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.