Revealing character through dialogue - Authors A.I.

Alessandra Torre
June 19, 2023

Character development is important, but once you know the intimate details of your character’s backstory, personality, motivations and thoughts – how do you show those to the reader? Inner narrative and actions are key, but dialogue is my favorite method for conveying character. After all, few tools can demonstrate a character’s personality as well as a sharp barb or emotional speech.

Dialogue can be tricky, but there are a lot of techniques that can be used to establish your character’s voices and personality. Dialogue expert Amy Bernstein shared her favorite tricks and techniques during my conversation with her on First Draft Friday – and you won’t want to miss this fantastic conversation!

Click below to watch our 30-minute discussion and the questions we answered from the live audience. Keep scrolling if you’d like to read the transcript.

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Alessandra: Everyone, welcome to First Draft Friday. I am your host, Alessandra Torre. And today I am joined by Amy L. Bernstein. We’re going to be talking all about dialogue and Amy has so many fascinating tidbits to share, so I can’t wait to jump right in. Amy, welcome to First Draft Friday. Do you want to introduce yourself to the audience?

Amy: Yes. Thank you, Alessandra. I am so excited to be here on First Draft Friday. I’ve been a long admirer of you and the program. I’m a multi-gen author. I can’t seem to pick a lane. I released a novel just this week called The Nighthawkers, which is actually a time traveling paranormal romance, and that’s out now and getting some nice reviews. People seem to like it. And in August 2022, Regal House Publishing released The Potrero Complex, which is a dystopian mystery thriller, so I like writing across the genres.

Alessandra: You really are. You’re jumping way over. I’m the same way. I can’t seem to pick a lane to stay in. But one thing that does cross every genre is dialogue. And this is a fantastic thing to talk about because as we’ve discussed in the pre-call, authors oftentimes love dialogue or hate dialogue. And typically if they hate it, they’re just not yet comfortable with it. So, I’m hoping that all of the tips that you share today will help ease their comfort level. So do you just want to jump into a little bit about why dialogue is important and why it matters in a book?

Amy: Absolutely. I think about this a lot in my own writing, but I think about it also because for a number of years I wrote plays, which is almost all dialogue. And so, you’re constantly thinking about every word, every syllable and the rhythm that comes out of every character’s mouth. I also was an executive speech writer in my earlier, earlier part of my career. So again, you’re writing for the voice, which was, I thought about a great deal about – get the cadence and the pacing and the word choices and how to build drama in a speech. And at a certain point, I also freelance as a public radio reporter, and again, you know, you’re writing for the voice. So when I turned to novels, it was really on my mind. And I think one of the things that every writer needs to think about, first and foremost is how do you make your character sound different from one another? Because sometimes I’ll pick up a book and I feel like they all talk exactly the same way. And I think it’s such an interesting thing to take a dive into how to differentiate the voices in your novel. And there are lots of techniques to do that. Should we talk about some of those techniques?

Alessandra: Yeah, let’s jump right in.

Amy: OK, awesome. There’s a quote I absolutely love. It floored me when I was doing all the research for this, which I teach in a class by the author Elizabeth Bowen, she’s a English and Irish author, she said dialogue is what characters do to each other. And I feel like every person writing a novel should put that on a sticky note and stick it up on the computer or the yellow pad. Dialogue is what characters do to each other. Not, dialogue is what characters say to each other. It’s what they do. It’s all about intentionality that comes out through words. I just find that so powerful and so fascinating. Does that resonate with you?

Alessandra: What do you mean by do? What does do mean? I mean, I know what do means, but what do you mean when you say do?

Amy: So doing implies action on the character’s part of some kind, and action is going to set up expectations of reactions and interactions. So you’ve got movement in a scene which produces some narrative movement, you know, and some energy. And again, she didn’t say dialogue is what characters say to each other, which kind of can seem kind of static. It’s what they do to each other. So you’ve got some kind of, you’ve got physical movements, you’ve got what we call action beats, which are those things that characters are doing between the words, which are so telling, and what they say and what they do may not line up. So, it’s a very interesting combination of things that you can begin to put together.

Alessandra: I love that thought. And when we’re talking about dialogue, just to clarify, dialogue is strictly verbal communication, or can you have internal dialogue? And if so, would all of the rules that you’re about to go through or not rules, but suggestions apply to both?

Amy: That is a great question. I think that when we’re talking about external voice dialogue versus internal dialogue where the character is thinking to themselves; one of the ways to think about this is when a character is having internal dialogue, they’re really sharing their thoughts with the reader. When they’re having something like stream of consciousness, they’re really talking to themselves. And those are things that we can begin to differentiate. And I’ve analyzed some really complex scenes where you’ve got almost all of this going on at once, but you really have to be a master to do that. James Joyce did some of that. Even in his more accessible fiction, he did some of that. So I think that the rules do apply, but they’re used differently. And I have some examples that I think might show you a little bit of that.

Alessandra: Perfect. So do you want to go into the examples? Is that what we’re doing now?

Amy: So I wanted to make three quick points about when you’re structuring dialogue what to think about your character saying and why they’re saying it. So, the three things – dialogue reveals knowledge, it reveals personality and it reveals intention. And Robert McKee who also wrote one of the definitive books about this, The Art of Verbal Action for the Page, Stage and Screen, and I can share that with you later. He also had a great quote. He said, dialogue is the outer result of inner action, which is a great complement to what Elizabeth Bowen said, because it implies that there is action there, right? Here’s a really quick way of looking at that; dialogue reveals knowledge. So a composer who’s talking about music isn’t necessarily going to talk about a piece being loud or fast or slow; they’re going to talk about tempo. They’re going to use their language. And that’s how you’re going to make sure that that character is really living in their experience. If you are talking about dialogue revealing personality; listen to how different these two examples are. One character might say, I made a dinner reservation for eight and I expect to see you there, don’t disappoint me. Oh, we knew a lot about this person. We knew an awful lot about this person.

Alessandra: We know everything we need to know about that person.

Amy: But what if the person says I made a dinner reservation for eight; I know I’m asking a lot, but I’m really hoping you’ll be there. That’s a different person.

Alessandra: Yeah. It’s a different person, a different relationship and dynamic with that other person.

Amy: Exactly. And that’s how dialogue can really reveal personality. So the third thing is dialogue reveals intention, and here’s where what the character says and what the character does may or may not line up, which again, tells you so much about the character and lends so much tension and conflict to the scene. So here’s an example of that. I’m coming with you and you can’t stop me. Penelope scooted into the backseat and locked the door. So there she’s showing conscious intention what she does and what she says are all aligned, but here’s a different example. Then go leave me, I don’t care, Christian gripped Leon’s shoulder so tightly, Leon yelped in pain. Oh, so the character is saying, go and physically holding the other character back.

Alessandra: Yeah. I don’t care, but obviously they do.

Amy: There’s so much more to it, of course, but I think if you even keep those three basics in mind, as you’re going forward in your writing, how do I tell these characters apart? How do they sound different from each other? And you think about knowledge and intensity and what we call the action beats, which is what are they doing when they’re not speaking or what’s happening in between the words; it takes you a long way down the road of making a scene really interesting and dynamic.

Alessandra: And I really like that first one, I mean, I like all of these, but saying dialogue reveals knowledge because I think that is something, especially in newer writers, but I have no doubt I’ve been guilty of it also. We often talk through our characters, our characters often talk in the same way that we do and that we think, and if we’re not experts in a field, then oftentimes, you know, I mean, we would talk about something the way that we would talk about that topic, but it also can show your background and upbringing and how much general knowledge, you know, and education you have as well.

Amy: And let me make one other point about – a general point about writing dialogue in a novel. You want to avoid characters voicing extremely ordinary transactional chit-chat, unless it’s extremely to a point or building to a point. So, you wouldn’t want to have half a page where they’re like, good morning, good morning. How are you? How are you? Would you like breakfast? I’m not hungry. Okay, have a good day at work. I mean, it’s so boring. There are so many other things they could say or not say or use action instead of words. You know, she slammed the cereal bowl on the counter, you know? We’re in a different place, right, and so we want to avoid that type of chit-chat. We don’t want that. We might do that in real life, but we don’t want that in our novels.

Alessandra: I really love that tip. And again, it’s one of those things that, listen to it, you’re like, of course, but how many times have we done that and how many times have we inserted that? Do you have any other don’ts that you would suggest that they stay away from, or do you want to move to the example and then point out don’ts through that?

Amy: Oh, well, but you know, what can we, I actually see a question in a chat to me because Michael’s asking, how do you handle dialogue with ethnic components? Look, I am not an authority on this and so I’m not going to speak as an authority. I’m going to share an opinion. I think this is difficult and controversial. I think that if a white writer is trying to write what that writer conceives of as “black dialect” or “urban speech” or something along those lines, you are potentially stepping into a landmine if you don’t have tremendous understanding, integrity and sensitivity to what you’re doing. I think it’s really difficult. I personally would much rather avoid overly exaggerated constructions of words and speeches and let other aspects of the story convey that.

I mean, even to the point of let’s suppose, Alessandra that you do speak with… that English is not your native tongue and you and I are speaking in a scene and I might be having trouble understanding you. I don’t even have to say she spoke with a very thick Italian accent. I can say, “Alessandra, could you repeat that? I’m struggling to understand,” and the character could even have a self-reflection, you know she felt so stupid for not hearing the words as they were intended, you know? Was it her hearing? What was wrong with her? I mean, that’s a bad example, but there are ways of doing this without having to drop an ING or exaggerate over the way a word is pronounced. There are so many other creative ways of dealing with that.

Alessandra: Yeah, that was a great question. And I love your answer to that.

Amy: Don’t think that you’re revealing character by trying to imitate a sound of speech that is not standard English to your ears. That’s not revealing character, so I think that’s a pretty good don’t.

Alessandra: And this is a great time also when sensitivity readers can really earn their weight in gold. So even if you are… I am oftentimes concerned, you know, I feel like I am staying clean inside a safe area, but that’s when sensitivity, because you can describe a character in so many other ways other than just dialogue, but it’s always something, yeah.

Amy: That’s an excellent point to have, to have a sensitivity reader if you feel that you need to do that. Yes, I agree. I think that another way to look at the don’ts is to go into our example of really great text and really bad text, because there are a couple big don’ts in the bad text.

Alessandra: Yes, and I’m going to post… I’m hoping one of our, oh no, I think it divided it all up. Oh I apologize right now to everyone on YouTube. But we do have an example that we’re going to read out and if it’s not posted on Facebook, then a member of our team will post it. But we’re going to read it aloud… well, explain how we’ll do this, Amy.

Amy: So what we have here are two passages from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice very at or near the beginning of the book. And the first example, Alessandra is going to read the text exactly as Jane Austen wrote it, and then I’m going to read what I love to call the bad rewrite. And then we’re going to pinpoint why the original text works so well and why the rewrite does not specifically from the point of view of how she does the dialogue. So, have fun with Jane Austen, Alessandra.

Alessandra: OK, fantastic. So here we go.

“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”

Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.

“But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”

Mr. Bennet made no answer.

“Do not you want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently.

You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”

This was invitation enough.

“Why, my dear, you must know, Mrs. Long says that Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune from the north of England; that he came down on Monday in a chaise and four to see the place, and was so much delighted with it, that he agreed with Mr. Morris immediately; that he is to take possession before Michaelmas, and some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week.”

Amy: OK. Thank you very much.

Alessandra: I’m sorry for my male voice.

Amy: There’s Jane Austen in the original. Now, open your ears. It’s a little bit of talk on blackboard. It should be if you’re listening carefully, but here’s the way I rewrote the passage. “My dear, Mr. Bennett,” said his lady to him one day. “Have you heard that Netherfield Park is to let it last?” “Is that so my dear said,” Mr. Bennett letting the newspaper fall to the floor. “Wherever did you hear such news? I do wonder.” “Mrs. Long has just been here,” returns she, “and she told me all about it.” “Come, come. What are you waiting for Mrs. Bennett? You well know my dear, I am not partial to being kept in ignorance as it were. I will be in better humor once you share all that you know, rather withhold such information from me. No doubt, you enjoy testing my patients, but really Mrs. Bennett, Bennett out with it.” “Why my dear you must know, Mrs. Long says that Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune from the north of England, that he came down on Monday in a chaise and fore to see the place and was so much delighted with it that he agreed with Mr. Morris immediately; that he should take possession before Nicholas and some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week.”

OK, I’m going to kick off this little analysis by making a couple of key observations. And if we were in the class, we would do this together. In passage one, in the original, Mr. Bennett has exactly one line of dialogue. He says, you want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it. I can only picture Hugh Laurie in the movie who does that line so fantastically well. Mrs. Bennett does all the talking. She talks a lot. She talks too much. If you’re going to have that kind of character, make sure they’re the only one in the scene who is that kind of character? Because in the bad rewrite, if you haven’t put a name to it, what’s happening in the bad rewrite is, you the reader/listener are exhausted. There is too much being said, and it’s being said too much the same way.

He talks as much as she, he talks at length, he’s boring and she’s boring too, but she’s allowed to be on the boredom. No one else can have that. She can be the chatter box. Nobody else can have that. In the rewrite, they’re both chatterboxes and it’s exhausting, and the reader is not going to keep going. The reader’s going to be like, “Ugh, this is terrible; this book’s terrible. This is a do not finish.” So I think it’s so important to take note of how you’re balancing, not just how dialogue reveals the nature of the character. I mean, Mr. Bennett is this long-suffering tester and husband. You don’t know why he married Mrs. Bennett in the first place. We’ll never know – she wasn’t able to write that book for us. But you don’t want them to sound the same. So that’s a really big issue right there, you can’t tell their characters and their habits apart in the bad rewrite because they just sound the same. You can’t even tell male and female because they sound the same, so that’s a big example.

Alessandra: I love that. And I think what is important is also what you said about consistency of character but how much they speak, because like you said, it’s fine to have one chatterbox, but put two chatterboxes on the page and it can be exhausting. So I love that. We do have a question. Actually, we have two questions that are related to what we were talking about earlier. So one is Diane from Arizona, so as a follow-up to an earlier question, how would you recommend describing when someone speaks with an accent? For example, would you say something like she spoke with an Italian accent rather than trying to, I’m assuming, she’s saying rather than trying to distort the words or to use incorrect English at times.

Amy: The way I would go at that is really put yourself into the scene, into the mind of these characters, who they are, what they need and want from each other and what needs to happen in that scene, because it’s about so much more than getting hung up. I’m not directing that as a criticism of the person who asked the question. It’s so much more than getting hung up on whether the person speaks with an accent. There have to be other things going on between these characters other than the accent. So I just feel that there are ways that you can almost workaround, or you can get clever, like she spoke with an accent that reminded me of my last trip to Tuscany, you know?

Alessandra: It was so rare to hear an Italian accent.

Amy: Right. Or her words, you know, her words brought me back to, you know, that great time I was wherever. So there are creative ways of doing this where you wanted to reveal something about the character who’s reflecting on that observation, as opposed to simply making the observation. Because if you’re simply, she spoke with an Italian accent; it’s not saying anything about the character who’s noticing it and is kind of a wasted opportunity to make it part of that character’s self-reflection or maybe they have prejudices and that’s part of that character. I mean, something awful would be, you know, she talked like a mobster. Like if this is an awful character, who’s got awful, but the point is they’re revealing that through their speech, so there are ways of handling it.

Alessandra: Yeah. Edward was asking about sensitivity readers, who said, do you really value sensitivity readers? Is it better to write what you know? And I’m happy to answer this, but do you have you…?

Amy: You run with it. You run with it, I’ll follow you.

Alessandra: Well, I’ll say Edward, I recently had a traditionally published book, which was… well, I don’t have a copy of it because it’s not out yet. And the publisher had two sensitivity readers go through it, and they pointed out things that I had no idea were offensive or I mean, it’s just me and my limited world and limited knowledge did not realize that I was offending a group or with something that just didn’t even occur to me. So I think there’s that. There’s also, there is write what you know. But in our world who are often inside characters’ heads who aren’t us. If every character in my book was a white girl who’d been married for 15 years, it’d be a very bland cast of characters. So, oftentimes you have to write things you don’t know.

So, I’m not saying that every book needs a sensitivity reader, but certainly if you’re stepping into areas that you don’t know, then I think it’s worth – and a lot of times you can even find sensitivity reader for free. If you’re on a tight budget, there are a lot of opportunities you can have, and it doesn’t have to be a professional sensitivity reader. It could just be someone – and it’s not always a racial thing or whatever it could just be, I’m writing about a steelworker in, you know, I don’t know where steelworkers work, but in some part of the country that I don’t know anything about. And so, I want to find a beta reader who’s from that area who has worked in that industry that can say, you know, steelworkers would never talk to each other like this, or this item is incorrect, so that sort of thing is great to have.

Amy: Yeah. I think everything you’ve said is so true. We only know our lived experiences and we try as we might, and you know, a lot of us try, we can’t see past our own lenses some of the time. And Alessandra, I think it’s so great that you had admitted that notion that you were writing something that seemed totally, you know, just like normal and how could anyone possibly either take offense or think that you were throwing some shade or whatever, and yet there’s a whole other way of looking at it that we don’t have that lens. I think it’s important. I want to say that I do think every writer should have the right to write about anything they want. That’s what imagination is. And we have to go where it leads us, but we do have an obligation to be careful and intentional and mindful about how we do it.

Alessandra: And Michael, returning to our foreign. It’s so interesting because it is something that I struggle with when I write foreign characters is how do you point out different things you’re trying to create. But he said, what about syntax? Sometimes the foreign – I hope I’m saying that right. Syntax is different than English. I don’t even… what is syntax?

Amy: It’s your use of grammar in a phrase, for example, you might put a verb after a noun or a proposition might be in a different place in a sentence than we would in American English. And Michael, I think that a little goes a really, really long way. I think you could do it once or twice, perhaps in a heated moment, that character’s fluency in the second language falls away and what they call the milk tongue, the mother tongue comes to the fore. And so, maybe the language conventions break in a heated moment and that’s revealing character through dialogue. But I think a little goes a long way and I don’t think that it needs to be the way everything that comes out of the character’s mouth. And again, other characters can reveal their character by how they respond to the way it sounds to them.

Alessandra: Yeah. I think that’s fantastic. So, do you want to return to the sample? Was there anything else you wanted to point out in that either good things or bad things that were done in those two examples?

Amy: I think we went through it pretty thoroughly and I didn’t think we were going to have time for another one. And you want to do one… we don’t have it in the chat. Do you have the other one in front of you or no?

Alessandra: I have the other one in front of me. It’s a little cleaner, so don’t worry if it’s not on Facebook or YouTube. I think you guys can just listen to this example and you’ll be fine. Should I read version one?

Amy: Yeah, let me just set this up. I just made these up, and here, it’s a different thing that we’re listening for. We’re sort of listening for when words marry action beats, by which I mean, what are the characters doing between the words that help you understand who they are, and is what they say aligns with what they do. So it’s a different way of thinking about it. Yeah, go ahead and read version one.

Alessandra: Okay, perfect. I should just read all of version one; we’re not comparing version one versus version two line by line, right?

Amy: No, no, no. Just read the whole thing.

Alessandra: OK. All right. Here we go. Terry lifted the burger with both hands and took a massive bite. “Oh my God,” he said, it’s all squished together. “Oh my God,” he said using his sleeve to catch a dribble of ketchup. “This is like the best thing I’ve ever tasted, like mmm, amazing.” How’d she know that he liked his burgers medium well. He wondered if maybe she was a mind reader or a witch, but a nice witch. “Slow down, Tiger,” Millie said, “chew then swallow. Would you like something to drink?” She filled a glass with lemonade. “How about a napkin? I’ll go get some.”

Amy: OK, before we move on, you’re getting an inkling about how old these characters might be, and who they might be to each other. So he’s using this sleeve to catch a dribble of ketchup. I mean, is this a suave jabaneer, you know.

Alessandra: It’s either a kid or it’s somebody who – right.

Amy: So something he’s doing not saying is telling you who he is, and his dialogue is simply aligning with that. And so, the action plays a really important role. And then we get his inner dialogue because he’s saying, how would she know he liked his burger’s medium well? You know, we wondered if maybe she was a mind reader or a witch, but a nice witch. So, you know, we’re thinking younger kind of guy, maybe a teenager. We don’t know. There’s no sort of sexual energy in this scene. And Millie is kind of motherly. She’s like, chew then swallow; would like a drink. She’s doing for him, so she’s taking the role of the female helper. So you get all that from really like, it’s only a couple sentences. Now, I’ll passage two. “Terry lifted the burger with both hands shooting Millie a lascivious grin before taking a massive bite. ”Oh my God, this is like the best thing I ever tasted. Like, mmm, amazing.” “I know right,” Millie said smiley broadly. “You have a little ketchup on your cheek.” She reached across the table with a napkin, “Right here. Got it. Hungry much?” Terry took another bite as if to prove a point; he couldn’t get enough of her smile.

Alessandra: So definitely not a babysitter, child.

Amy: And so, here we’ve got a little hint of sexual tension or sexual interest going on, right? First of all, I came out and said a lascivious grin, which is kind of lazy on my part, but I came out and said it. And she’s smiling at him and she’s like reaching across and like that. So we’ve got physical contact and kind of intimate. So it’s all there. I want to point something out though. His line is exactly the same in both passages. All he says is, “Oh my God, this is like the best thing I’ve ever tasted. Like, mmm, amazing.” But the context is totally different. So it’s not only what your character says; it’s how they say it, when they say it, to whom they’re saying it and what you’ve done with the action beats around it.

Alessandra: Yeah. And now Millie’s words are different. And that’s a great example of showing how, the way one character talks to another can establish their relationship, their age gap, if there is one, you know, and the differences and where they’re at, because in the first one, she says, “Slow down, Tiger. Chew, then swallow. How about a napkin?” You know, that sort of thing. Versus, you have some ketchup on you, you know? And actually, like you said, having an excuse to touch him versus saying like, oh, let me get you a napkin. Yeah, I love that rewrite. And it shows that dialogue shouldn’t just stand on its own, right? It should oftentimes have supporting or unsporting actions.

Amy: Absolutely, because you can find the most rat sheet of economy of words by letting their actions do some of the speaking for them. So the words and the actions are both important and both need to be woven into the scene to create the tension in the conflict.

Alessandra: I love that. And we are already out of time, guys, if you have a final question, this is your last 15 seconds to shout it out, don’t be shy. But in the meantime, Amy, if they’re interested in reading your new release or your upcoming release, where can they find information about your books?

Amy: Everything is on the website, all road lead to the website. It’s I’ve got some sample chapters. I’ve got links to my books that are out and that are coming up. You can join my mailing list there. And I occasionally do giveaways through the mailing list, so I love it. I love engaging with readers, so find me. You can also find me on Goodreads, and that’s all through the website too. Thank you.

Alessandra: Thank you so much, Amy. You are a fantastic guest and I hope you all have a great week.

Amy: Thank you. It was so much fun.

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