Episode 2.12 - Performances
Updated: Jun 17
This week, we’ll be talking about an old writing adage: Show, don’t tell.
A lot of writers get annoyed by this advice because all writing is telling. It’s words on a page. But there are ways to make it feel like you’re showing your audience something, rather than telling it to them, and those methods are actually better understood by watching an actor’s performance, rather than reading it.
The opening montage of this episode is a really, really good example of it. Future Ted is doing a voiceover in which he narrates the steps of Robin falling in love. B-roll is Robin going through those steps. But here’s a cool disconnect: What Ted is describing is not what Robin is going through.
He says, “there’s the moment when you think you think it”.
Ted saves Robin from a spider, but she doesn’t pause and say, “huh I think I might be in love”. She kisses him and pauses and looks at him and swallows hard enough that the camera catches it. Her smile is a little tight, her movements a little stilted.
As the audience, we can see that she’s nervous. She’s experiencing something new and unfamiliar, but Ted hasn’t told us, “Robin was feeling nervous, experiencing something new and unfamiliar”. He told us of a feeling everyone feels and Robin showed us how that feeling looks on her.
He says, “there’s the moment when you know it, but you aren’t ready to say it yet”.
They’re on the phone and are saying their goodbyes when Robin blurts out, “wait, Ted?” and then she hesitates, bites her lower lip, takes a deep breath, and says “Goodnight!” really loudly and hangs up without waiting for an answer. Then she grimaces and flinches.
Her acting choices here show us what she’s feeling. She’s nervous (blurting stuff out) and embarrassed (hanging up really fast) and then wishing she could do it differently (grimacing).
All of this is showing. Which, like I said, is easier to do with actors than it is with words on the page. If you read the transcript of the show, none of this is on there. It’s just words on a page.
So how do you make those words on a page feel more like they’re showing rather than telling?
There are a few steps:
Eliminate as many “feeling” words as possible. This is easier done on revision than on drafting, in my experience (YMMV). Every time you come across a feeling, you replace it with how an actor would demonstrate that feeling in a performance. “Ted was so excited to see the Empire State Building” is pretty boring. But, “Ted bounced lightly on the balls of his feet, his eyes bright, a grin on his face, while he rattled off trivia about the Empire State Building, nudging everyone toward the front of the line.” shows that excitement without ever mentioning it directly.
Be careful with generic actions. “His heart pounded in his chest” doesn’t do a lot for us as the audience. Is he scared? Nervous? Excited? In love? Just received crushing news? EXERCISING? Sometimes context can give your audience enough information for these types of descriptions, but usually not. Here’s a good rule of thumb: if you’re using a body part to “show” an emotion, pull the sentence out of context and see if that emotion is still clear. (brows, eyes, lips, gut, heart, etc).
Avoid “seeming” interpretations. If your POV character is constantly having to guess at how other people are feeling and you’re relying on “Marshall seemed gloomy” you might want to consider a POV change or, at the very least, dig in a little more to why your POV character thinks that this other person is gloomy. Keep Marshall in the scene, show him frowning and pulling away from Lily. Show him overreacting to small things, using a sarcastic voice to hide his hurt. Nobody has to guess at what Marshall is feeling, and Marshall never tells us. It’s clear by his actions: he’s showing us.
Pick strong verbs and eliminate most adverbs. “Robin spoke nervously” is telling. “Robin stammered, taking deep breaths in between her words, her brow furrowed, and she bit her lip when she was done” shows us that she’s very nervous and she’s trying to control the display of emotion.
Why would you want to do this?
It feels more immersive.
It feels more immediate.
It gives your audience an opportunity to interpret the characters’ actions and feelings, rather than being spoon-fed that information. Your audience wants to feel smart, not like they’re being talked down to.
It beefs up your word count.
Oh yeah. Let’s talk about word count.
“Robin spoke nervously” is 3 words.
“Robin stammered, taking deep breaths in between her words, her brow furrowed, and she bit her lip when she was done” is 21.
If you’re an under-writer, especially in drafting, showing-not-telling can almost certainly fix that. It works with setting, too. Take the following example:
“The beach was hot and sunny.” - 6 words
“Sunlight sparkled off the waves, blinding Robin as she sat on her towel, sweat dripping down her spine despite the lightweight linen shirt she wore.” - 25 words
This isn’t purple prose; there’s only one adjective in that entire sentence. Showing-not-telling beefs up your word count while still making the prose feel more intimate and immediate.
Another good example from the end of the episode:
Marshall finally says, “we were only in the lobby, it doesn’t count” and Lily spins around, her eyebrows high, her mouth wide open in a gasp, a grin forming. She grabs his lapels and smiles at him. She is clearly delighted, but if a writer had said, “Lily turned to Marshall, delighted.” it would fall flat. Describe your character’s feelings with a performer’s actions, whenever possible.
Writing Prompt: Pick one of the reactions in this episode, any of them (maybe the moment everyone hears Barney’s real virginity story???) and describe it in prose without using any emotion-words.