Ping-Pong Dialogue

The tricks of snappy dialogue. Examples from Carson, De Lillo, Bukowski, and Calderón.

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Coward.
I know.
Betrayer.
Yes.
Opportunist.
I can see why you would think that.
Slave.
Go on.
Faithless lecherous child.
Okay.
Liar.
What can I say.
Liar.
But.
Liar.
But please.
Destroyer liar sadist fake.
Please.
Please what.
Save me.
Who else do you say that to.
No one.
No one he says.
Have courage.
You fool.
Oh my love.
Stop.

—Anne Carson, The Beauty of the Husband

That was husband and wife ploughing through their domestic argument.

If any dialogue is said to speed up the plot, then “ping-pong” dialogue is a race-car down the page, or a sledge, or a shoot, or a slippery-slope—wheeeeee!—that sends the reader whizzing along.

The absence of dialogue tags (he said, she said) and dialogue beats (He stood up. She pointed a finger at him.) is pleasant. It’s a light touch. It’s the vastness of air above the ping-pong table, that contributes to the game as much as the paddles and the ball.

(Calling it table tennis doesn’t quite capture the gist of repartee.)

But the tags are not needed in a back-and-forth, and the beats appear naturally even when there are none. Once the protagonists of a story are set, their characters and mannerisms vividly portrayed, it’s easy to imagine who’s doing what. When I first read Carson’s exchange, I saw the husband and the wife making all sorts of gestures. Upon rereading, the gestures changed—such is the versatility of invisible beats.

I offer three further quotes from very different sources. They all use the same specific “trick” to pull off an effective ping-pong. Can you spot what it is?

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