Witty banter is a lot of fun to read when it’s done right. It’s a great way of showing character chemistry, lightening the mood, and putting energy into the story. Here are some tips on pulling it off and fixing common mistakes.
Good banter is…
- Sharp. Brevity is the soul of wit. Keep it tight, without a lot of padding or set up. This allows for a quick back and forth, and allows jabs to be worked in without derailing the conversation.
- Fresh. Get creative. This is what makes your lines memorable. Banter is where mere vulgarity and stock insults fall flat, because while they suffice for throwaways, they quickly get old when they’re being traded back and forth. Freshness is what gives banter its interest factor.
- Character specific. This goes with freshness. Good banter is kept specific to the characters and their situation. First because this advances their characterization. Second because it makes things interesting and keeps them from circulating stale adages or generic insults. It also makes for good sharper dialogue because each verbal strike can be targeted.
Appropriate to the situation. Banter that’s relevant to what’s going on makes a character look keen. Poorly timed witticisms make them look attention seeking and maladjusted.
- A conversation. It’s two characters playing off of each other, rather than one person showing off. That, like most things, has its place. But it isn’t banter.
- (In some cases) Rife with subtext. Banter sets up a power dynamic.When two characters match wits, they’re jockeying for social power. This creates room for lots of subtlety and insinuation.
Why witty banter can be great:
As I said above, banter is part of a power dynamic. Power dynamics are inherently interesting. Each person is trying to prove themselves intellectually superior and, while they might be friendly, the ongoing competition creates tension. It shows the characters pushing back against each other.
This is one of the reasons why it’s usually a staple of romantic chemistry. Banter allows the main character and their love interest to be at odds while remaining on the same side of the conflict (well, usually). It also keeps the relationship from feeling too easy—since the characters are wrapped up in their competition, they don’t immediately melt into a puddle of loving couple-ness, which means that the reader has some time to want the relationship before it’s realized.
For similar reasons, banter isn’t uncommon between heroes and villains. A few casual, clever remarks allow them to engage each other in places where they cannot express the full extent of their animosity. It can function as build-up and create interpersonal tension. However, because banter puts the two parties on relatively equal footing, there is a risk of undercutting the villain if you don’t tread with caution here. Villains are scary because they have the upper hand.
It’s also, as I mentioned, enjoyable. Fiction is meant to be enjoyed. Unless you’re a postmodernist. Don’t be that guy.
Common problems with witty banter, and how to fix them:
Banter walks a fine line between meaningful dialogue and fluff. At it’s worst, it can actively derail the story. The most common way this happens is when two characters are discussing something plot important, and then begin bantering, which steers the conversation away from the plot element in question.
Usually, it looks like this: Alice and Bob are discussing the queen’s assassination. Alice suggests that the queen could have been poisoned, and then tacks on a barbed remark directed at Bob. Bob responds to the insult, but not to the information about the queen. Alice responds to Bob’s comeback, but also fails to bring things back to the queen.
Good dialogue moves the plot forwards. Think conservation of detail: length of the exchange should be roughly proportional to how much information is conveyed. Excessive and meandering banter happens when the dialogue isn’t pulling its weight.
The easiest way to fix this problem is simply to cut. Take Alice and Bob’s conversation about the queen. Save your best lines. Then remove everything between Alice’s first jab and the point at which one of them brings the conversation back to the queen. There’s going to be less, but it’s also going to go quite a bit farther without choking the plot.
The other most common pitfalls of banter stem from its effect on mood and tension. Nine times out of ten banter lightens the mood. It also has the potential diminishes the sense of danger, especially if it goes on for more than a few lines. This is because, as mentioned, extended banter pulls back from the plot. It makes things less immediate.
Talking is not a free action. If Alice and Bob are standing in the middle of a gunfight trading witticisms, that implies that they have time to speak with each other. They have the presence of mind to think of something witty to say. And they’re probably focusing more attention on saying something sharp than the gunfight, which means that the gunfight is not their first priority. Since they don’t fear the gunfight, neither do readers. They demonstrate that there isn’t a risk.
Think of what your characters realistically have time to say. Also consider their emotional state and how fazed they are by the danger. No one has to be witty 100% of the time. Most real people aren’t witty 25% of the time. If you do think it’s realistic to keep the banter, make sure that it’s tight and woven into the action—a badass one-liner or a few brief jabs at each other’s marksmanship, and not half a page of arguing over who left the stove on.
Writing like a boss:
The best thing that you can do for your banter is to remember that it’s about establishing a dynamic between your characters, and not about proving your own wit (something I’ve personally been guilty of in the past—the results are ugly). This has two benefits. First it takes off the pressure to show off, which often results in stiff, unnatural dialogue. Second, it makes your banter a lot tighter and more interesting because you’re able to write it with an awareness of how it affects the text.
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