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01:43 pm: Wright’s Writing Corner: Ping-Pong Dialogue

Ping Pong Dialogue

Several people have asked me for a post on writing dialogue. This is not it. But it is a post on writing a specific kind of dialogue, a kind I only recently discovered.

Ping-Pong Dialogue: Have some dialogue go back and forth quickly, taking less than one line on the page – leaving white space – to increase readability.

I always thought of myself as being good at writing quick pithy dialogue. It was the one skill I came with. All other writing skills I had to learn by slow, difficult labor. So, when I first heard about ping-pong dialogue, I thought I would be a shoe-in.

Then I sat down and actually looked at my dialogue. Perhaps, it was pithy, (someone other than me will have to make that call,) but it certainly was not short. Even my ‘brief exchanges’ consisted of scenes like this:

            “Very glib, Ma’am.” Mab was only half paying attention to me as he spun the steering wheel.

            “Must you drive so wildly? In the air, you’re an ace. On the road, you’re a terror!”

            “Don’t worry, Ma’am. I’ve been darting in and about things longer than men have drawn breath. It’s second nature to me.”

            “As a wind, certainly. But you’re not a wind at the moment! You’re a fleshly body driving his employer in a car! If you’re not more careful, someone’s going to report us to the police!” My voice rose as Mab performed another near miss. “How can you be sure the car can take this kind of abuse?”

            “Nothing to worry about, Ma’am. Back at the rental place, before we left the airport, I had a chat with the oreads making up this car and the salamanders manning the engine. They won’t let us down,” Mab replied, jerking the steering wheel hard to the left.

            “It’s not the oreads I’m worried about!”  I clung to the armrest and squeezed my eyes shut.

Witty? Perhaps. Pithy? Debatable. But short? No.

Or, rather, it might be short compared to paragraph-long speeches, but it does not meet the definition of short necessary to qualify for ping-pong dialogue.
What is ping-pong dialogue and why does it matter, you ask?

Good question.

Ping-pong dialogue is dialogue that pops back and forth so quickly that no sentence fills an entire page. The virtue of this kind of dialogue is that it is really easy to read. The white space at the end of each sentence gives the eye a bit of a rest, making the page a pleasant experience for the reader.

Some modern writers use almost entirely short stucco dialogue. This tends to work only in genres where the readers are intimately familiar with the background and setting. With genres where the author needs to put across unfamiliar customs or laws of nature, more in-depth conversation is often needed, especially if using the dialogue to replace exposition, which would be even longer and dryer.

A spattering of ping-pong dialogue, however, like spice in a salad, can really pick up the speed and readability of the story. It does not need to be on every page, but an occasional ping-pong exchange or two per chapter is worth striving for.  It makes the page more welcoming to the eye.

Like this:

“Are you ready?”

“I am indeed.”

“Then, let’s do this!”

“Enormous rhino made of cheese, here we come.”

Note for yourself which of the two examples is easier to read at a glance.

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Originally posted to Welcome to Arhyalon. (link)

Comments

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From:damcphail
Date:September 8th, 2010 06:09 pm (UTC)
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Nice, I like it. I've noticed this but rarely accomplish it myself for more than a couple of lines. Actually, I tend to highlight points in the narative this way, such as:

Things when bad when Tilly was upset.
Very bad...
...for everyone.

D-
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From:arhyalon
Date:September 8th, 2010 06:46 pm (UTC)
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Very good point! One can have ping-pong prose, too!
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From:cdenmier
Date:September 8th, 2010 06:37 pm (UTC)
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"Did she just say 'enormous rhino made of cheese'?"
"I believe so."
"Well, that doesn't make a lick of sense!"
"It doesn't have to."
"I mean, a mouse made of cheese, that's ironic, but..."
"Oh, will you lighten up! It's just an example."


Now that I think about it, "ping-pong dialogue" is kind of like a tasty snack for a reader, a little palate cleanser between big descriptions and loftier dialogue...like a breather, a short respite...

Sometimes I tried to achieve this by breaking up short quotes. Say a character is getting across two or three points in a lengthy sentence. Instead, have the same character get those points across in two or three separate quotes, with another character reacting to each briefly. Same content, but easier to chew.

It's kind of like when you're trying to keep one character from going all monologue on you. What do you do? Have the person they're talking to at least throw in some quotes like "What?" "How is that possible?" "I thought the king like enormous rhinos made of cheese." "I'd figured as much." The second person isn't doing much, exactly, but they are breaking things up a bit.
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From:arhyalon
Date:September 8th, 2010 06:48 pm (UTC)
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Yes! Exactly.

I find that when I remember to do so, I can usually find a spot for some ping-pong dialogue pretty easily, often using a method much as you describe.

It's remembering that I find difficult (which is why it's in my Writing Tips. These are the tips I write down to remind myself what to do, after all. ;-)
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From:marycatelli
Date:September 9th, 2010 02:30 am (UTC)
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You can get pretty lofty in ping-pong dialogue.

But what you can also get is a white room effect, where the characters are no where in particular.

I've also found that you can give one character an action instead in body language and get much the same effect.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:September 9th, 2010 11:13 am (UTC)
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"Now that I think about it, "ping-pong dialogue" is kind of like a tasty snack for a reader, a little palate cleanser between big descriptions and loftier dialogue...like a breather, a short respite..."

Exactly. If you let ping-pong go to long, it is very easy for the reader to get lost. 4-6 lines is good. 8 is pushing it. 10 and the reader has lost track of who is saying what.
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From:arhyalon
Date:September 9th, 2010 11:46 am (UTC)
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Good points.

D'oh! I'd meant to talk about dialogue tags and how often to used them. Ping-pong dialogue tries to do without, but making sure that the reader doesn't get confused is an issue. ;-)

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From:dda
Date:September 9th, 2010 04:59 pm (UTC)
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Yes, this! More than once I've gotten lost in some ping-pong dialogue; after a while, the character I think is speaking is saying things that don't fit them.
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From:annafirtree
Date:September 8th, 2010 08:33 pm (UTC)
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Ping-pong dialogue.... not to be confused with Ping-Ping dialogue, which is what I thought it said at first. I was expecting some sort of interesting discourse about communicating with your daughter, and wondering what it might have to do with writing. :)
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From:arhyalon
Date:September 8th, 2010 11:06 pm (UTC)
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Yep. Another friend said the same thing.

It would go:

Me the rabbit?

Me, today, go to school?
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From:annafirtree
Date:September 9th, 2010 12:02 am (UTC)
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Ping-Ping dialogue with lots of white space... double bonus? :)
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From:juliet_winters
Date:September 8th, 2010 09:31 pm (UTC)
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For fans of screwball comedies!
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From:kokorognosis
Date:September 8th, 2010 10:27 pm (UTC)
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Yay, film noir dialogue!
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From:kokorognosis
Date:September 8th, 2010 10:29 pm (UTC)
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Ahh:
Philip Marlowe: You do sell books, hmm?
Agnes Lowzier: What do those look like, grapefruit?
Philip Marlowe: Well, from here they look like books.
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:September 8th, 2010 11:11 pm (UTC)
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Yep. Noir stuff does ping-pong the best!
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From:tom_gallier
Date:September 9th, 2010 12:09 am (UTC)
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I'be been a ping-ponger for years, and didn't know it.

I feel accomplished.
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From:arhyalon
Date:September 9th, 2010 02:10 am (UTC)
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Excellent!
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From:dda
Date:September 9th, 2010 04:42 pm (UTC)
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Ping-pong dialogue is dialogue that pops back and forth so quickly that no sentence fills an entire page

Did you perhaps mean entire line here? If not, I'm pretty confused since a sentence that fills an entire page seems way over the top!
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From:arhyalon
Date:September 9th, 2010 04:46 pm (UTC)
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LOL And I was beginning to think that this was the one post I'd ever done where I didn't have to fix a mistake.

Yeah...line...fixed.

Great arvatar picture.
From:viking_erik
Date:September 10th, 2010 03:16 am (UTC)
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You've just blown John Grisham's secret for writing entire books!

As for getting lost in a series of 8+ lines, a trick is to have one character say the name of the other right in the dialogue. "Then let's do this, Jim!" That's shorter and less jarring than inserting a short non-dialogue sentence or descriptor in the middle of the ping-pong. The reader never notices that it's not realistic, that you don't say the other person's name in conversation face-to-face.
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From:arhyalon
Date:September 10th, 2010 12:00 pm (UTC)
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Excellent point! Saying a name or something else that makes it entirely clear who is talking is great, as in ping-pong dialogue, you want as little interruption of the flow as possible.
From:viking_erik
Date:September 10th, 2010 04:35 pm (UTC)
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And a variation on that is readily available when the dialogue is between members of a hierarchy, like a royal court or military organization. Throwing in some "Sirs" and "My lords" feels entirely natural while guiding the reader, or of course Mr. Wright's certain favorite "Princess".
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:September 10th, 2010 04:55 pm (UTC)
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Very true.

Noir stories do the same thing with monikers like "Gray Hat" and "Shanks."
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From:eleika
Date:September 10th, 2010 04:55 am (UTC)
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"spattering of ping-pong dialogue" sounds exactly right, Jagi. The first example, while entertaining, bogs things down a bit.

Hmm ... *runs off to double-check her stuff* Maybe this is one reason why I'm taking so long to rewrite my stuff!
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