The use of banter between two characters trying to fight or avoid their attraction to each other is a strong device in romance novels, and if this is an area you’re not familiar with I suggest you read a few and see how other writers do it. ‘Banter’ can be used to refer to flirting, teasing, even a heated debate if it’s already been made clear the characters would rather be ripping off the others’ clothes than their head. Whatever the context, banter is witty, fast-paced dialogue with a sexual edge. You can make this sexual aspect quite clear with the use of flirting or innuendo, or subtle with the use of subtext.
How do your characters flirt? Think about their personalities and don’t make your heroine turn into a pouty-lipped giggling hair flicker if she’s usually quiet and serious, or a ballsy no-nonsense kind of gal, or your down-to-earth guy metamorphoses into Mr Charmer. Let your characters lead.
Sexual tension between characters often arises due to some interpersonal conflict between them. This may be because of the situation they’re in, one a cop, the other a fugitive, to give an obvious example much beloved of Hollywood screenwriters, but is at its most effective when there is a conflict between their personality types. As we all know, opposites attract. If for example one character is naturally flirtatious while the other finds them frivolous – but is secretly enjoying their attentions – you’ve set the scene for some witty, sexy repartee that will positively have the pages smoking. Especially if the more flirtatious character then begins to up the ante on purpose in order to get a rise out of the other. Just don’t keep this going on indefinitely or the bantering soon begins to read like bickering, and this isn’t sexy.
Innuendo is a great way of injecting an element of simmering sexual attraction into a conversation without the characters blatantly saying ‘I really fancy you.’ An innuendo is a phrase that means something completely ordinary in the context of the conversation, but can also be taken as implying something else – usually sexual. It can be used deliberately as in the example above to get a rise out of the other character, or you could have your story person say something suggestive without meaning to, only realising from the surprised or interested reaction.
The only thing to be careful of is that your dialogue doesn’t become too obvious, with your innuendoes becoming blatantly sexual in a 1970’s skin flick kind of way. No ‘gun in the pocket’ jokes, please.
Sub-text is a subtler way to show tension of any kind in dialogue – it’s the reading between the lines, what the characters don’t say – and it only works in the context of what has gone before. For example, look at this simple exchange;
John ‘I’ve always liked to dance.’
Jane ‘I remember.’
This could mean anything. John and Jane could be old friends having a casual conversation at a school reunion, with no further implications. However if we already know that John and Jane are old flames that are still attracted to each other, and that this is the first time they’ve seen each other since a brief night at a friend’s wedding where John asked Jane for dance that turned steamy and ended up with him sweeping her out of the ballroom onto a balcony for a passionate embrace, then the exchange takes on a different meaning. We know they are now both thinking of that last frenzied embrace, and that the tension is growing between them. What isn’t said can be as powerful as what is.