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7 Things How I Met Your Mother Can Teach Us About Writing

Categories: Fun, There Are No Rules Blog by the Editors of Writer's Digest Tags: craft/technique.

How I Met Your MotherIf you’re like us on the WD staff (okay, maybe just Brian and I—internet high five!), then you were enthralled, captivated, and head over heels in love with the television show How I Met Your Mother. For nine years, this legend- (wait for it) -dary sitcom was unlike anything else. It could get audiences to roll with laughter, but it also had a soft side. And there were tough moments, like the death of Marshall’s father, where I found myself choking up.

And the show is so unique in its storytelling that it’s hard to see anything else mimicking it and having success. In case you don’t know (and if you don’t, for shame!), the show is essentially told in flashbacks as Ted, in 2030, is describing to his two children how he met their mother. The story arc, all told from Ted’s memory (which allows for some awesome moments and gaps), follows the hijinks of Ted and his friends, Barney, Robin, Lily, and Marshall. And, like any group of friends, they have their inside jokes, stories, and special moments that recur and build over the course of the series. The audience is let into all of these stories and jokes, making it even funnier when something that happens in an early season gets brought up years later. The audience is part of the gang.

With the series finale airing this past Monday night, I couldn’t help but reflect on the past nine years—and realize how incredibly smart the writing is. And there’s more than a little bit any writer can learn from this show. (Major spoilers follow.)

1. Everything Happens for a Reason
This is probably something that Ted, as a hopeless romantic endlessly (to the frustration of his friends) searching for “the one,” would agree with. Almost everything that was used in HIMYM ended up coming back around later. Throughout the series, Barney, who takes the bachelor lifestyle to the extreme, uses a “playbook” full of different pickup lines and schemes to find women. When Barney eventually falls in love with Robin and intends to propose, he uses an extremely elaborate scheme that lasts the course of multiple episodes. Robin finds the last page of his playbook that details this scheme, and she accepts his proposal.

When you introduce something in your novel(s), make sure there’s a reason for it. Yes, Barney had the playbook because he’s juuust a little bit shallow and manipulative, but there ends up being a larger reason for it, too. Consider all of your choices while writing. How can something that seems insignificant now be important later? Don’t add the little details unless they’re important and you plan to use them!

Suit Up

Suit up!

2. Reward Your Readers
HIMYM constantly rewarded its audience for sticking around from the very beginning. This is similar to the previous point. When you drop bread crumbs early in a story, make sure you come back around to them. It keeps things interesting to have a recurring element, particularly in a long series.

In the show, Robin hides the fact that she used to be a teen pop star in Canada. Barney, however, eventually discovers the fact and shares this embarrassment with the rest of the gang. Over the course of the series, they find a couple of her music videos and an educational television program she starred in. The audience never knew when one of these moments was going to pop up in an episode, which made it funnier when it happened. But if we hadn’t known early on that Robin had a secret, or if we missed the episode with the first music video, it would seem pretty random.

Or, in the third season, Ted goes on a date with a girl whose name he can’t remember. So, since he’s telling this story to his children, he replaces the girl’s name with Blah Blah every time. Whenever she’s referred to throughout the rest of the series, she’s called Blah Blah. Finally, in the last season, Ted remembers her name is Carol. This is something I had completely forgotten about over the course of the series, but it was rewarding to finally know this random woman’s name. (And another neat way the frame narrative works for this show!)

So it’s okay to reuse moments or quirky character points from earlier in a novel or a series. In fact, it shows a little humanity in the characters. And it will reward those loyal readers for sticking with a series or paying sharp attention throughout the novel. Remember, all of these little details add up when you use them correctly!

3. Never Write Yourself Into a Corner
One of the glaring mistakes left out of the series finale of HIMYM was a resolution to the pineapple incident. Everything else was neatly wrapped up (though, perhaps not necessarily the way fans would have liked), except this moment. In one of the most watched episodes of the series, Ted is criticized by his friends for over-thinking everything and not just acting on a whim. One thing leads to another and Ted ends up blackout drunk. He wakes up the next morning with a phone number written on his arm, a partially burned jacket, a sprained ankle, a woman he doesn’t know with him in bed, and a pineapple on his nightstand.

Unable to remember anything, Ted is filled in about the night from the perspectives of each of his friends. Together, they’re able to piece together what happened over the course of the night. Except for the pineapple. Thus, the pineapple incident (which is actually the name of this episode from the first season). Ted tells his kids that they never figured out where the pineapple came from. HIMYM writer Carter Bays would later admit that he wrote himself into a corner with that line, and learned to never do it again.

Follow that same advice. Whatever you’re writing (especially if it’s the beginning novel of a series, or a novel you think could have a sequel), don’t kill off story lines, plot points, or characters unless you’re absolutely sure they’re resolved or you’re done with them. Leave yourself some wiggle room if you decide to change something later. Novels and series are always developing and changing as the author writes. So it’s okay to change how you’re attacking something as you write a sequel, or work deeper into a work. Stories take on a life of their own and change. Just don’t leave something unresolved or inaccessible later.

No one wants an unexplained pineapple sitting around, no matter how delicious they are.

4. Use Smaller, Compelling Story Arcs
Part of the beauty of writing is weaving multiple story arcs together. You usually have the one, overarching goal/theme/question/story, but there’s so many other tiny ones, too. And these smaller story arcs can be just as compelling as the others. In a seemingly off subject digression that is actually appropriate because Star Wars is Ted and Marshall’s favorite movie, Luke Skywalker didn’t set out to find his father; he wanted to defeat the Empire alongside the Rebel Alliance. But throwing in the twist that Darth Vader is his father added a little extra oomph to the story.

Take advantage of the numerous details you’ve added throughout your writing to create other compelling plot points. Give your main character secondary goals, or expand on a secondary character’s story. Having these extra arcs can create good tension and keep the reader on his toes at the same time.

Lily, Marshall, Barney

Acknowledge your readers and reward them with the highest of fives.

In HIMYM, there are tons of these little story arcs. One of my personal favorites is Barney and Marshall’s slap bet. When the gang discovers Robin doesn’t like going to malls (actually, this ties back into her time as a pop star in Canada—see how cool details are?), Barney and Marshall make a slap bet over why. When Marshall wins, Barney is given the option to take ten consecutive slaps immediately, or have five be delivered at any time Marshall decides. He chooses the second option, which leads to random moments where Marshall will slap Barney, as well as hilarious episodes like “Slapsgiving.” The slaps often come without warning, but the audience is always waiting for the next one. Compelling and rewarding!

5. Tragedy is Compelling
It’s easy to see that Ted is a tragic character. He’s a hopeless romantic searching for true love that doesn’t seem to exist. He’s left at the altar. He falls in love with his best friend, who doesn’t really return the same feelings. He spends years and years searching for the one, only to find her, have two kids with her, and watch her fall ill and pass. Almost nothing ever goes right for him.

And as sappy (and sometimes annoying) as Ted can get, he’s compelling. We want to see him find the one. We want to see him finally find happiness. In many ways, he (and some of the other characters) becomes a caricature of himself by the end of the series. But his character kept the audience going. Even as the show started to decline, fans still watched.

Not all of your characters need to be tragic, but they should all be relatable, in some way. Sprinkling in some tragedy here and there for the important ones only makes it better. You need to make your readers care about these characters. One of the best ways to do that is to tug at those emotional chords. And once you have your readers hooked, you’ve got them.

6. Endings Are Hard
Coming up with a perfect ending is nearly impossible. You will always have readers and fans that disagree with your decisions and criticize you for how you wrap something up. And as hard as it is to wrap up a single story, imagine an entire series. You need to make sure everything is finished. No more open doors (unless you’re planning more books, but then it’s not really finished, is it?).

But the hardest thing is getting the ending right. Mainly because you just don’t want to get it wrong. I’m not saying HIMYM got its series ender wrong. Yes, finding out the mother had passed away was heartbreaking, especially since the audience had grown to know her in the final season. And Ted ending up with Robin, when it seemed like for nine years he was meant to not be with Robin, was frustrating. But in many ways, it made sense, for the show. Ted had his true love. He learned life and love isn’t always perfect. And he decides to give it one more shot with someone he does care about. The episode wrapped up almost everything in the series (damn you pineapple!) and circled around to so many of the inside jokes and even the very first episode. But it just felt unsatisfying, in some way. The door still felt open. It just felt off.

I think the easiest solution to an ending is just to go with the logical choice. Don’t go for a big, “in your face” ending. But you also don’t want it to be weak. There’s a natural balance. And, I think, deep down writers always know what the ending to their story is. Go with that first instinct. And don’t change it. Just make sure you wrap everything up first.

The Gang

Bring the reader back to something familiar, a constant.

7. Circularity
A lot of these points all tie together. But I think that’s because HIMYM was tied together in such a unique way.  At the end of your story, you might want to consider bringing everything back around in a nice circle. In most novels, that means wrapping it up by ending that overarching story arc. There’s closure. I think you can also take it a step further with a scene that recalls back to the beginning of the story, or some sort of grounding point.

Most episodes of HIMYM used places like Ted and Marshall/Marshall and Lily’s apartment, or MacLaren’s Pub as a grounding point. Episodes would often start and end there. It felt familiar and provided circularity for each episode. Plus, that’s how it works in real life, too. Groups of friends have hangout spots. There’s a little extra realness sprinkled in there.

And the series ends with a nearly identical scene from the pilot episode. Ted steals the same blue french horn that he stole after their first date, which Robin had admired. In the pilot, he presented the horn to her and confessed his love for her (after one date!!). She rejects him. In the finale, he’s just seen holding it, below Robin’s apartment as she looks on in awe from her window as the screen cuts to black. While this is far from a perfect (or ideal) ending, it does tie everything together. Ted is still the hopeless romantic. Robin still finds Ted’s romance attractive. Nothing has changed from the first episode, but everything has changed. They’ve both grown for years, even if the audience only had minutes to digest it (an obvious flaw within the construct of a television show).

It does, unfortunately, leave the proverbial door open.

Just remember not to do that. But don’t stress the endings. Remember to be careful with the details, they’ll make or break your story. And, for God’s sake, don’t mess up the pineapple!

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One Response to 7 Things How I Met Your Mother Can Teach Us About Writing

  1. theconq says:

    I’m gonna go ahead and disagree, but only slightly. Leaving a few plot threads hanging isn’t always a bad thing. Too much closure, and well, the story will never end. (How do Lily and Marshall die? Where do Ted’s kids go to school? Will Barney ever remarry?) That’s not to say the major plot points shouldn’t be addressed. But surely a couple pineapples won’t ruin the basket?

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