Banter and Dark Humor—Close Allies
by Ritter Ames
I love banter in dialogue, whether it’s in a book, a movie or a television series. My gold standard for banter is His Girl Friday, the Howard Hawks film starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell—smart, evenly matched characters, brisk pace, and a life-and-death plot offset by the banter and dark humor. These are characters who know their stuff, know each other, and know exactly which buttons to push to attempt to get what they want. But they also effectively use banter and gallows humor to momentarily lighten extremely serious situations.
Banter should be quick, sharp, fresh, and used to advance the characters. What each character says during banter dialogue should not only tell readers about the speaker, but give information about the other character in the exchange, too. Yes, care must be given so banter isn’t reduced to bickering. Something to always remember is that banter is actually part of a power dynamic—social or otherwise. The characters might be trading witty barbs but deep down we know they actually like each other—or at least respect each other.
The technique can work well between male and female characters, between heroes and villains, between a mentor and a mentee. The characters can be a lot alike, or very different in temperament, but likable or not, they have to be smart. Dead weight doesn’t work for banter dialogue. Banter plays only a part of the power dynamic, but it often plays a crucial role. Especially when humor needs to be added to a scene.
When the zingers come they must not only match the mood and the characters, but the situation as well. I love very smart characters, and when I write dialogue for my Bodies of Art series I let them be a little snarky, let them throw the other characters a little off-balance—especially in exchanges between Laurel and Jack. I let a little dark humor flow sometimes to lighten up deadly situations, because my characters understand each other well enough that the true intent is understood. My characters get irritated with each other sometimes, and a line or two shaded toward bickering still works, but when writing banter dialogue always make sure your characters rein it in so the witticisms are sharp but not cutting.
Another important way banter works in a story is to provide subtext, questions within the story, and hooks that keep the reader anticipating what comes next. Irony is often another key element of banter, adding twists and drama as the characters interact to achieve what they need.
A favorite example of banter is in Casino Royale, when James Bond first meets Vesper and they try to one-up one another during a train conversation. Again, smart characters, quick wits, but while they’re at first trying to prove their personal superiority, it soon becomes apparent they’re developing a respect for one another—and recognizing they’ve each done their homework and are working with a pro. As they’re pushing back with each line, they’re also pulling together.
One last thing to note, banter should never be used by a character to get attention. Poorly timed banter that favors one character over another makes the first character usually come off maladjusted—like the class clown who’s constantly trying to grab the spotlight. Keep it smart, keep it sharp, keep it witty for all the bantering characters in a scene.
USA Today bestselling author Ritter Ames writes the Bodies of Art Mysteries, her way of coaxing her husband into more European travel for “research.” Her first two books in her Bodies of Art series, Counterfeit Conspiracies and Marked Masters, which feature her bantering characters, Laurel & Jack, are available now. The third book in the series, Abstract Aliases, has an October 11th release date and be available for preorder later this month. Visit her at www.ritterames.com, like her FB Author Page https://www.facebook.com/RitterAmesBooks or follow her on Twitter @RitterAmes