Snark versus Banter

A great comment from Hardwicke Benthow on this post about sarcasm brought a very interesting writing distinction to the forefront. Here’s the discussion reproduced for your convenience:

Hardwicke Benthow
SEPTEMBER 13, 2020 AT 12:36 AM

What are your thoughts on 1930s-style wisecracking banter?

Here’s an example of the type that I mean:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pakoGI2hl14&w

Alexander Hellene
SEPTEMBER 13, 2020 AT 1:32 AM

Great clip! I LOVE that 30s-style banter because it sounds like ADULTS talking. Not a perpetual adolescent, ostensible adult’s facile impression of how they THINK adults speak.

Does that make sense?

Hardwicke Benthow
SEPTEMBER 13, 2020 AT 1:47 AM

“Does that make sense?”

Yes and no. There’s a difference between 1930s-style banter and that of the more modern variety, but I haven’t analyzed the nuances enough to quantify the precise differences. They both utilize witty comebacks and sarcasm, but there’s a different “flavor” about them. I’ve always found the banter in classic screwball comedies and mysteries particularly delicious.

As someone who is interested in writing period-piece novels with the type of banter seen in that clip, what would be your advice on how to keep banter in that spirit, and to keep it from veering into the Joss Whedon territory that you often criticize?

By the way, that clip is from the first Torchy Blane movie “Smart Blonde” (1937). The actress playing Torchy is Glenda Farrell. Jerry Siegel (co-creator of Superman) revealed that the personality of Lois Lane was inspired specifically by Glenda Farrell’s portrayal, although he separately based Lois’ name on Lola Lane (who also played Torchy Blane, albeit only once as opposed to Farrell’s seven times).

Alexander Hellene
SEPTEMBER 14, 2020 AT 12:26 PM

This is a tough question: what’s the dividing line between banter and snark? For a novel, it *might* be easier to thread the needle, because so much of what makes modern snark so annoying in movies and TV is the smarmy DELIVERY. Contrast something modern with the Torchy Blane clip you shared—in the clip, the characters sound like adults and talk like adults. That’s what I meant.

I suppose there’s also a difference between snarky, sarcastic comments and a witty retort that’s funny, sometimes flirtatious, and also moves the story forward. That sounds like a good thing to keep in mind when crafting such dialogue.

This is a great question, one where the sarcasm versus banter distinction might be impossible to accurately describe. It seems like something you just know when you see or hear it.

I’ll attempt anyway.

Sarcasm/snark is:

  • Constant and in every situation
  • Often relies on bathos (undercutting any serious situation with attempts at humor)
  • Trying too hard
  • Mean, nasty, and petty
  • Intended to hurt
  • Sounds like an adult’s version of what they think teenagers sound like
  • Often has nothing to do with the story; just there for comic relief

Banter is:

  • Situational
  • Often depend on the relationship between the characters
  • If between a man and woman, can be flirtatious and sexy
  • Playful/friendly
  • Sounds like adults talking
  • Typically not insulting
  • Furthers the story

Remember the golden rule of snark:

WHEN IN DOUBT, DON’T USE IT.

Witty comebacks and back-and-forth work better on screen than in print, but can still be used. Just make sure you use them judiciously and when they make sense, both situationally and character-wise.

And always, always, always only use if necessary.


My dialogue is awesome. Don’t listen to me: read the reviews.

13 comments

  1. Banter is also earned, for lack of a better term. E.g. “Casablanca”:

    Rick: And remember, this gun is pointed right at your heart.
    Renault: That is my least vulnerable spot.

    Renault says that after we see him as a calculating bureaucrat for the whole movie. It also helps sell the ending, where he becomes a “sentimentalist” by joining Rick.

    With old movies, there’s also an internal consistency to banter: *of course* a guy named Rick Blaine, who runs the coolest bar in Casablanca, would talk like that, and associate with people who do too.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Oh, that is a GREAT way of putting it. Banter is definitely earned. It depends on the friendship or relationship (which may be a hero/villain or less-serious protagonist/antagonist relationship) to work, but when it works, it supercharges dialogue.

      Sarcasm and snark is just being a jerk and faux clever to impress others. It always comes off as the writer going “Look at me, I’m WRITING! I’m just as good as Quentin Tarantino and Joss Whedon and Diablo Cody!” which they invariably aren’t.

      Have you read my post about Casablanca? Search for it if you haven’t. I think you’d like it.

      And also right on about internal consistency. Imagine if EVERY character was the witty, clever, snarky one…oh wait, that’s everything written by Joss Whedon or John Scalzi.

      Like

  2. I think banter is an invitation into a conversation whereas sarcasm is just designed to shut down communication. Men and women often engage in banter in old movies, usually to connect, relate, duel it out. Sarcasm is usually more about just being jerk to impress your friends. Women tend to enjoy banter in part because we instinctively know sarcasm is just a weapon of the weak and powerless. We people tend to use sarcasm against our elitist political overlords for that very reason.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah GREAT point! In those classic films, and in life, banter between a man and a woman can be very flirty. Sarcasm is just nasty.

      But you’re right that it works against the pompous elite who can’t ever imagine anybody would dare make fun of how awesome they think they are.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I am a big fan of Raymond Chandler, whose Philip Marlowe is the epitome of the wise-cracking hardboiled hero. If you read Chandler’s dialogue, though, you’ll see that Marlowe uses his wit as a tool for investigation.

    His signature smart-ass comments are deliberate, to put people off guard and to anger them into saying unguarded replies that reveal more than they intended. Or he uses them to conceal information, giving people a false impression without actually lying to them.

    Marlowe doesn’t just snark for the sake of snarking–it’s part of how he works. Since he doesn’t have the authority to threaten people with arrest and prosecution, his interrogation technique is based around getting them to let slip information without realizing they are doing it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Alexander

      And banter is similar to comedic timing. You need to be sharp witted and alert to repartee the dialogue like fencers.

      Snark strikes me as socially awkward speakers faking banter and failing.
      They totally misunderstand the intent. It’s to show quick witted charm which humours. Snark is clumsy overcompensation due to a lack of confidence

      xavier

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’s all about timing, both spoken and in print. There’s a rhythm to conversation that many with a tin ear think can be best conveyed as “all snark, all the time.”

        The worst is when snarkiness bleeds into the non-dialogue prose portions of a story. It’s worse than a teenage English student’s first draft.

        Like

  4. In the Screwtape Letters, Screwtape divides laughter into four sources: joy (very bad (for the Father Below)), fun (bad), actual jokes (maybe bad, maybe good), and flippancy (very good). I suspect a lot of the teeth-gnashing at snark is really about flippancy. Here is what Screwtape has to say about flippancy:

    “But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour-plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy: it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practise it.”

    Liked by 1 person

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