9 Things “How I Met Your Mother” Taught Me About Storytelling

After nine seasons, my favorite TV sitcom came to an end last night. After years of twists and turns, Ted Mosby finally met the love of his life and his couch-bound children found out how their father met their mother. For my generation, the CBS comedy has become is cultural touchstone. With its intricate web of puzzle pieces, flashbacks within flashbacks, callbacks and catchphrases, “How I Met Your Mother” chronicled the ups and downs of dating, friendship and twenty-somethinghood in the 21st century.

It also hooked us for one of the longest stories in television. Every episode of its nine-year run brought us one step closer to the ultimate goal: discovering how Ted would meet his future wife, the mysterious Girl With the Yellow Umbrella. While I disagree with the way the writers ultimately chose to end it, the final episode got me thinking about all the clever storytelling devices HIMYM used to spin the tale of one man’s quest for marital bliss.

So, in honor of the finale of the show, here are 9 Things “How I Met Your Mother” taught me about storytelling. Warning: May Contain Spoilers.

"I kept it concise and to the point."9) Kids, I’m going to tell you an incredible story…

When it comes to narration, first person is hard to pull off, but this show did it right. Most episodes of HIMYM are narrated for us by Future Ted. What could’ve been a boring voice that simply related events as they were happening was instead used to great effect to highten the emotion of a scene, provide transitions, draw parallels, provide punchlines and provide a counterpoint to the action. HIMYM’s narrator can see the arc of events to remind us where we’re headed. But he is also an unreliable narrator, mixing up the order of stories, clashing with reality and being biased toward his red cowboy boots, which provided another layer or humor and depth.

8) Haaave you met Ted?

Snappy dialogue is one of the hallmarks of HIMYM. The character’s exchanges are lighning quick and loaded with profound meaning and razor sharp wit. The great writing is what really set the show apart from everything else on at 8 pm on a Monday night. Your dialogue should sizzle. Have fun with it and let your characters play with language. If your descriptions are beautiful, but your dialogue feels stale, canned or otherwise uninteresting, you need to rewrite. Great dialogue can carry much of the plot.

7) Blue French Horn

Part of the fun of HIMYM is in the way the show recalls things that have happened in the past. Audience members paying attention will remember the reference and understand the joke. Some things come back again and again to pay off. Calling back to something that happened waaaay back in chapter two is a good way to keep readers engaged and clue them in that everything is important to the bigger picture. Those little things should be a part of your ending, forming a neat little bookend to your story. When you’re wrapping up your story, look for clues to the eventual resolution in the seeds that you planted back at the beginning; it will feel more satisfying than a resolution that comes out of nowhere.

6) Come again for Big Fudge?

Sure, the story is about Ted, but the writers of HIMYM also fleshed out the supporting characters. They provided backstories, motivations and asides for Marshall, Lily, Robin and Barney that made them feel like real people. They had hopes and dreams beyond being stock characters or one-liner delivering stereotypes. Even Barney, the player of the group, changed over the years and eventually settled down. You have to allow all of your characters to be three-dimensional, not just your protagonist. Giving your minor characters room to grow and change over the course of the narrative gives your story more realism.

5) The Bro Code

In the show, Barney lives his life by the Bro Code, a set of rules that govern the behavior of men. Barney had a rule to cover any situation from how a wingman must conduct himself (ie. “A bro shall always say ‘yes’”) to complicated dating prcedures (ie. “the mom of a bro is always off-limits”). Similarly, the universe your story builds should have a set of guiding principles. Clear rules about what can and cannot happen in your tale will help you fashion an internally-consistent world.

4) The Mother

Throughout the show, we have always known where we would eventually wind up. From the outset, we knew that Ted would be successful in his search for true love. We knew the goal, but we didn’t know how we would get there or who the unnammed Mother was until the very end. All we had were hints scattered along the way like breadcrumbs. When you’re writing, you should know the end and leave hints to help your reader connect the dots.

3)The Slap of a Thousand Exploding Suns

Even the best storytellers get off track now and then. HIMYM was a great television sitcom. It broke new ground with a bold format, but sometimes it got a little too confident. In later seasons, elaborate fantasy sequences (many of them either musical or parodying famous movies) and out-of-character moments weighed heavily on the show. Barney became the star of the show, which started to rely too heavily on its gimmicks and once starry-eyed romantic Ted slumped into pity-party jerk Ted. Far too many episodes went by without the merest hint of the elusive Mother.

Some of the later season outings are hard to watch because the show wandered too far from what it did well. Watch your step as your write your story, to make sure you stay true to what you’ve promised your readers. It’s all too easy to jump the shark. As for throwing in a surprise twist ending? Probably best to avoid it.

2) Wait for it…

The writers of HIMYM understood that suspense keeps your audience coming back. By raising the stakes, dropping a tantilyzing clue or stopping just short of a big reveal, they kept us returning every week for nine years. Thoughtfully crafted suspense and mystery is the key to writing a pageturner, no matter what your genre is. By withholding information and releasing it strategically, your readers won’t be able to put your story down. They’ll care about what happens and want to know how what happens to the characters you’ve created.

1) Love the Journey

In all honesty, Ted probably could’ve told the short version of how he met his wife (involving a yellow umbrella and a series of missed connections) in about ten minutes. But the longform nature of the story, with its tangents and embellishments along the way, is infinitely more satisfying.

By taking our time and letting the story go where it leads, we got to learn about Marshall and Lily starting a family, Barney letting go of his bachelor lifestyle and Robin struggling to balance her personal life with her demanding career. By taking the slow path instead of the fast lane, we were treated to intimate moments and great laughs shared by a close group of friends. The McLaren’s gang feels like family because of how the story was told. We didn’t skip to the end. We lived with the conflict and experienced the setback.

The story itself took on a life of its own. That’s why it isn’t just another show about a group of friends who hang out in a bar. The writers made sure that the journey was just as worthwhile as the destination. They made us care about the characters and not just about the solution to the premise. That’s what makes it so hard to say goodbye. And it’s something we should all remember when, like Ted, we sit down to tell our own story.

— 30 —

Jonny Eberle is a writer in Tacoma, WA. When he isn’t wondering how he will fill the Monday night void in his life, you can find him on Twitter. Thanks for reading!

%d bloggers like this: