I can see why you would think that.
Faithless lecherous child.
What can I say.
Destroyer liar sadist fake.
Who else do you say that to.
No one he says.
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.
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?
“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.
- 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.