Episode 2.8 - Pared-Down
Updated: Jun 17
This episode opens up with Lily and Marshall eating pancakes and Lily assumes that she and Marshall are gonna get married. Marshall coaches her through a proposal and it is agreed that they will get married.
Then they have sex on the kitchen floor, of course.
And then they realize that they have to face their families and tell them that the wedding is back on, after they spent months disappointing people. Lily freaks out and suggests eloping to Atlantic City. They collect the gang - Robin and Ted from work (Ted hesitates and then asks the gang to not include that in future tellings of the story) and Barney from a salon. While there, the gang all gets pedicures and then heads to Atlantic City.
Everyone runs into the casino and a guy in a suit greets Barney by name, implying that Barney is in Atlantic City all the time.
For most of Act II, Lily and Marshall go through a series of try-fail cycles to get married: they ask to be married and are told no because they don’t have a license, then they try to get a license but are told a judge isn’t available, they try to harass a judge into giving them one but Barney messes that up for them, they try to find a ship captain to marry them in international waters but they need $5,000 for it.
Barney says he can guarantee that he will win at a game of chance, the Chinese game Xing Hai Shi Bu Xing (which is Chinese for “Deal or No Deal”, as a funny aside).
Here’s where we get to this week’s principle: Pared-Down Worldbuilding Techniques
Most of HIMYM is set in a familiar setting: modern-day New York City. Or, rather, a sitcom version of modern-day New York City where coincidences abound and reactions are disproportionate, you know.
But this game is complicated and played in a language that the average viewer doesn’t understand. It’s a game none of us have ever heard of, and would probably slow the narrative way down for it to be explained to us.
The writers, instead, take some worldbuilding shortcuts here. They do a few things to help us understand what’s happening.
They give us a guide. Barney knows how to play this game. He’s our guide into this world.
A corollary to this: they admit that our narrator is not the guide. Future Ted admits that he still doesn’t understand how the game is played. This lets him off the hook for explaining it and allows the narrative to move forward without the exposition.
They give us a stable mix of the familiar and the strange. We, the audience, understand cards, chips, tiles, spinning wheels. Those elements are all familiar to us. But mixed together? Now we’re less sure of how this works. Then when you introduce musical chairs and a line of beautiful girls in cocktail dresses hiding jelly beans in their hands . . . we really don’t know how it works. But we can roll with the strange mix and the weird twist at the end because the rest of it feels familiar.
They give us universal context clues. A man gets up from the table, throwing his hands up in exasperation. Another man drops his face onto the table, pounding the table with his fists. We understand that they’ve gone bust without having to understand the game at all.
They have one person explain one tiny part of the game (or world). Marshall tells Barney to “split your tiles, you can triple your money if you find the jellybean”. This is all gobbledygook to the audience, except the “triple your money” part. We understand that much. But this explanation really does three things:
It gives a layman’s explanation for the audience. We don’t actually know if this game calls them “tiles” or if there’s a game-specific term for them. It doesn’t matter. It’s been explained to us in a language we can understand.
It gives Barney a chance to doubt the advice, but then he ends up taking it. That reinforces the audience’s understanding of what’s happening. If Marshall had given the advice, and Barney took it unquestioningly, we might think “Oh that was a lucky guess.” By having Barney doubt it, rethink his doubt, and then accept the advice, it’s been given proper weight within the context of the situation.
It validates the game. If it was just a confusing game with no explanation, the audience would walk away from this scene feeling unsatisfied. But because a regular person (Marshall) was able to observe and understand the game, the audience gets the sense that it’s valid and real and has observable, learnable rules.
Then they’re on a boat (in front of a green screen gone pretty wrong, honestly), where the exploitative ship captain starts marrying them. Robin hints that maybe she’d be willing to get married someday, but that gets swept aside pretty quickly as Lily and Marshall realize they don’t want to elope. They want their families there.
The ship captain accidentally marries them, so this is the FIRST time they get married.
So let’s talk about all these tips in the context of your world and your story. Obviously, a slow and methodical buildup of your world is preferred. If you’ve ever read a successful SFF series, you’ll notice that the world gets richer and more detailed over time, and that’s the expectation. But if you just do not have 100,000 words to spare, you might need to get down to the nitty gritty super fast. Maybe the world isn’t the story, and you need to get to the story faster. You might need to take some shortcuts, eliminating the stuff that isn’t important. Here’s the summary of those shortcuts again:
Give your audience a guide.
Give a stable mix of the familiar and the strange.
Give universal context clues.
Give a layman’s explanation, preferably not by your guide.
Now let’s break them all down.
Give your audience a guide. This can be accomplished in a bunch of different ways.
Probably the most common is a fish-out-of-water POV character standing in for the audience being literally guided around by another character. Ted is being guided by Barney in this episode. Bella is guided around the vampire world by Edward. Gandalf literally guides the hobbits out of the Shire and into the big world, where exemplars of each race explain the world to them. Harry views Hogwarts through a muggle’s eyes, since he wasn’t raised in the magical world, and Ron and Hagrid mostly act as his guide. Luke is a “nobody” who has to learn about the Force on the fly from Obi Wan.
An omniscient narrator (like in the Narnia or Lemony Snicket books) can believably pause and explain things to the audience.
Maps at the front of the book, character lists at the back, or epistolary entries on each chapter/section can stand in for a character guide.
Give a stable mix of the familiar and the strange. You’ll need to take your audience’s age into account here, but let’s assume that they are smart for their age. Assume they understand normal world things. In this episode, it’s the elements of gambling. In most SFF, it’s non-plot elements: horses, archery, castles, pirate ships, etc. You don’t need to explain any of these things unless there is a plot reason for it. But when you’re introducing non-normal elements (like a magic system, a social hierarchy that isn’t analogous to our world, fantasy creatures, science fiction technology, etc) you want to slow down and explain it a little more carefully.
BUT. You need a balance. Whenever I read stories by very young, very new writers, they tend to throw everything strange in that they can think of. Mermaid-vampire-ghosts are battling against the demigod-zombie-wizard armies in space! It’s too much, you can’t explain it all fast enough. Pick a few strange elements and explain them well and only when you need to, keeping more familiar elements in the story to keep your audience grounded.
Give universal context clues. Even in a strange new world, you hopefully have very relatable characters who feel the same things your reader feels. This ties in with the classic advice of “show, don’t tell.” Describe the way your characters are reacting to something new and strange, and it gives your audience a better sense of what they’re dealing with.
Give a layman’s explanation, preferably not by your guide. When your guide explains things to the audience, it feels like exposition. There is a time and place for that, but it definitely should not be all the time. Especially if you are trying to shortcut worldbuilding, trying to get to the story faster, having a non-expert explain things in a way your audience can easily understand will often be the faster way to do it. If #3 is “show, don’t tell” then #4 is “tell when you need to, but really dumb it down fast”.
Writing Prompt: Write a short story in which your characters play a game that isn't universal. Describe the elements of the game that need to be explained, but keep the focus on the story itself.