Revisions And "How I Met Your Mother": An Example Of How Writing Works For Non-Writers

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 13.266% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

So a lot of people hated the ending to “How I Met Your Mother.”  And what I find fascinating about that is that in the abstract, the ending was a good one.  It’s just that the storylines they’d been pushing that whole final season did not match up with the ending they wanted to sell – and so a lot of people, quite reasonably, rejected it wholesale.
Which is fascinating to me as a writer, because when writers talk about “the revision process,” they make it sound like you just cut out a scene or two, punch up some dialogue, and you’re done.  (Certainly Stephen King makes it seem that way in On Writing, which is otherwise a stellar book on the craft.)
But the truth is that in revision, what you’re doing is making sure that the individual scenes add up to create the story you’re trying to tell.  And How I Met Your Mother is an extremely great idea of this, because individually, the episodes of the final season are good, well-plotted, and heartwarming.  They’re the writer’s worst curse: these are good scenes, dammit, I shouldn’t have to cut them.
A lot of the episodes in that final season sum up the maxim of “Kill your darlings”: they’re clever, they’re funny, they work in isolation, they’ll even be great in syndication when someone who doesn’t know the show tunes in, and they utterly work against the ending the writers were trying to go for.  In a sane world, a lot of those episodes would have been jettisoned to devise something that actually did work, but…
…okay, this is your last chance to leave before I start kicking up How I Met Your Mother spoilers.  Get out if you need to.
So if you’ve never watched How I Met Your Mother, the overall storyline is that Ted is telling his kids about how he met his mother.  Ted is the worst kind of romantic douche – well-meaning, but so in love with love that he’d marry a lamppost if it looked at him sideways.  The Big Twist in the opening episode is that Ted finds Robin, a strong-willed and career-driven newscaster, and falls in love, and then at the end of the episode when you think this is going to be all about Robin, Ted tells the kids that he was dating Aunt Robin, not their mother.
Setting up the big twist of “Who Is The Mother”?
That “Ted is going to meet the Mother any moment now” was dragged out through eight seasons, with all sorts of contrivances, but eventually he did meet the Mother in Season Nine – which was all about the wedding of show breakout star Barney and Robin, who had fallen in love.
Barney is an unapologetic womanizer, who had tried to date Robin before in a disaster, and he is infamously selfish and oblivious to others’ concerns.  (Though because the writers are wise, he has just enough good qualities that you understand why the gang keeps him around – most notably, him saving Lily and Marshal’s relationship anonymously.)  Robin and Barney were either, depending on how you look at it, either disastrously suited for each other (as Barney, who treated all relationships like a game he must win, frequently destroyed people), or really amazingly suited for each other (as frankly, if Barney and Robin were polyamorous, they would have been an amazing teamup, albeit a bit disturbing for mainstream America).
Ted meets the Mother at the wedding, and various flash-forwards show how well suited for each other they are.  And they are highly compatible, which is a strength of the show; I was, actually, rooting for Ted and the Mother to get married.
The penultimate episode of the show has Barney and Robin getting married in a heartwarming ceremony, Ted meeting the mother we were so rooting for him to get together with, and all is happy.
Then in the finale, the mother gets terminally ill and dies, and Barney and Robin turn out to be just as terrible as you’d have suspected, and get a divorce a couple of years later.  Ted grieves for the mother for the better part of six years, dating no one – until his kids tell him to go date Robin, and he shows up on her doorstep in a callback to the first episode.  Roll credits.
And if you look at it, it’s actually a good plot, but the individual episodes kept pulling the punch.  Because the producers of HIMYM didn’t ever want a downer ending, only bittersweet ones at best (and happy ones being the default), and so every episode was contorted to make it seem like Barney and Robin were going to make it.  The Ninth Season was full of “Barney and Robin run into another dealbreaking issue” – which is good!  if Barney and Robin aren’t going to make it, then that needs to be seeded so we’re not surprised! – and then kept backing off by having a big schmaltzy romance with Barney and/or Robin doing something romantic to show us how this wedding would be good for them.
So you had the entire season going, “Hey, maybe you’re a little worried about Robin and Barney – don’t be!  Feel good by the end credits!  We don’t want you to leave this episode feeling bad!” And every scene (with a “scene” being an “episode” here) was actually actively misleading the audience as to what was happening.  If you were rooting for Barney and Robin (and I was), then seeing them crumble in the last episode after so many sweet moments of them kissing was like getting slapped in the face.
And I know that’s the point: that some marriages, no matter how much you want them to work, don’t.  And that’s realistic.  But you don’t serve us well by showing us an entire season of them working out their issues and then having it all collapse in ten minutes of mostly off-screen ugliness.
HIMYM had to do the brave thing of raising the specter of “Is this marriage really going to be good?” and leave that hanging… but then they would have a couple of bad scenes (read: episodes that ended in ways that would have been unsatisfying as the ending of a sitcom episode), and they were fucking terrified of that.  So instead, they inadvertently kept bait-and-switching their audience by making them feel faintly uneasy, and then reassuring them.
Then the “mother dies” aspect of the plot was poorly done as well.  Because we were attached to the mother.  We liked her.  We wanted to love her.   And just as we meet her, and savor the fruit of this long-delayed union, she dies.  And again, because it’s an hour-long finale, she dies in fifteen minutes.  Which is too much.
I heard a lot of people saying, “Oh, Ted learned nothing in the final episode!  He was still a stupid, flighty romantic!”  Which is patently untrue; Ted didn’t date anyone for years, he was so heartbroken by his wife, just concentrating on his kids and making sure they were all right.
But we didn’t see that.
And in truth, as an audience, we needed to see both halves of that – but again, those would have been fucking depressing episodes.  We needed an episode where we got to see Ted and how he handled his wife’s disease, showing us as an audience how Ted had changed, how he wasn’t the dumb romantic, how he’d finally understood the difference between love and infatuation.
Then we needed – and I’ll defend this to the death – another episode where we see Ted grieving.  Just a half an hour of Ted trying to make sense of his life, rejecting random attractions because they’re no longer satisfying to him, living his life without Robin, us seeing the space that Robin would fill – and fill well, now that she was divorced – but Ted missing it because he’s moved on and doesn’t understand that he and Robin could actually work together.  We needed to feel that time the way that Ted did, not a single flash-cut but a long emotional journey that took us along the way from disbelief to grief to the wandering unsurety of “What do you do when you found your great love, and she’s gone?”
And again, that would not play well in syndication, and be hard as fuck to make full of snappy gags…
…but the point of this essay is that if you’re writing a story, all things have to serve the story.  HIMYM had a mandate that every episode was mostly heartwarming or bittersweet, and what you needed to sell this plot was a couple of downer episodes where we got sold, and sold hard, on Ted’s Life After Mother.
No story is more important than a single scene.  But HIMYM kept doing the bad revision error of prioritizing individual moments over cumulative impact, and as such wound up with a finale that was, largely, poorly reviewed…
…even though if they had done that work, and convinced us that Ted was a new guy now, and this wasn’t just a rekindling of the same annoying issues we’d loathed in Ted since the premiere, that ending with Robin would have worked and worked well.  It didn’t work as it was shown, of course, because Robin and Barney were presented, repeatedly, as a Good Couple – but if you want to understand how writing works, you have to strip away the “What actually happened” and look at the bones underneath of how you could have shifted this story around to make Robin and Barney’s wedding not a culmination of happy love, but that uncomfortable moment where two friends you love dearly should not be saying their vows today, and you all have to stand stiffly and pretend it’s all right because you can’t convince them otherwise.
And yes, you could argue that the show needed an entirely different ending… but that’s not what I’m discussing here.  If we’re talking about How To Revise A Story, then what we have is the ending we’re striving towards, and sometimes as a writer you realize you have a great ending, but the individual moments in the tale thus far don’t actually Voltron together to fit to make that ending work.
This ending could have worked.  And worked well.  (Not universally, of course, but that’s a danger in any show; the moment you say “These two people worked out, these people didn’t,” you’ll have rabid ‘shippers who would never be happy unless Ted and Barney got together in a gay romance and did high-fives over massive orgies.)  And if you want to dig how writers think, it’s an interesting exercise to not go with “I hate this ending, I’ll rewrite it” and instead ask, “So let’s assume this ending is good, how could we rewrite the lead-up?”  Because honestly, you do that a lot, too.
Anyway.  It ended.  The ending worked for some people, and for those people, I think they felt that journey of Ted from douche to mature guy and got the implications without having to see it.  But again, that’s what revision is for; you give it to your beta readers, they tell you “I don’t see why Ted’s any different,” and you realize Oh shit, I need a big long post-death scene here to show Ted, without Robin, focusing on the mother he lost.  And you scrap some other scene and shim that one in.  And then more people get what you were going for, although as noted you’re not gonna please everyone.
But yeah.  I maintain the ending, as plotted, could have been a fine ending.  They just needed to build to that ending – which, given the complaints, they didn’t.
Comme ci, comme ca.

1 Comment

  1. halfmoon_mollie
    Oct 11, 2014

    “So if you’ve never watched How I Met Your Mother, the overall storyline is that Ted is telling his kids about how he met his mother. ”
    No, how he met THEIR mother. But this was a great article and helped me understand why I hated they way they did it so much. I felt like invested all that time ….for what?

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