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After having previously had good feedback from an agent, a book doctor saw me at a writing conf and complained about a number of things in my novel. One was ping-pong dialogue. I didn't really know what that meant, although I had some suspicions, so I web searched it and found this, oddly on Yahoo Answers:
|Ping-pong dialogue is where the characters shoot dialogue back and forth between each other in quick succession- just like its namesake suggests. Example:
"Hi," said Kirk.
"How are you?" Mindy replied.
"Good." Kirk shot back.
If you're trying to make it more descriptive, try to describe what the characters are doing while they're talking. Example:
Kirk sighed, dumping his schoolbag next to the table. "Hi, Mindy."
Mindy looked up distractedly from where she was painting her fingernails. "Hi, Kirk. How was school?"
"Good." He shot back defensively, making a beeline for the refrigerator.
So is this person right that it's when you have quite a few bits of speech but not enough description?
This was my bit that he complained about and called ping-pong:
|“Will you come with me tonight?” I begged Carina. She sat curled up on the threadbare red sofa, a blanket over her, reading.
Carina shrugged. “So Tomasz isn’t coming? Why not?”
“He didn’t say.”
“Well, I only went recently with Christchurch. I mean, it’s always interesting to go, but I’ve been so many times now…”
“Please. I’m a bit worried about driving the mini bus. I’ve only driven it once before, and that was just local.”
“It’s not far. What does it take – twenty or thirty minutes?”
“Yes, I think so.”
Carina sighed and put down her book, wrapping herself more snugly in the blanket and lying down on the sofa now. She closed her eyes.
“Okay, chick. I’ll be there. What time you gotta go?”
“We’re meeting at Keble at five forty-five. The talk is at seven.”
I know the groups are the place to get feedback, but I hope people won't mind me posting this in here since I'm trying to understand a specific point. TIA if anyone can throw light on what ping-pong dialogue is and what I'm doing wrong here.
Haven't heard the term before, but it's an interesting one.
Whizzing out, but I think it's about the dialogue getting detached from the overall action and physicality of the scene. It's not actually that briskly alternating lines of dialogue are a Bad Thing, but more that there isn't enough else going on.
In real life, we don't actually just sit there, immobile, and say things: speech is only part of the interaction of two characters - we move, or meet the other person's gaze, or avoid it, or think one thing and say another, or do displacement activity, or offer coffee by waving the coffee pot, or decide not to offer coffee...
Sometimes the other kinds of action are aligned with the speech - we shout "I hate you" and throw the saucepan - and sometimes they're in counterpoint: we concentrate hard on buttering the toast very neatly while we say, "Are you telling me you're having an affair?"
Also, in the example from Yahoo, the way the dialogue is always tagged after it perhaps emphasises the ping-ponginess. If the speech is woven in and out of the other kinds of action in the scene, it would feel more of a whole.
(A minor points - in your example I would be tempted to add one or two more speech tags or actions to keep us straight on who says what: a good rule of thumb is to have something attached to every fifth line of dialogue, which shows who said it. For example - there's nothing to tell me who says "Okay chick...")
To me, pingpong implies speed, and while the short Yahoo example is snappy, yours, Debac, is not. I would be puzzled, too, by having that extract described as it was.
In an earlier draft of my novel, a professional said I used too many 'talking heads'. At the time I thought that was a strange comment, as what are heads supposed to do in a novel? But I grasped the idea that I wasn't using enough setting to support my dialogue.
It's just another of the great subtleties that you have to be aware of if you're going to lift yourself from the mundane. When you want pace, as in a frantic type of argument, and you want the reader to be propelled onwards, how much bare dialogue can your scene take without becoming 'pingpong'? Assuming you're making it abundantly clear who's speaking of course.
I have no answer, and I'd never heard that thumb-rule of something every fifth line of dialogue. So, for me, I'm glad I read this.
And if you can't post this type of query here in technique, where can it go? Seems an ideal place to me.
I hadn't heard the term, but it instantly and intuitively made sense when I saw the extracts. As ever, Emma nailed my thoughts with this;
|It's not actually that briskly alternating lines of dialogue are a Bad Thing, but more that there isn't enough else going on.
To me,it's just a shorthand way to say make sure that everything is carrying its own weight at a dramatic level. Dialogue needs to carry plot as well as realism, IYSWIM.
|a professional said I used too many 'talking heads'.
That sounds closely related, doesn't it - not enough other kinds of human behaviour in there, also doing their thing with the plot.
The other thing to look at, perhaps, is where you're laying out every bit of the conversation because that's what happened - a sort of narrative literalism - when in fact a bit of compression wouldn't go amiss.
Especially since compression can be used to focus the reader onto what's important - obviously your extract is shorn of context so I can't tell, but it's very easy to lose sight of whether, actually, each line is essential to taking the story (not necessarily plot) forward - and working out what this scene is actually doing in the story can help you to decide whether all the little bits of dialogue are actually earning their keep.
Again, dashing off out but the coffee conversation in this blog post of mine is the kind of thing I'm talking out:
I will come back and comment in more detail later, but thank you all for your very interesting comments. What immediately springs to mind as the crux of the matter is whether I should have condensed this conversation. What they are deciding is crucial to the plot but not very interesting in itself. I think that may be what he was getting at.
As for including more actions. Yes, I think I should a bit, but it would be weird, perhaps, if every single line of dialogue had an action with it, unless they were really busy at the time...? It's all about moderation, I suppose. I need more action but not a ridiculous amount more... and I need to condense the convo a bit.
It's also interesting that he used the term and didn't explain it when you very knowledgeable folks haven't come across the term before.
Oooh, I do wish you could edit your own posts. Don't think much of my punctuation in this one!
A few thoughts.
Firstly, a 'book doctor' should explain what they mean by the terms they use, not just criticise and leave you to find out what their terminology actually means, IMO. Particularly when talking to you face to face, as in this instance.
Secondly, the Yahoo example just takes some dull dialogue and stretches it out with unnecessary description.
Ping-pong dialogue, to my mind, is dialogue that achieves nothing. It beats time, waiting for something that matters to happen. It mimics real speech, which is not what effective dialogue does. Each line of dialogue should have a purpose.
I think your passage is ping-pongy in that sense, there's a lot of words to establish that she doesn't want to go alone and that she's worried about driving the bus. It could be edited down a lot and made punchier, something like:
|“Will you come with me tonight?”
Carina was curled up on the sofa, reading. She shrugged.
“So Tomasz isn’t coming?”
“No. I’m a bit worried about driving the mini bus.”
“It’s not far.”
“Okay, chick. I’ll be there. What time you gotta go?”
“The talk is at seven.”
I think it's perfectly OK to leave out scads of description and just put in the odd speech tag, bit of action, just to regulate the pace and point readers in the right direction.
Hope this helps.<Added>
Crossed with you, debac. Of course, it also depends on what genre and style you're writing in and what effect you're trying to achieve. Just: never boring!
I haven't heard this term before either but I think Emma, Alan and Gaius make good points.
I wonder too, if the other thing that "ping pong" implies is an almost automatic back and forth without actually progressing the scene.
In the yahoo example they are just doing automatic responses that any reader could fill in for themselves if you said "they introduced themselves" and got to the meat of the conversation.
I think you may have nailed this when you say
|What immediately springs to mind as the crux of the matter is whether I should have condensed this conversation.
crossed with Wordsmithereen! I think we are making similar points
Yes to the condensation thing. For example, how would that conversation be written if it took on the sort of form in my example in that blog post?:
|'How long can you stay?' he asked.
She slung her jacket over the back of a chair. 'My bus doesn't go till six.'
'Good. I'll put the kettle on.'
They sorted out the business of coffee - when had she gone decaff-only? - and he waited until the kettle had boiled and the dog been let out into the garden before he said, 'Did you get my letter?'
It isn't just that you condense out the dull bits, but also that making use of actions, free indirect style and so on provides a more flexible, variable rhythm writing, even in a silly bit of stuff I wrote purely for demonstration purposes<Added>
I do like "ping-pong" dialogue as a phrase, and know exactly what kind of thing writing it means - and I see a lot of
I'll be adopting it forthwith - although I promise to explain it when I do!
Another thought. In your excerpt, debac, the bit about her being curled up on the sofa should really come before the dialogue starts as it's something your first person character would notice as the scene starts. Afterwards, it's backtracking and a bit of a distraction. Goes to show how many times you sometimes have to go over a piece of writing to catch everything.
How much colour you add is at least in part down to a writer's style and target audience but interest must be maintained so as long as the writing doesn't flag or become purple, it will work, I think.
As always, Emma makes some fantastically clear points.
|a good rule of thumb is to have something attached to every fifth line of dialogue, which shows who said it.
Someone told me this only two days ago, and I hadn't heard it before. Useful - thanks.
|When you want pace, as in a frantic type of argument, and you want the reader to be propelled onwards, how much bare dialogue can your scene take without becoming 'pingpong'?
Good question. Yes, breaking up the speech with actions may not always work in that case, unless the row was becoming physical. If you're rowing badly you tend to be quite focused on it, not buttering toast at the same time.
|And if you can't post this type of query here in technique, where can it go? Seems an ideal place to me.
|it's just a shorthand way to say make sure that everything is carrying its own weight at a dramatic level.
Good way of putting it. Thanks Gaius.
|The other thing to look at, perhaps, is where you're laying out every bit of the conversation because that's what happened - a sort of narrative literalism - when in fact a bit of compression wouldn't go amiss.
Yes, I can see that now. Weird, cos I read about that about 8 years ago and thought I'd learned how to get that aspect right. I think what happened was that this was a first draft and it was okay for that, but I should have paid attention when I tidied it up to show this guy. I obviously wasn't switched onto this issue when I did so. It's so true that it's easier to see things in other people's work, but seeing things in our own work is so important. <sigh>
|working out what this scene is actually doing in the story can help you to decide whether all the little bits of dialogue are actually earning their keep.
I think that, as well as showing why Carina came on the trip too, which is important for plot, I was trying to introduce the relationship between these two, but I didn't do it very well. I should perhaps wait till something more interesting happens to show it.
|Ping-pong dialogue, to my mind, is dialogue that achieves nothing. It beats time, waiting for something that matters to happen. It mimics real speech, which is not what effective dialogue does. Each line of dialogue should have a purpose.
Good points - thanks. I think this may be one of those times for some tell as well as show.
|It isn't just that you condense out the dull bits, but also that making use of actions, free indirect style and so on provides a more flexible, variable rhythm writing, even in a silly bit of stuff I wrote purely for demonstration purposes
Thanks Emma. I think my style at the moment is quite cold and sometimes too detached. I think I'm going to try to introduce a bit more of a chatty element (but not pointless waffle - I mean telly stuff that works, from the vp character's head).
I used to write fiction that was very much inside my vp character's head. Too intropective. Then I became strongly opposed to this and tried to erase it from my style. I think perhaps I've gone too far.
Sometimes I feel full of confidence and sometimes I feel like giving up. There is so much to learn... so much to check. So much to go wrong. But I know I won't stop.
Thank you very much all of you. You've all really helped me.
|I used to write fiction that was very much inside my vp character's head. Too intropective. Then I became strongly opposed to this and tried to erase it from my style. I think perhaps I've gone too far.
I doubt if there's a writer in the world who doesn't go through a rhythm of this.
You write stuff. By one means or another you realise there's something about it which doesn't work very well. You understand that, and start trying to do it better ... but for a while you're doing it consciously and maybe a bit awkwardly - maybe too much, maybe in the wrong places. It's the Ugly Duckling phase.
Eventually, that skill beds down and becomes intuitive (just as spelling did once upon a time, or showing-and-telling a bit later) and, more and more often, like a familiar tool, you just find that you've put your hand on it when you want it, and you're using it.
|Goes to show how many times you sometimes have to go over a piece of writing to catch everything.
I wonder if this is a never-ending process? I can catch nuances now that I couldn't last year, but next year ...
So when do I say 'The End', knowing if I say it now, I will later regret it? That's assuming I haven't reached the limit of my ability, of course. There's a scary thought.
Deb, if I blog about this, can I quote you? I think it's something that will interest a lot of people.
Alan, I know - there are always commas you could move... I still see things on the rare occasions when I do a reading from TMOL ... it's easier now to say "That was then, and I'm not the same writer now", but with more recent things it's harder.
I did blog about "when do you stop revising?" here:
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Emma, you're very welcome to quote me. I will read the blog with interest. You give us such pearls of wisdom.
Yes, the Ugly Duckling thing, which Jackie described to me as Wobbly Duck yesterday, is just how I feel atm. I thought I knew what I was doing, having got on top of the basics and known and used them for some time, but then I realised there is so much more.
It's a bit scary, but I still love it.
Thank you again, everyone and especially Emma!