to perturbations and to explore general dynamical properties such as stability, alternative stable states and periodicity. Here, we highlight the role of dynamical systems theory in the exploration of microbial communities, with a special emphasis on the generalized Lotka–Volterra (gLV) equations. In particular, we discuss applications, assumptions and limitations of the gLV model, mention modifications to address these limitations and review stochastic extensions. The development of dynamical models, together with the generation of time series data, can improve the design and control of microbial communities.