What the Finale of How I Met Your Mother Can Teach Us about Writing

Monday night, CBS ended the long-running series How I Met Your Mother with a much-hyped finale. The way the series ended brought to mind a major point about writing.

Series finales are always heavily-contested. For one, people have come to know and love the characters and will miss them. In the case of How I Met Your Mother, the finale is the entire narrative structure of the show, the meeting of the mother. Viewers are conflicted. They want to see the climax, but their relationship with the characters is over. It’s a tough position for a series writer, because there isn’t a follow-up episode to redeem any mistakes. This is the same situation you face as a fiction writer. If you haven’t seen the show yet, and spoilers matter to you, do not go any further.

Judging from the overall reaction, mistakes were made. Ted showing up at Robin’s door with the blue horn makes sense logically. It brings the story back to the beginning in a circular way that often works in shorter narratives. However, it isn’t the right ending, and looking at the final episode, the writers should have known it.

This is not a two hour film or a 400 page novel. This is eight years. The audience has grown, the writers have grown, and the characters have grown along with them. Still, the writers of How I Met Your Mother attempted to tack on the ending they always had in mind. That was their mistake, and we can learn from it.

You can have an ending planned for your story. Almost everyone does. Only the most dedicated pantser wanders aimlessly. Certainly, with the format of the show, they had an idea of how they wanted it to end. However, writing is organic. Stories don’t behave. They don’t conform to plans. Over eight years, even the slightest deviation can cause major changes. That is a good thing. The story should change, and you should follow it to the ending that it demands.

Many things had changed and developed for the characters in How I Met Your Mother. Perhaps the characters who changed the least were Marshall and Lilly, but there were substantial changes for Ted, Robin, and Barney. For the most part, the series finale was a celebration of those changes. Ted found the woman he had been waiting for. Barney found the one person who could fulfill his life. Robin became the respected journalist she came to New York to be. Her last regrets about Ted seemed less like love and more like logical yearning for a life that could have been. They could have easily been tied up with her coming to the wedding and acknowledging that life had turned out the best for all of them.

It would have been true to life. It wouldn’t have tied things up perfectly, but that is how time treats you. The things you thought you wanted turn out to be the things you never needed, and the things you never imagined wanting become the things you can’t imagine your life without. That was Barney’s journey, ending with the birth of his daughter. Of course, Barney wasn’t hamstringed by a pre-planned ending that the writers thought they needed, but was no longer right for the story. Much like Ted’s feelings for Robin, the writers thought it was the conclusion they wanted, but over eight years they had outgrown it.

Instead of accepting that growth and realizing that the cute ending they planned was not the ending their story demanded, they forced the story back onto the original track at the last moment. The result was an ending that robbed audiences of the emotional catharsis they would have experienced if the show had ended with Ted and Tracy under the umbrella, or even Tracy’s death and Ted’s final words “And that is how I met your mother.”

Instead, the demanded story of fate, love, and development that encompassed the characters’ journey was reduced to yet another “Ted’s got the hots for Robin” moment, backed by ever present laugh tracks. It was a narrative sin. A lie, immediately following a declaration of truth. It neutered the tears for Barney’s true love, and the heartbreak for Ted’s loss. Beyond that, it was jilted stylistically. Production technology advances made the old footage seem out of place, and the writing, compared to what we had just seen with Ted and Tracy, made it evident just how far the writers had come in eight years.

If only they hadn’t chosen to revert to the beginning, taking Ted with them and cheapening his journey. Ted and Robin is the ending they planned, but it isn’t the ending the story demanded. That is the lesson we can take from this. Always be ready to listen to your story. Follow it, even if it breaks your heart and kills all your darling plans in its wake.

Jack Campbell, Jr. is a dark fiction writer in Lawrence, KS. His writing has appeared in various venues including Twenty 3 Magazine, Danse Macabre, and Insomnia Press. He writes about reading, writing, and life on his blog at www.jackcampbelljr.com.

1 Comment

  • christelle says:

    Thanks for this! It pretty much goes in the lines of what was bothering me the most — that they felt the need to tie it up to the beginning, when what we wanted to feel was the sense that all this journey had carried us, through good and bad and false starts and aborted hopes, not to the beginning, but to somewhere new, somewhere that we deserved to be at, somewhere good. As it is, it does feel forced, like the writers wanted to show that they could still spin it in a twist direction at the very end.

    It is also a bit disappointing because, if the narrative was supposed to show why Ted always cared for Robin and how important she had been to him, it showed just this: past feelings of before he met their mother, his supposed one true love. Then, Robin disappeared. And even if the kids say that Ted is very “obvious” when Aunt Robin comes for dinner, we get none of this. All we see is Ted obviously hung up on their whole history, and it feels cheap, and it’s again this problem that he needs to go back to the beginning, full-circle, but it loses this sense of going forward.

    At all, it felt more like some cheap fanfiction twist written by some die-hard Ted&Robin shippers than some quality ending. Sometimes, it’s important to know when to stop a story, because this shows that by putting too much in, you can easily cheapen what would otherwise be great material (not that I’m sayin’ the finale was great material even without the last scene; it had a problem with pacing and somehow did not hit the right notes, I felt very underwhelmed throughout, with the sole exceptions of any scene concerning the mother, Tracy — really loved the scene where Marshall and Lily find Ted in the bar and go like, Are you fucking kidding us, for a girl! and then they completely change when they hear it’s about the bass player. It was a good moment of character reception, I always love this)

    The umbrella scene was beautiful though, and the way Ted was telling the old lady to “Just be cool, damn!” was perfect and hilarious. What a shame that this great happy high got slammed by such a stupid ending… Argh.

    Anyway, cheers to you and your review of the ep, have a good one!

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