Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Writing Lessons from the Finale of How I Met Your Mother

Last night, we all gathered around our televisions to watch the end of a TV show many of us hold near and dear to our hearts. Tissues boxes at hand, we were prepared for the stream of tears which usually are a result of saying goodbye to characters whom we now consider to be friends.

If you are anything like me, you ended up having tears in your eyes, but not because you were sad. Oh no. It was because you were angry.

Naturally, I'm talking about the finale of How I Met Your Mother.

I know there are people who liked the finale, which is fine. However, I've found a majority of the people I have talked to are much more like me. We're mad.

In case you haven't figured out, this blog post will contain spoilers. I'm going to do my best to not have spoilers and speak generally, however, who knows if that'll actually happen. If you haven't watched the finale, you can hold off on reading this post. You can read this later. This is the internet - nothing goes away. My blog will be here when you're done watching.

I know there are probably a ton of people creating reaction videos and articles about the finale. It was pretty controversial and with a show this popular and had been running for so long, there's going to be a lot of different reactions and views on how it should have ended. Therefore, instead of writing something ranty and angry, I'm going to go a different route.

Writing Lesson from the Finale of How I Met Your Mother

Story and Character Arcs

A huge part of writing a story is creating arcs for the plot and the characters. You start in one place, the story and the characters grow and change, and they end up somewhere different. Somehow at the end of the story, your characters (especially the main character, your protagonist), are different than they were in the beginning. If your characters are in the same place as they were at the start of the story, you've done something wrong.

This doesn't mean the characters change and become completely different people. At heart, they are still the same person. However, there has been some sort of change. Some sort of growth. Think about it, even in real life we aren't the same as we were when we were born. As we get older and have different experiences, we grow and change.  This might not mean we have grown and changed for the better, but the growth and change is there.

The story works the same way. If your plot is in the same place as it was in the beginning of the story, you've done something wrong, and the story was probably really boring.

Here's a nice diagram in which this is kind of explained.
I personally feel as though the characters and the plot of How I Met Your Mother regressed at the end. The characters had been growing throughout the nine seasons of the show. The plot evolved and changed. It was awesome. I loved seeing how each of the characters were the same people at heart, but still grew as people. Then... in a single episode I felt like so much of it backtracked and progress was hardly made. Especially for Ted. He was in the same place as he was in episode one.

Some may argue "But that's realistic! Sometimes people don't change and we regress!"

Valid point. However, while good stories many time reflect "real life", telling a story is different than actually living life. Therefore, the writers need to approach it this way.

Plot Driven vs. Character Driven

I actually had a long conversation about this point with a friend just the other day. A lot of TV shows, movies, and books lately are very much driven by plot. How many plot twists they can put into their story and see what happens. In a way, this works. It keeps the audience interested and the story keeps moving. Also - you need plot to create a story. Otherwise you have a bunch of characters just sitting around and it's completely boring.

However, if your entire story is based on plot twists and turns, it's pretty weak. You need good characters to really have a strong story. I felt like How I Met Your Mother was good at this. Plot twists happened. Things turned in directions we didn't expect. Yet, it all was focused on the characters and their relationships. It was the characters who influenced the plot in most cases, not the other way around.

Until the last episode. Basically, it was all just a bunch of plot twists.

Write With the End in Mind

From what I've heard, the creators of How I Met Your Mother knew what the ending was going to be eight years ago. It was even filmed. That's great. It's awesome. I know when I write, if I don't know how I want it to end, I'm lost. I also can tell in other stories when the writer wasn't sure how they wanted it to end. The rest of the story was disjointed.

As this last season closed, I loved how all of the pieces from all of the other seasons fell together. It was seamless and fantastic. It was so much fun to see how everything worked together.

Then, in the last 20 minutes (or less) they turned everything on it's head and it fell apart. Basically, everything the show was pointing to didn't matter anymore. If you are going to do something like that, you need to have the rest of the story pointing to it as well.

Shock for the Sake of Shock

This is a huge pet peeve of mine lately in movies, TV, and books lately and it goes back a bit to the plot driven vs. character driven point. I feel as though a lot of writers are putting in crazy plot twists simply for the sake of being different or having some sort of shock factor. There is nothing wrong with a crazy plot twist and being different. It can show creativity and how unexpected life can be.

However, when you're writing a story your plot twist needs to have a purpose. If there isn't a point to it, then it shows lack of creativity. Actually, it also shows the writers don't have confidence in their story or their audience. If having a major shock factor is the main thing driving the story, there's something wrong.

In my opinion, the feel of the final episode was very much just about shock factor. Also, I felt like it was deceptive to the audience. There's a difference between plot twists and deceiving your audience. It might work for shows such as Lost or something, but not How I Met Your Mother. (Not that I've watched Lost so I could be totally off on that point.)

Be Flexible

As I mentioned before, from what I've heard the ending of How I Met Your Mother was planned from the beginning. That's awesome! However, over the course of 9 years, the characters and the show evolved and changed. Which is a good thing. I can't tell you how many times I've begun a story and then as I've gone on writing, it becomes something completely different than I had originally planned.

Sometimes this means I have to change my ending.

That's the creative process. Maybe when the show first began this ending was perfect. However, by the last episode it felt as though so much of it had been pointless and just filler for the big plot twists.

You need to learn how to be flexible when things are going a new direction.

Keep the Heart

When you read or watch a good story you get a sense of it's heart. I think of Harry Potter and if people ask "what is it about?" you can have two different types of answers. One answer would be "Harry Potter is about a boy who finds out he's a wizard, goes to wizard school, and has to defeat an evil wizard." The other answer would be "It's about love, sacrifice, growing up, learning, social issues, friendship, family..."

Do you see what I mean?

You can have a ton of twists and turns and great plot devices and fantastic characters to a story, but you also need to have the heart of it. What's the story really about? How I Met Your Mother had this awesome heart to the story with the friendships, navigating adulthood, and ultimately - meeting the mother. Meeting the love of your life. Never giving up hope.

Yes, the finale did do this to an extent. And when it was done well - it was awesome! Then there were other moments when I felt like they completely forgot what the point of the show even was and threw it out the window.

All in all, I have to become Mr. Knightly from Emma and say "Badly done How I Met Your Mother. Badly done."

I know there are probably a ton of people who liked the finale- which is fine. However, I think you can tell I did not like it. After nine years of an excellent show, they could have done much better and been more true to the heart of the story.

Also- I'm going to be honest. I'm slightly terrified to post this because I have no idea how people will react.

Also (again)- This article is a fantastic reaction. http://time.com/44702/how-i-met-your-mother-finale-review/


  1. I haven't seen it - I gave up watching it somewhere in early season 7, because the network that airs it here were dicking around with the scheduling (so it would be a new episode one week, then three weeks of reruns, then they'd move the time by half an hour and show two new episodes, then they'd pull it off the air for a month, then they'd bring it back but change the day, and alternate between new episodes and reruns and ARGH). But everything I've seen and heard seems like classic Steven Moffat "look how clever I am" writing in which the characters are destroyed for the sake of a plot twist.

    When I saw the first ranty stuff appearing on Tumblr, I was secretly hoping for the fandom's sake that it was an April Fools joke and that the real series finale would air next week...

    1. I would have given up in season 7 too if I were you! But hopefully it all will be on Netflix soon, so if you ever decide to pick it up again it'll be there.

      And yeah.. it was very Moffat-y. Gross.

      And I also was hoping it was an April fools joke. That would have been awesome.

  2. You have summed up everything I tried to say in a ranty note on Facebook in a much more erudite and sophisticated way. I love it so much. Can I link to this post in a comment on my note? Please?

    1. I don't think I've ever been called erudite before. Sweet! And go for it! Share away!

  3. I am a few episodes behind but I did hear today that lots of people were mad! I must catch up soon!
    Missie @ A Flurry of Ponderings

    1. Other than the finale I really enjoyed the last season!

  4. Oh. My. Goodness! Don't even get me started!

    1) They showcase the mother in this season just enough to get us to love her and then pull her away so quickly! It's so disrespectful!
    2) Season 9 was dedicated to Barney and Robin's wedding. It was a good season, but you're telling me that after all of that they get divorced after three years!? And it's all discussed in a matter of minutes!?
    3) Um, some development on Lily would have been great!
    4) What was up with Robin's hair at the end!?
    5) PINEAPPLE! No closure on the pineapple!

  5. We talked about this a bit on Twitter last night.

    The more I've thought about it, the more disappointed I've been in the finale. I wonder if the creators boxed themselves into a corner by filming and writing the ending back when the show started, and yeah, didn't really allow for the organic growth of the characters over the years.

    I don't like that they had us fall in love with a character, only to have that character turn out to essentially be a plot development, instead of a complete character.

    And let's not even get me started on the portrayal of women in the finale.


    I'm trying to not let it impact my overall opinion of the series. They had the opportunity to do something great. But the missed the mark. So completely.

  6. I agree about being underwhelmed by the finale episode. Actually I was a little confused??? It just felt strange and ill fitting to me.

  7. I was just talking about this with a friend at work!! I was so disappointed with the show's ending!!

  8. I started to write up a review post on the finale but I just couldn't get through it. I was too disappointed to put my thoughts into writing. How could they screw up after 9 great seasons?! I agree with your points completely. WHY did they have to do what they did?! WHYYYYY??

  9. Great post and great points. I was frustrated with the finale mostly because they made me ok with Robin and Barney getting married and then they broke them up two minutes later. These things need some consistency man!

  10. I love your points on the episode and I'm with you in saying "Badly Done!"


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