An ongoing series about how to write romantic comedy.
Banter is an absolute essential. It’s what we love best about romantic comedy. Because people fall in love through talking, not by staring at one another and thinking lustful thoughts. (At its worst, that’s creepy and stalkerish. At its best, it’s so, well…middle school.) On the other hand, what could be better than delicious verbal sparring?
You say B should stand for bedroom scenes? Nope. Not even close. Love is a meeting of the minds, that kindred spirit connection that makes intimacy possible. And it’s watching the connection form that keeps us turning pages. Maybe it’s just me, but I value quick intelligence and a shared smile way more than a hot body.
Here’s the thing about banter: it’s all about “show don’t tell.” Using banter you, the writer, must cause the reader to fall in love with the hero. Describing him as handsome or successful or intelligent won’t cut it. The reader must see him in action—saying intelligent things, behaving adorably—and make the leap herself.
To save time (and avoid plagiarism), I’ve lifted an exchange from one of my books. The dialog, his thoughts, and her aloof responses dovetail, drawing the reader in. At this point in the story she is rather a piece of work, but then so is he. Here, I want the reader to decide, is a well-matched pair.
The temptation to tease her was overwhelming. He lowered his napkin and gave her one of his most charming smiles.
She looked away. “Will this rain never stop?”
McGillvary nearly laughed outright. Obviously, flirting with a clerk was taboo! When she looked his way, he poured the last of his tea into the saucer to cool. This was clearly outrageous; his mother would have boxed his ears! As it was, he had to bite his lip to keep from laughing at the expression in Miss Elliot’s eyes. He lifted the saucer and took a long, gleeful draught.
Replacing it, he remarked, “A nice brew, but I prefer coffee. As you can see,” he indicated his waistcoat, “we had a little mishap with the coffee pot.”
“Do you mean today?” she said.
He stiffened. Did she think he would wear a stained waistcoat all week? He decided to retaliate. “By the bye, I am sorry about your hat. Is there a way it can be repaired?”
At that, her chin came up. “I rather doubt it,” she said. “But if it rains in Bath as much as you say, what is the point?” She coughed politely. “Have you lived in Bath long, Mr Gill?”
“My family owns a house here, but I have been abroad for much of my life.”
“Of course. Your time at sea. I forgot.” The look she gave him told him plainly what she thought: that he had been transported to Australia on a convict ship—and was only newly returned to England!
Thrust and parry, attack and counterattack. But remember, this is sparring and not meanness. With words alone, using banter, the writer builds intrigue between the pair, revealing humor and intelligence and wit. And eventually, loneliness and need.
Tomorrow’s topic? Dreadful in real life, yet wonderful in fiction, the Cat Fight.
[excerpt from Mercy’s Embrace: So Rough a Course by Laura Hile, 2009]