Have you ever read dialogue like this?
“We’ll need the Spear of Glorgon to kill the Pit-Fiend Czhnarboth.” “Yes, we will. Do you know where the Spear of Glorgon may be found?” “Sadly, it was lost centuries ago in the Empire of Cardel.” “Then finding it will be the ultimate test of our powers.” “True, and surely the gods of light will favor us.”
One of the most common reasons dialogue gets boring is that it turns into a type of conversational ping-pong. Speakers volley lines of speech back and forth at each other. Each serve is neatly and appropriately returned. You’ve probably played a game or two of ping-pong like that yourself.
Think about the first time you ever picked up a paddle (in my mind, you’re in your uncle’s shag-carpeted basement.) You’re immensely proud of yourself for just getting it back and forth over the net. But it is also, effectively, a kind of stalemate—the ball goes back and forth, but nothing changes. And, after a while, it’s boring.
But a professional game of ping-pong, when you watch talented, competitive players? Not boring at all. After talking to ping-pong players and reading about the game, I think I know one reason why.
More than once I’ve come across the phrase “ping-pong is a game of spin.” If volleying the ball back and forth is the beginner level, then spin is at the heart of competitive ping-pong. It alters the movement of the ball so that the predictable becomes unpredictable. It’s what makes play volatile, explosive, unexpected—interesting.
Spin has the same effect in dialogue. It’s basically what it sounds like: a turn, a twist, a deviation.
The problem with ping-pong dialogue is that it’s so predictable: everyone stays on topic, everyone responds to the questions they’re asked, everyone provides accurate information. Dialogue with spin, in contrast, goes in unexpected directions. Since one of the reasons readers read is because they want to know the answer to a question, dialogue with spin draws readers into a story by raising (and partially answering) new questions.
How do you generate spin? A few ways, actually. Let me offer you three.
Give your characters an agenda.
When each character in a conversation has an agenda, it means that they have a goal—and, since you’re a talented writer and you have conflict bred in your bones, you know that these characters have different goals. Those goals help produce spin as each character attempts to steer the conversation toward their desired end. If, for example, you are working on dialogue between an exhausted detective and an amorous witness, you might have a great deal of fun as their competing agendas inflect their conversation in different ways.
Allow for subtext.
While subtext often naturally arises from giving characters an agenda, the two are not interchangeable.
Subtext is the text around and behind and between the words—the text that never makes it into text. When a character says exactly what they want, you’re dealing with on-the-nose dialogue, which is the clinical condition of having zero subtext. Subtext is about hidden meanings, unverbalized desires, buried insults.
To extend the example above, let’s imagine that our amorous witness is married and can’t directly proposition the detective. The spoken conversation might be exclusively about the crime, while the subtext might be the unspoken thrust-and-parry of an attempted seduction.
Employ “No” Dialogue.
I find this technique to be a great deal of fun. It’s exactly what it sounds like—one character wants something, and the other refuses to give it to them. The fun comes in finding ways to make the refusals—and there should be a number of them—indirect and distinct, without the character repeating themself. Often, this becomes part of both the competing agenda and the subtext; the three work together beautifully. In our example, perhaps the amorous witness is also the police chief’s romantic partner, and the detective’s refusals must be firm but indirect enough not to humiliate and enrage the witness.
Bonus technique: Third-ball Attack
To wrap-up our ping-pong analogy, I’d like to offer you one more idea: the third-ball attack. In ping-pong, this refers to a strategy that goes like this: Player A serves the ball (ball #1), Player B returns it (ball #2), and Player A attacks (ball #3).
Think of this as both a heuristic—a rule-of-thumb diagnostic—and as a technique. If you’re writing dialogue, and you can tell it’s starting to drag, look at the first three lines. If the first three lines are ping-pong dialogue, the likelihood is that the rest of the conversation is, too.
You can break it up by turning that third line into an attack: give the dialogue stakes no later than the third line. One character makes a difficult request, issues an ultimatum, attempts a threat, initiates a seduction—whatever it is, it has to commit them to a risky course of action so that, succeed or fail, there are consequences.
Is the sky the limit with spin? Not exactly. There’s a point of diminishing returns, even a point where it becomes counterproductive. Too much spin produces conversations that are hard to follow (whether because of non sequiturs, or because they break genre conventions, or because they become illogical or incomprehensible). These all threaten to alienate the reader. More spin is not necessarily better.
The important things to remember? Ping-pong bad. Spin good. If nothing’s happening, third-ball attack. And remember, just like real people, fictional characters are rarely as good at communicating as they think they are.
What kind of dialogue bores you to sleep? What are your go-to strategies for pepping it up? Who writes your favorite dialogue? Share some examples and tell us why!
Want to improve your dialogue even more? In January 2023, Gregory will be teaching the Odyssey Online class, Angled Dialogue: Crafting Authentic-Sounding Dialogue to Convey Information, Escalate Conflict, and Advance Character-Driven Stories.
Odyssey Online classes combine deep focus, directed study, intensive practice, and detailed feedback to help students learn how to best use the tools and techniques covered to make major improvements in their fiction.
Apply by November 21 at odysseyworkshop.org!
Gregory Ashe is a bestselling author and longtime Midwesterner. He has lived in Chicago, Bloomington (IN), and Saint Louis, his current home. He primarily writes contemporary mysteries, with forays into romance, fantasy, and horror. Predominantly, his stories feature LGBTQ protagonists. When not reading and writing, he is an educator. He is a graduate of the Odyssey workshop and has returned to teach there. For more information, visit his website: www.gregoryashe.com.