I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend…. if you have one.” - George Bernard Shaw to Winston Churchill
“Cannot possibly attend first night, will attend second… if there is one.” - Winston Churchill, in response.
Banter: also known as repartee, wordplay, a spot of witty conversation. You’ll know if you’re engaging in it correctly - much like other kinds of chemistry, there’s no middle ground. You’re either sailing away on good-natured teasing, or you’re not. I love to engage in it, I love to watch it, and I love to read it. There’s something about watching a couple strike mental sparks off each other that is infinitely engaging. We often get to watch couple’s physical and emotional attractions take bloom, oh but how delicious if a mental connection is there as well.
Take for example, Beatrice and Benedict: A couple that could not restrain from verbal sparring if their lives depended on it. When I first watched it on screen, I headed to the text immediately to soak it all up again. And again, and again. Their verbal dexterity wasn’t much ado about nothing, that’s for sure. Watch this:
For the not-really-love at first sight, good banter is a battle, a spar, a power struggle, a competition, a game where each character fires off their lexical arsenal to inflict as much damage as possible. Conflict never sounded so good:
But when it comes to writing, the ‘banter’ can be amplified to so much more. It’s dialogue after all, and good dialogue is about character, sub text, exposition, and and and. Recently, I’ve been reviewing unpublished manuscripts for ROSA’s Strelitzia award (you can read more about ROSA and their awards here). Backstory, she’s a problem alright. Within the opening paragraphs, Backstory slides in as a new character, a traffic warden telling us to stop moving right there, and wait while a chain of explanation crosses in front of our eyes. As a reader, I flick over it, waiting instead for the signal from ‘stop’ to ‘go’. But for some writers, the explanation, the telling part, gets worked into the characters’ banter.
Don't believe me? Watch this clip here from Casino Royale. James Bond is meeting Vesper Lynd for the first time. Banter is on the menu. But notice how the screenwriters weave in our character’s backstories round that banter? Within one scene, we know that she is a supposedly principled, degreed professional, with a similar background to our hero, who can match him at his game, and even win. Did she launch into some boring conversation about how accounting was her life’s passion? No. Did he explain that he was an orphan who went to a posh school, pass me the wine, please? No. What we got were two people interacting, playing a game with each other, testing each other for weakness. We also got a bit of exposition - what’s to come. We now know that she is good at lying - she can bluff. Which is both important exposition and character reveal, as anyone who’s watched this film will know. As Bond noted, he’ll be ‘skewered’.
And what about that revealing character? People will often tell you who they are. Banterers tell you that they’re smart, probably well-educated or well-read or both, and that, for them, sapiosexuality is a definite thing.
Which bring me to the next scene from Body Heat.
I love this scene. It achieves a whole whack of things: her set-up (married, wealthy, from the suburbs), his (shameless man whore), as well as big hint to their future, “You’re not smart, I like that in a man”. But the screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (also responsible for another favourite bantering couple Star Wars Han and Leia), has her match him and undo him with her responses to his ‘clever’ lines. Each one tells the other exactly who they are. “Lazy, ugly, horny, I’ve got em all.” “You don’t look lazy.” And again, more exposition of what’s to come. She’s a smart lady, and this guy is in way over his head.
Bantering is not just about verbal conflict. Did you notice the themes emerging in those examples? Bluffing and the big poker game in Casino Royale, the debilitating heat wave in Body Heat? How about the question/answer session of the hotshot divorce lawyer and the ‘accused’? Think of how differently Emma Stone’s character responds to Ryan Gosling’s quite witty pick-up attempts here…there won’t be conflict when they get together, as the title Crazy Stupid Love suggests. She could have been a lot harsher, but that wasn’t really the point now, was it?
And you thought banter was just about the blah blah blah!