Billy Joel famously remarked, “I don’t want clever conversation; never want to work that hard” (“Just the Way You Are” (1977) at 1:30). For my part, though, I find I do want clever conversation. (And I’m willing to work at it.) Witty wordplay is one of my favorite things to find in a story.
Conversational sparring comes in a number of varieties—and especially in exchanges between romantic interests. This post may run a little long, because in order to get the point across I need to quote some dialogue at length.
The Well-Chosen Word
Verbal comedy can arise spontaneously in comedies of errors—misunderstood conversations, double meanings and double entendres, the confusions to which language is ever prone.
It helps if one character is an airhead. Bertie Wooster, the amiable narrator of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories, has been described (by Jeeves) as “mentally negligible.” As the Wikipedia article observes, Bertie’s use of language is actually rather remarkable—but it lacks control. His frequently-mangled allusions may throw his hearers for a loop, and he’s just as likely to misunderstand what they’re getting at. This pattern is common in Wodehouse, where at least one person, often the main character, is a little muddled.
But even competent characters can be at a loss if the situation is itself muddled. For example, in the delightful closing sequence to Georgette Heyer’s Sprig Muslin (ch. 17-18), the normally self-possessed Captain Kendal arrives on the scene thinking he’s rescuing his madcap lady-love Amanda, not realizing that he has entirely misinterpreted the situation. Thus:
“Why,” the Captain shot at him, “did the chambermaid find your ward’s door locked? Why did your ward think it necessary to lock her door?”
“She didn’t. I locked the door, so that she shouldn’t escape a second time. Yes, come over here, Hildebrand! Our visitor wants to shake you by the hand. . . . This, Hildebrand, unless I much mistake the matter is the Brigade-Major.”
“What, Amanda’s Brigade-Major?” exclaimed Hildebrand. “Well, of all things! However did you find us out, sir?”
“For God’s sake, have I strayed into a madhouse?” thundered the Captain. “Where is Amanda?”
“Well, I don’t know,” said Hildebrand, looking startled. “I daresay she has gone down the road to the farm, though. . . . Oh, I say, sir, I wish you will tell me!—will she be obliged to wring chickens’ necks if she goes to Spain?”
“Wring—No!” said the Captain, thrown by this time quite off his balance.
“I knew it was all nonsense!” said Hildebrand triumphantly. “I told her it was, but she always thinks she knows everything!”
Heyer is a past master at this; I’ve often thought of her as a kind of combination of Wodehouse and Jane Austen (herself a master of elegant verbal skirmishing). Indeed, I once looked in at the annual Boston-based science fiction convention Boskone and read the program’s tongue-in-cheek explanation of why a SF convention includes a Regency ball: Heyer’s characters were so superb at clever badinage that they must represent some kind of alternate reality—no mere humans could come up with such adroit dialogue on the spur of the moment.
When the wit is one-sided— a clever interlocutor and an airheaded one—there’s some danger that the exchange may come across as a bit mean, with one character taking advantage of the other. (“Persiflage,” another term for witty banter, is sometimes glossed as “quizzing mockery” or “scoffing.”) But the smart character and the less-than-brilliant character can also be on good terms with each other, as in Kit Fancot’s fond teasing of his lovable but flighty mother in Heyer’s False Colours.
The combination of verbal sparring and affection reaches its apex when the two participants are in love with each other—whether or not they know it yet.
The locus classicus for such a relationship is Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, a comedy built largely around the contentious romance of Beatrice and Benedick. Beatrice’s uncle explains the relationship to a newcomer explicitly at the outset: “You must not, sir, mistake my niece: there is a kind of merry war betwixt Signior Benedick and her; they never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them” (lines 50-52). We then see them in action:
Beatrice: I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick: nobody marks you.
Benedick: What, my dear Lady Disdain! are you yet living?
Beatrice: Is it possible disdain should die while she hath such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick? Courtesy itself must convert to disdain, if you come in her presence.
Benedick: Then is courtesy a turncoat. But it is certain I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted: and I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart; for, truly, I love none.
Beatrice: A dear happiness to women: they would else have been troubled with a pernicious suitor. I thank God and my cold blood, I am of your humour for that: I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.
Benedick: God keep your ladyship still in that mind! so some gentleman or other shall 'scape a predestinate scratched face.
Beatrice: Scratching could not make it worse, an 'twere such a face as yours were. (lines 99-116)
The verbal sparring can shade from hostile to flirtatious; here we see it at the hostile end. While this “merry war” has no obvious reason—except perhaps “belligerent sexual tension” itself—the conflict is often sparked by some specific friction; hence this trope’s kinship with The Big Lie.
Romantic comedy is the natural home for this kind of dialogue—especially on stage or screen. We can go back to one of the classic screwball comedies, Frank Capra’s 1934 It Happened One Night, for examples.
[As Peter hangs a blanket between the beds in the room the main characters have to share:]
Ellie: That, I suppose, makes everything quite all right.
Peter: This? Well, I like privacy when I retire. Yes, I’m very delicate in that respect. Prying eyes annoy me. Behold the walls of Jericho. Maybe not as thick as the ones Joshua blew down with his trumpet. But a lot safer. You see, I have no trumpet.
They both get in some good lines in the famous hitchhiking scene:
Peter: They’ll stop, all right. It’s all a matter of knowing how to handle them.
Ellie: Oh, and you’re an expert, I suppose.
Peter: Expert. And I’m gonna write a book about it. Call it The Hitchhiker’s Hail.
Ellie: There’s no end to your accomplishments, is there?
[Peter tries his first method, fails]
Ellie: I’ve still got my eye on the thumb.
Peter: Something must have gone wrong. I’ll try No. 2.
Ellie: When you get to 100, wake me up.
[After several more fails]
Peter: I don’t think I’ll write that book after all.
Ellie: Think of all the fun you had, though.
[Ellie takes over and brings a car to a dead stop by lifting her skirt to show her leg. In the car:]
Ellie: Aren’t you going to give me a little credit?
Peter: What for?
Ellie: Well, I proved once and for all that the limb is mightier than the thumb.
Peter: Why didn’t you take off all your clothes? You could have stopped forty cars.
Ellie: Ooo, I’ll remember that when we need forty cars.
Rodgers & Hammerstein gave us musical versions: listen to the lighthearted play between not-quite-admitted lovers in “People Will Say We’re In Love” or “Sixteen Going On Seventeen.” Clever duet lyrics abound in other old-time musicals as well: Singin’ in the Rain, say, or White Christmas.
For a more recent example, I’m fond of the Hugh Grant-Drew Barrymore vehicle Music and Lyrics (2007). Sophie (Barrymore) arrives at the apartment of Alex Fletcher (Grant), a washed-up rock star, to water his plants. She pricks her finger on a cactus, Alex responds (with Grant’s trademark cultured deadpan delivery).
Alex: You all right?
Sophie: Do you have a Band-Aid and antibiotic cream?
Alex: No, no. And, sadly, I think I’ve lent out my iron lung.
Sophie: . . . I’m gonna go, because, you know, this could get infected.
[She comes back the next day, with a bandage on her finger, and they pick up right where they left off.]
Alex: They were able to save the whole hand.
Sophie: I know; I made too big a deal out of it. It’s just that I hate infections. But then again, who likes them? Maybe the people who make penicillin.
Alex: Ah, yes, well, there’s two sides to every story.
Sophie: That’s true. Except for the Nazis. I can’t really see the other side of that argument.
Sophie ends up writing lyrics to Alex’s music for a song that has to be completed within about forty-eight hours. He’s reading her scribbled page:
Alex: [singing] Sleeping with a clown above my bed...
[spoken] “Clown” is not right. What is that word?
Sophie: It's “cloud.”
Alex: Well, write more clearly! How can I possibly read—
Sophie: Why would you have a clown in your bed?
Alex: Let me tell you, it would not be the first time.
Sophie: Yeah, I’m not surprised.
Wit in Writing
Of course we also get witty exchanges on the printed page.
For the rare Wodehouse where both the characters are clever, check out Leave It to Psmith (1923). The dapper but absurd Psmith (“The p is silent, as in pshrimp”) finally reaches an understanding with the intrepid Eve Halliday:
“Cynthia advised me,” proceeded Eve, “if ever I married, to marry some one eccentric. She said it was such fun . . . Well, I don’t suppose I am ever likely to meet any one more eccentric than you, am I?”
“I think you would be unwise to wait on the chance.”
“The only thing is . . .,” said Eve reflectively. “’Mrs. Smith’ . . . It doesn’t sound much, does it?”
Psmith beamed encouragingly.
“We must look into the future,” he said. “We must remember that I am only at the beginning of what I am convinced is to be a singularly illustrious career. ‘Lady Psmith’ is better . . . ‘Baroness Psmith’ better still . . . And—who knows?—‘The Duchess of Psmith’ . . .”
Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe detective stories, narrated by Wolfe’s irrepressible assistant Archie Goodwin, contain some of the most entertaining dialogue I’ve encountered; I’m content just listening to Archie talk. A lot of the banter here is nonromantic: Nero and Archie’s genuine friendship is masked by constant verbal sparring. Archie is a past master at getting under people’s skin with brash remarks, and the normally unflappable Wolfe seems particularly sensitive to Archie’s brand of needling.
But there’s also Archie’s long-running perpetual flirtation with Lily Rowan, who is easily his match in wit, beginning when they meet in Some Buried Caesar (1938). Archie is drowsing off at a rural exposition when Lily (who’s nicknamed him “Escamillo”) tugs at his sleeve:
“Wake up, Escamillo, and show me the flowers.”
I let the lids up. “How do you do, Miss Rowan. Go away. I’m in seclusion.”
I bent and deposited a peck on her brow. “There. Thank you for calling. Nice to see you.”
“You’re a lout.”
“I have at no time asked you to submit bids.”
The corner of her mouth went up. “This is a public exposition. I paid my way in. You’re an exhibitor. Go ahead and exhibit. Show me.”
“Not exhibitionist. Exhibitor.” (ch. 14)
Even science fiction has its moments for banter between lovers. In the venerable Skylark of Space (1928 &1946), Dick Seaton’s fiancée Dorothy Vaneman, an accomplished violinist, sets out to lull the overworked Seaton to sleep after dinner.
Dorothy said, “I skipped practice today, Dick, on account of traipsing out there after you two geniuses. Could you stand it to have me play at you for half an hour?”
“Don’t fish, Dottie Dimple. You know there’s nothing I’d like better. But if you want me to beg you I’ll be glad to. Please—PUH-LEEZE—oh fair and musicianly damsel, fill ye circumambient atmosphere with thy tuneful notes.”
“Wilco. Roger,” she snickered. “Over and out.” (ch. 6)
The subject matter doesn’t have to be especially romantic; it can be equally cute to watch a well-matched pair go off on an entirely silly subject. In Connie Willis’s aptly-named Crosstalk (2016), Briddey Flannigan and her not-quite-boyfriend C.B. Schwartz have been trying, for involved plot reasons, to remember what the marshmallow shapes are in Lucky Charms cereal. They finally find a box.
“. . . So we can confirm my findings.”
“Or not,” Briddey said, looking down at the multicolored blobs. She picked up a pale green one with a lump of bright green in the middle. “This does not look like a shamrock.”
“Clover,” he corrected her.
“It doesn’t look like a clover either. It looks like a hat with a bow on it.”
“What kind of Irishman would have a bow on his hat?” C.B. said, taking it from her, turning it upside down, and squinting at it. “Maybe it’s a pot of gold.”
“Then why is it green? And look at this one,” she said, picking up a purple U-shaped marshmallow. “What’s this? The rainbow?”
“No, this is the rainbow.” He showed her a multicolored half circle.
“Or a slice of watermelon.”
“They’re all supposed to be Irish. What’s Irish about a slice of watermelon?”
. . . . .
“But what on earth is this?” she said, fishing a white marshmallow out of the pile. It was oblong and had an orange line down its middle and an irregular splotch at one end.
“I have no idea,” C.B. said, taking it from her and turning it one way and another. “An albino eggplant?”
“An albino eggplant?” she said, laughing. “Why would they put an albino eggplant in a children’s cereal?”
“Beats me,” he said, popping it into his mouth. He made a face. “The real question is, why would they put pieces of chalk in a children’s cereal and call them marshmallows?” (ch. 20)
Why it Matters
Witty banter may be entertaining in itself, but what does it do for the story? What difference does it make in the way a reader appreciates a book or a movie?
An essentially friendly verbal duel—even if it has a bit of an edge—communicates a certain lightness and grace. We appreciate the participants’ minds—all the more when the conversation is not about rigorous chains of reasoning, but is a kind of dancing with circumstances, responding to a situation or conversation as it develops. (The best puns are situational.) We admire the free play of intellect, especially when it’s used frivolously. And in a romance, where the sensual component may contribute a certain heaviness or earthiness, the grace of wit provides a welcome counterpoint.
And then, I take the lightheartedness of banter itself to be a virtue. With all the serious concerns we find in daily events, we need to be reminded how to take things lightly. Susan Ashton’s “You Move Me” (also recorded by Garth Brooks) has a neat turn of phrase:
You go whistling in the dark,
making light of it,
making light of it,
And I follow with my heart, laughing all the way.
When the traditional phrase “whistling in the dark” is followed by “making light of it,” the first thought, perhaps, is of bringing light to the darkness: making it brighter. But “making light of it” also means treating something lightly, with levity, almost making fun of it. The repetition of the line suggests that both meanings are present. This is the kind of undaunted attitude that’s evoked by the frivolity of wordplay. In other words, lighthearted wit is serious business.
There’s more. When the participants are friends, and especially when they’re lovers, the banter is a unique way of engaging with each other.
The exchange can be both a dance and a duel. On the one hand, there’s a certain competitiveness—one-upmanship. But the couple are also collaborating in creating a kind of manic beauty, a sort of performance art. The best example, perhaps, is when they join in piling one absurdity on another, getting more extravagantly silly as they go. For example, Jeff and Dana, the nascent lovers in my romantic comedy The World Around the Corner, are talking to their young friend Renée about why she likes ice-skating (and all three are avid video-gamers):
[Jeff says to Renée:] “I remember you like ice skating, right? Why do you do it?”
“I feel graceful? It shines when you can do a trick or a turn without skidding out?”
“It feels good to do it well.” Jeff nodded. “Even if no loot drops.” Renee giggled.
“Unless maybe you knock somebody down, accidentally on purpose…” Dana said.
“…and they lose their wallet. Or a purse goes flying,” Jeff continued. “The bosses drop more loot, of course.”
“A rogue wouldn’t need to ram ’em,” Dana countered. “You glide by, doing a double spin or whatever…when they stop admiring your skill, the wallet’s gone.”
“But of course you don’t get the experience points from taking them down,” Jeff said.
When I have the chance to take part in such exchanges in real life, it’s one of the most exhilarating experiences I know of. Finding them in a story lets us all take part in the fun.