Ping-Pong Dialogue

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

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

—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?

Father and son are caught mid-discussion in Don DeLillo’s novel Zero K (2016). The son opens with a question:

“But who was she?”
“She was essentially one thing. She was your mother.”
“Say her name.”
“Did we ever say each other’s name, she and I?”
“Say her name.”
“People who are married to each other as we were, in our uncommon way, which is not so uncommon, do they ever say each other’s name?”
“Just once. I need to hear you say it.”
“We had a son. We said his name.”
“Indulge me. Go ahead. Say it.”
“Do you remember what you said a minute ago? You can forget your name in this place. People lose their names in a number of ways.”
“Madeline,” I said. “My mother, Madeline.”
“Now I remember, yes.”

Not as spare as Carson, but barbed with emotional content. Beats would have dulled the barbs.

The second example comes from  Hot Water Music, Charles Bukowski’s short story collection from 1983. (I once discussed its lack of tags in comparison to the glut thereof in Fitzgerald’s Gatsby.)

Louie and the bartender talk about last night:

Back at the Red Peacock Louie went to his favourite stool and sat down. The barkeep walked up.
“Well, Louie, how did you make out?
“Make out?”
“With the lady.”
“With the lady?”
“You left together, man. Did you get her?”
“No, not really …”
“What went wrong?”
“What went wrong?”
“Yes, what went wrong?”
“Give me a whiskey sour, Billy.”

Do you hear the change of intonation? I see their expressions too.

The last example is three centuries older. It is from Pedro Calderón de la Barca 1636 play, Life is a Dream, Act I, Scene IV (translated by Denis Florence MacCarthy).

Esterella and Alfonso, the niece and nephew of King Basilius, vie for the his attention by praising him excessively, while also trying to outdo each other. Both are pretendants to the throne.

The KING BASILIUS, with his retinue. —
ASTOLFO, ESTRELLA, Ladies, Soldiers.

ESTRELLA. Learned Euclid…
ASTOLFO. Thales wise…
ESTRELLA. The vast Zodiac…
ASTOLFO. The star spaces…
ESTRELLA. Who dost soar to…
ASTOLFO. Who dost rise…
ESTRELLA. The sun’s orbit…
ASTOLFO. The stars’ places…
ESTRELLA. To describe…
ASTOLFO. To map the skies…
ESTRELLA. Let me humbly interlacing…
ASTOLFO. Let me lovingly embracing…
ESTRELLA. Be the tendril of thy tree.
ASTOLFO. Bend respectfully my knee.

Have you guessed the trick all the examples have in common?

Carson, De Lillo, and Bukowski duplicate lines, while Calderón cleaves to a strict parallel structure that is more obviously duplication than duplication itself.

In particular:

  • Carson goes for the hypnotic iteration of liar, before husband and wife start confronting each other (but, please, no one).
  • De Lillo has the son latch onto say her name and the father quibble on the significance of naming.
  • Bukowski produces intonation differences in multiple pairs of echos, by distinguishing between real questions (or statements) and rhetorical questions.
  • Calderón makes the cousins’ competition evident through strict word-for-word parallelism, and whilst drama requires the speech tags at the beginning of each line, the quote would not have suffered had they been removed.

So there you have it, the rules for ping-pong dialogue: two people, no tags, no beats, brevity, and some choice repetition to stabilise the exchange. Who’s up for a game? Let’s toss for serve.

Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of

13 thoughts on “Ping-Pong Dialogue”

      1. Usually quite receptive, though I can be a bit moody, especially if the criticism is overly pedantic or doesn’t engage with the work on its own terms (the kind of criticism that takes Ballard to task for characterisation…obviously they are missing the point).

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Ah, did you mean ‘critique’ published works?

        Your comment points to several important distinctions that I make. There are two fundamentally different ways I critique something (though they bleed into each other): on the basis of whether I liked it or not, and on the basis of whether I thought it was an accomplished piece of work within its genre or according to what I perceive to be the author’s aim. So to take J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise: I didn’t enjoy it. Little tension because the conclusion felt foregone; should have been a third of its length. From the point of view of studying human-nature, however, and as a thought experiment it’s brilliant.

        Typically the characterisation issues are brought up with Tolkien. And it’s true, nothing much going there. But I appreciate his masterly world-building.

        There’s also another axes along which critiquing is divided. My critique of u published/established work (usually taking its best aspects for my blog) is not aimed at affecting the work or the author in any way. Whether I miss the point or not isn’t that relevant (I’d prefer not to!); my agenda is my own. My critique of an unpublished work, where I’m aiming to be helpful to the author, takes on a different form. It’s a collaboration where all sorts of approaches can be applied depending on what’s needed. Beta reading is different to editing which is different to looking for feature X which is different to nitpicking over syllables in word-play.

        Not sure this is what you cared to hear about, though.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Thank you for excellent answer, which covers all the bases really. And you are right, I often critique established work on the basis of my own agenda, though I try my level best to judge it by its own lights (if you know what I mean). Again you are right about the different kinds of reading.

        Don’t worry I always care about what you have to say.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. I’m glad that wasn’t tedious of me.

        “Judging something by its own lights” requires knowing the context (ah, the context again)—genre, tropes, history, biography, etc. While “personal agenda” is, well, personal, and it’s only meaningfully different to the contextual critique, if the critic has context (to overload the word) of one’s own. e.g. You and I might both discuss mirrors, ground the text in the same basic literary examples, but we’ll diverge afterwards based on our own predilections born of—

        —reading in other areas, life experiences, etc.

        I’m assuming (perhaps wrongly) that you do read widely. If so, how do you deal with the literary equivalent of the filter bubble effect?

        If you notice, for example, the books we recommend back and forth are very much within that bubble. And this is usually the way (self-)recommendation go.

        Just a casual discussion topic I’m curious about…

        Liked by 2 people

      5. Well similar interests are going to lead to similar recommendations, I don’t think that can be avoided. I do try to read authors who have different political opinions to myself, not sure that it actually works though as it more a case of know the enemy.

        Liked by 2 people

      6. Knowing (friend or foe) is assimilation (of friend’s or foe’s position) even when consciously, deliberately rejecting a piece of knowledge. It’s a consequence of exposure, but also a necessary consequence for any meaningful discussion.

        I think of Milton’s being of the devil’s party (Blake), or Plato’s Phaedrus where Socrates has to be a sophist par excellence before he can bring down sophistry and demonstrate the preeminence of his brand of dialectic.

        The filter bubble, to my mind, is an issue of balance: respect the bubble and be blinkered, dissolve the bubble to the point of randomness and have no mind of your own.

        Liked by 2 people

      7. You raise several interesting points. It is better to be a dogmatic purist or a eclectic dilettante? The filter bubble is a product of our information overload, there is just too much information for any one person to process to give a comprehensive worldview so we narrow it down, sometimes deliberately ignoring information that contradicts or refutes our worldview. Unfortunately this has the effect of making us believe that our worldview is almost universally held, when this isn’t the case at all. I was horrified as anyone by the Brexit and Trump results but I wasn’t surprised, unlike a lot of my peers. As liberals they were ignoring the very real damage done by Neo- liberal economic policy, plus they have a touching faith in progress that I do not share. But sometimes you wish you were wrong.

        Liked by 1 person

      8. Objectivity and random selection are for robots. Actually, not even for them. So I hear you.

        Also, hope (in a/your cause) is essential to getting up in the morning. Fingers crossed every night, let the morning bring light.

        Liked by 1 person

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