Let Dialogue Be Your Sat Nav

Luke Edley takes you on a long drive to explain how dialogue is as important to your story as a Sat Nav is to your car journey.

Imagine writing your novel as if you’re in a car setting off on a long journey. You’re in the driving seat, naturally, and you have a particular destination in mind, but you’re not quite sure how to get there. Like the loose plot structure you’re cooking up inside your head, you may have a vague idea of which direction you want your novel to go – a beginning, middle, or end, perhaps – but some assistance wouldn’t go amiss to ensure your route is smooth.

Your destination, at this point, could well be unclear, but that’s OK. Mind you, the characters in your novel won’t be happy if you simply allow yourself to get lost – in fact, consider these characters to be the passengers in your vehicle. They’re sitting in the back of your car, getting anxious about why you haven’t even put your keys in the ignition yet. What on earth are you waiting for? Hurry up.

You could blag it and pretend you know where you’re going, right? You could just go off-piste and drive aimlessly and hope they don’t notice, but that would be a real waste of time for your passengers, and ultimately it would insult their intelligence, leading to some very awkward silences. It’s likely you’ve spent a long time imagining these characters into existence in the first place, so the least you can do is give them a journey to remember.

This is where the Sat Nav of dialogue comes into play – in the same way that entrusting a computerised voice with a postcode can lend you some sense of direction when you start driving, the dialogue in your story can also help you steer your story to exactly where you want it to go. Listen to the voice giving directions as you switch into gear and trust it as you write. Not only will this give you breathing space as a writer, but it will also allow your characters to position themselves exactly where they should be – at the heart and soul of your story.

Journeys which are dictated by the ‘Sat Nav of dialogue’ can help writers navigate even the most complex of spaghetti junctions, so you can both interact and improvise with your characters on paper safe in the knowledge that you’ll always be able to get them from A to Z. Of course, you can’t just rely on writing this way as your sole method – this would make for a very boring drive as you’d probably only end up being stuck on the motorways all day with no end in sight.

For this reason, try taking some detours. You can still allow your dialogue to control the direction of your story, but you can embellish it as much as you want by glancing out of the car windows and taking a look at the scenery. Such scenic routes will give you more scope to add extra detail to your prose, but if your Sat Nav is clever, the dialogue will always recalibrate your route to get you back on track.

Nobody wants to end up in the middle of nowhere when writing a novel; but in my experience, dialogue is the best way to avoid getting lost. It allows your characters to be placed front and centre, focusing only on their comfort and making your drive much easier, so you can rest easy knowing your chosen destination is only so many miles from reach. You could even refuel along the way, of course, as I’m sure most passengers could do with the occasional loo break…

Of course, this entirely depends on how you write. In my case, I tend to ‘script’ dialogue and add all the extra bells and whistles to the prose as I can later. I find this approach allows stories to be more character-driven, and therefore, far more satisfying to read and infinitely more pleasurable to write. It also avoids ‘setting the scene’ too much and over-describing inconsequential details, which I’d argue nobody is really interested in except the writer themselves. What the reader really wants is dynamic characters. So let them have it.

Go on, try it for yourself – allow dialogue to be your Sat Nav and see where the road takes you. I have no doubt most writers will get there at some point, and it could be due to many factors, but for me, just like a Sat Nav, dialogue remains the most vital tool for getting you to the end of your journey without too much stress. And you never know, at the end of a long drive, you might even be lucky enough to hear the words most writers long to hear: you have reached your destination. Now get out of my car.

Poet, humorous fiction writer and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.

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