The “How I Met Your Mother” Finale – What Writers Can Learn From Their Big Mistake

Posted by on Apr 1, 2014 in Creative Writing | 0 comments

The “How I Met Your Mother” Finale – What Writers Can Learn From Their Big Mistake

OK, first order of business is to reassure my sister (who edits this blog) that I won’t be spoiling the final season of HIMYM for her since she’s a season behind watching it on Netflix.

Kelly, I will not be spoiling the end of this series for you. The writers have done a wonderful job of that on their own over the last three years, but I personally won’t be the one to let you know how it ends. I will be speaking in generalities that will not give away the final big twist where you learn that for nine years, Ted was simply half a nacho lying on the floor of the bar, dreaming about the adventures of the surrounding humans. And Barney is an owl. And Marshall and Lily are the leg pads on a back up goalie desperately hoping for one last chance to prove himself. And Robin’s real name is Robyn. I didn’t see any of THAT coming at all. So please, continue to find and repair all of my forthcoming errors.

Even if you haven’t seen the show and know nothing about it, what you can get from this blog post is that the writers made a huge mistake in the finale. It’s a mistake that drew the ire of just about every fan of the show that I know.

Some examples from my Facebook feed include…

“What the hell, HIMYM? Are you $%^&* kidding me?”

“Thanks for nothing, “How I Met Your Mother!” I feel cheated out of the last nine years of my life!”

“HIMYM, you owe me a new television because I just put my elbow through mine!”

“AAAAAH, the HIMYM finale made me grow a third ear!”

*I don’t even know what that last one meant but we might need to get a doctor and a documentary film crew to my friend Jeff’s house stat.

The hatred knew no bounds. I mean, from my window I can see the smoldering ruins of at least five overturned cars. The terrible thing was that as a fan of the show, I was livid. But as a writer, I fully realized that their horrendous mistake actually made perfect structural sense. The writers managed to bring everything full circle, a tactic that typically leads to a satisfying ending and content viewers with no desire to flip a Nissan Versa. I mean, HIMYM did EXACTLY what the art of storytelling says they should’ve done. So why was it such a dreadful, kick to the tender bits of their fans? In the end, it’s simple. And it’s a mistake that as a writer, it’s very easy to make.

They didn’t listen to their characters.

The writers so desperately wanted to bring everything full circle that they forgot about the journey they’d sent their characters on over nine full seasons. They gave the main character (Ted) a circle instead of the arc his character yearned for. He didn’t want to be the same person hungering for the same things he did back in 2005. He wanted to move on. He wanted to evolve. He wanted to grow up. He wanted to live and experience everything that life has to offer and like most of us, find out that what you wish for at one point in time isn’t necessarily what you end up with – and that’s OK because life tends to give you what you need and not what you desire.

It was a lesson that we learned in our own lives during the nine years the show was on the air. HIMYM’s core audience went from young and carefree in a booming economy, through a major economic downturn (If you’re a fan of the show, you just saluted) to navigating marriage and kids, and divorce, and jobs, and monetary issues. By the end of it, we were desperately trying not to admit that somehow we’d ended up middle aged in a country that fundamentally wasn’t the same as it was when we’d first met the characters.

I think a big reason the audience was so angry at the ending of the show was because Ted needed to experience the same twists and turns that we have in the years we’ve been paying attention to him. He needed to end up somewhere different than he imagined at age 50 and be OK with it. Because when we all get to 50, we’re barely going to remember the future we envisioned for ourselves at 25. Our real lives aren’t a neat little package. They don’t tend to come full circle. If we’re lucky, we get a well-defined arc. We grow. We change. We meet new people. We stray from the path. And we needed the ending of HIMYM, a show that often held a mirror up to our own lives to tell us that’s OK.

But in the end, Ted got both what he needed AND what he desired and that just doesn’t fit with our experience. (I mean, for everyone other than Jeff, who now has that third ear he was always jabbering on about in college) In three minutes, they ripped away Ted’s entire journey by giving him just what he wanted all along. (Or what he thought he wanted) They ripped all nine years away from the audience and even more depressingly, ripped it all away from HIM by putting him right back where he started. And it was deeply unsatisfying. It was supposed to be uplifting, but because of the reasons I mentioned above, it turned out hollow and rage inducing.

The writers’ fatal mistake was not recognizing that Ted’s character no longer fit the predetermined ending they’d imagined years ago. And the lesson here for all writers is that sometimes you may dream up a fantastic finish, the spectacular ending to end all endings – whether it be a novel, play, short story, etc. And you outline it and you feel like a genius and tell yourself, “This is where I’m going damn it. And I’m not letting anything get in my way! I’m bringing this son of a bitch full circle!”

And by the time your characters get there, the ending no longer fits. It’s amazing how often that happens. Your characters find deeper pieces of themselves. They find more than you thought was there when you wrote FADE IN or LIGHTS UP or CHAPTER ONE. Maybe they’d no longer run headlong into enemy fire and so your dramatic death scene becomes one of gentle contemplation. Maybe they don’t hit the home run that wins the game because they no longer see that moment as their ultimate redemption. It’s amazing how often your characters have more to offer than you give them credit for.

So if you find yourself with the proverbial hammer trying to pound your rectangular characters into a round ending, the key is to recognize it as it’s happening. It’s not hard to figure out. It usually involves your inner dialogue saying, “I really love the place (character) ended up, but I really need her back over there. How can I force her back on the original track?” And the result ends up being a lot like a car on a nice country road suddenly swerving to the left, crashing through gulleys and electric fences and retaining ponds and whatever’s in the way to get back on the interstate. To which your audience will most likely go, “Hey, I wanted to see where that nice country road ended up. Why did we destroy the transmission, flatten two tires, and crack the windshield just to end up in the parking lot of a Chili’s?”

That’s how I felt watching the last three minutes of “How I Met Your Mother.” In my head, I was screaming “Why are we over here? Oh Jesus Christ, look out for that cow!” And that’s not often a good thing. Unless you’ve written a kick ass car chase scene that ACTUALLY goes off road and through a pasture. If that’s the case, don’t let me get in the way. Turn the wheel and stomp on the accelerator.

The great thing about all this, Kelly, is that you have an out. When you get to the final episode on Netflix, you have the ability to completely cancel out the writers’ one giant, awful, turd monster of a decision. I have instructions for you. Follow them very carefully and don’t deviate and you can still get out of this unscathed.

There will be an umbrella scene. When that scene is over, you do one thing for your brother and all the other fans who watched it live.

You hit stop. You mentally roll the credits. And you get up and walk away. YOU GET UP AND WALK AWAY AND NEVER RETURN! And you will say to yourself, “Yup, they nailed it.”

See, not only did I not spoil the ending for you, I enhanced it. What a kick ass brother I turned out to be.

But seriously though, Ted’s been a nacho the whole time.

photo credit: vagueonthehow via photopin cc

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