Possibly one of the most enviable traits of a writer you admire is the ability to make dialogue that’s sharp as a whip, smooth as oil, and more savory than a slice of pepperoni pizza. While some writers have great prose (often nonfiction writers: they must rely on it more than their fiction counterparts and in so doing are more skilled at it), the skill of witty banter has mostly eluded many writers.
Don’t mistake witty banter for mere comedy: there are many forms of comedy, and most of them can be used in a book. There’s only one kind of witty banter, and that’s the kind that leaves you with the delicious “Ooh, that musta hurt” feeling inside. Comebacks, one-liners, and burns fall into this category…but making your own can be a real mess.
Jeez, I feel tight today. Especially that first paragraph: what am I supposed to be, a spring? Ha ha, I didn’t think that one out…where was I? Oh yes; banter. As you can see, that last statement was a braindead dad joke, and while there was some play-on wording there, it wasn’t witty.
To build witty banter, we first have to understand what makes something witty. The word “wit” implies more than just knowledge or wisdom: it’s thinking on your feet. It’s one thing to live by your knowledge (professors and scientists do that), but it’s another to live by your wits (an accurate job description of thieves and pirates).
Witty people do things that no one would expect. Whether by luck or discipline, fortune or craft, witty people know what to say and when to say it–and whatever it is, it strikes those around them (hopefully your reader) as true, but in a niche, nuanced, and most importantly clever way. Witty people make others say “I never thought of that”.
Essentially, that’s what being witty is. But we don’t understand fully yet: being unexpected and clever is only half the puzzle. The other part is the application: how is witty banter used? Most of the time it’s a verbal weapon used for jabbing or humiliating, and that’s the part we want to focus on here. Simply being witty is a thing unto itself, but we’re focused on banter.
Witty banter always has a target. Someone or something is being the butt of the wittiness (not necessarily the butt of a joke), and therefore that thing is going to suffer at least slightly for the sake of it. Very similar to the nature of a story itself, banter isn’t interesting if there’s no rub between the witty speaker and butt of the joke (that sounded wrong on so many levels).
Before we get into our example I want to talk about one more thing: subtext. Subtext is what’s understood in a conversation but not directly stated. Witty banter simply doesn’t work without it, and it becomes obvious that you’re dumbing down something really clever just to make sure that the statement sticks. Witty banter is a gamble: the safer it is, the less witty.
Take the example below:
Man 1: “You didn’t have seconds. You had three weeks. The universe was created in a third of that time.”
Man 2: “Well, someday you’ll have to tell us how you did it.”
Hit me with a comment if you know what movie this is from, because I don’t. What I do know, however, is that this is a damn good piece of witty banter, and for more than one reason. Of course, wittiness is far more impressive when delivered by great actors on the big screen, but in most cases it works just as well in print.
This statement is witty because it expresses a compound idea which feeds off of itself. Man 2 is implying that A). Man 1 is god, and B). Man 1 wants to tell others about his creation of the earth. If you put 2 and 2 together, you see that Man 2 is very clearly implying that Man 1 is a pompous braggart. However, the beauty in this exchange is how Man 2 uses subtext to ply Man 1’s statement back on him in a very appropriate way. There’s no need for curse words, for insults to one’s parentage, etc.
Let’s turn to a much more morbid example: (WARNING: MATURE LAGUAGE AHEAD)
Man 3: If your mom’s *female identity* was a video game it would be rated E for everyone! *racuous laughter*
Ignoring for a moment that this is insult only reveals one’s immaturity, it’s an extremely poor example of good, witty banter. For one thing, subtext is entirely absent: instead of using the video game rating system as subtext, Man 3 sees fit to explain it with the dead phrase “if X was a video game”. This is just the writer’s way of saying “Look, audience! Look at this terribly witty joke I made! Aren’t I just so witty?” and, needless to say, that’s not witty at all.
Plus, insulting someone’s mother only used to have that meaning, because it used to work that when your mom got old, you had to take care of her when no one else would. Hence, insulting her would be perceived as a threat. Nowadays, your mom can file for insurance, loans, jobs, and best of all, restraining orders. Your mom is well-protected, and (in most cases) “your mom is X” is hardly an insult. It’s actually difficult to take personally.
And if it couldn’t get any worse, it’s obvious that the writers just wanted to mention the v-word because of some kind of twisted mindset that “if a comment says something sexually figurative, it must be devastatingly witty”. The writers are putting on full display their inability to actually think of devastating insults.
So, what are you, the writer, supposed to take away from this? Well, for one, you can’t be afraid to offend characters in your novels. Witty attacks spare no man or woman, and anything that you can abuse for a truly witty comment must be used. Usually, the more sacred the object of mockery, the more devastating the comment truly is.
Think about things in new ways. Don’t spin it too out of control: get too wild and you’ll lose your audience. You have to strike a balance between being cryptic enough that it strikes your audience in just the right way without being so cryptic that they lose the point of it all. It’s a tough balance to make, but I’m confident you can make it.
Lastly, I would encourage you to analyze and even pick apart good witty retorts to better understand the craft. It’s much more vast than I can cover in one article, especially when it comes to subtext (expect a full blog post about that one in the future) and by taking a look at what you consider to be humorous or witty can be a step in creating your own.
Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Plus, I mean, it wouldn’t hurt to check out the Resources tab. It’s full of super helpful material and I promise it will help you out. Until then, writers!