Ping-Pong Dialogue

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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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Paltering in Literature

aaron-burden https://unsplash.com/photos/A0AZf4h5ZZI

When I talk about light pollution stopping us from seeing the stars, and you start talking about a Christmas tree ornament.

“You didn’t like working for Wilde?”
“I was fired. For insubordination. I test very high on insubordination, General.”
“I always did myself, sir. I’m glad to hear it.”

—Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

The General asks a question; the detective responds with a truthful statement which may or may not answer the General’s question. It’s a shifting of focus with intent to mislead.

If you’ve ever listened to a political debate, you’ve heard it in action.

If you’ve ever listened to a sale’s pitch, you’ve heard it.

There’s little doubt you do it too, at least once a day.

It’s called paltering.


A recent BBC article titled The devious art of lying while telling the truth claims a new term has recently been coined for this misleading tactic of truth-speakNamely, paltering.

As it happens, the verb palter—meaning to shift, equivocate, or prevaricate in action or speech; to act or deal evasively, esp. for treacherous ends; to use trickery (OED)—dates from at least 1580. Also, except for the verb, the OED contains all the usual associated words: palterer (n.), paltering (n. & adj.), palterly (adv.). Hardly a new term, but that’s not the point.

The BBC article got me thinking about the role of paltering in fiction.

The rise and fall and rise of paltering (Google Ngram Viewer)

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