Storytelling Tips Gleaned from HIMYM
I love the show, “How I Met Your Mother” for a lot of reasons. I love that it doesn’t paint marriage as a death sentence, I love that they balance reality with ridiculousness, and I love that they plant a dozen Easter eggs every season.
But most of all I love they way they tell a story. Not just the big, overarching story of how he met his wife (which we are just barely getting to, eight seasons in), but the little stories, the ones encapsulated in a season, or a few episodes, or sometimes in a single episode. I’ve been watching the entire show, from the beginning, and I’ve collected some storytelling tips.
Don’t start at the beginning. Some of the best episodes start at the end. One episode starts at the end, showing a disastrous end to a party. Then the story jumps back five minutes and tells what happened in the living room to lead to disaster. Then it jumps back and tells what happened in the dining room, then the kitchen. They could have told us, start to finish, what happened, but it would have taken five minutes and been much less interesting.
Another episode shows the entire gang at brunch, smiling for a photo. As soon as the camera snaps, they all snarl about how they hate each other. Ted then goes back several days, and explains each person’s problem, leading up to the brunch and explaining a lot of character stuff along the way. It it much more interesting to see how Marshall’s calves are part of the story or why Ted is mad at his father after seeing how it had an effect on everybody.
Skip over the stuff that sucks. Several times, Ted tells the audience something along the lines of: “nothing interesting happened all summer… let’s skip ahead to the autumn of breakups.” If it’s not interesting, skip it. I don’t care if it makes you feel good to tell us how blissfully happy your main character was before she found out her boyfriends cheated on her. It doesn’t matter. Skip the stuff that sucks and get to the stuff that’s entertaining.
Some details aren’t important. Ted is telling a story that’s about twenty years old (he’s narrating from the future), so some details are forgotten. People’s names, what order things happened in, what day the goat was really in the apartment, etc. Some of it just isn’t important. In the show, of course, they fill in the gaps in a comedic way – her name was Blah Blah, for instance. But in our stories? We can just skip them.
Give your characters genuine flaws. Lily is manipulative. Marshall is childish. Robin is selfish. Ted is kind of a pompous douche. Barney is cold, callous, and manipulative. And yet you root for every one of them. Those flaws, though real and truly terrible, are also wrapped up in a package that we can identify with. Who hasn’t wanted to step in and stop their friends from making mistakes? Who hasn’t wished they could slap somebody for being stupid? Or wished that they could put themselves first? Or that they were able to recite stuff in Italian? Or… no. I’ve got nothing for Barney. But aside from his flaws, he’s a loyal and generous man, and he changes his tune by the time we start really rooting for him.
Tie it all to the main conflict. The show is about how Ted met his wife. Obviously, eight seasons in, we’ve talked about other stuff along the way. But just when you start thinking, “What does this have to do with him meeting his wife?” it all gets tied together. We learn about the yellow umbrella. Or the roommate. Or the rock band. We see how this string of events pushed Ted into doing something he wouldn’t have done otherwise, and it put him on his path to meeting his future wife. It might be related tangentially, but it’s all related to the main story.
Be consistent. The producers of this show are obviously obsessive about continuity. The show does an incredible number of flashbacks and flashforwards and flash-to-this-is-how-it-could-have-gone-but-didn’ts. And they remain thoroughly consistent. Little things that don’t really matter to the scope of the show (Lily’s hair color, Barney’s tie, Ted’s sneakers) are all consistent. If Lily had bangs two years ago, and we’re flashing back to two years ago, Lily will have bangs. Which means the girls end up wearing a lot of wigs and the wardrobe department must be a nightmare (“We need a designer dress from four seasons ago, in a petite size!” … yikes) But it serves the story, and I salute them for it.
Make your character do something stupid. In the very first episode, we learn that Robin is not going to be Ted’s wife. Yet he tries to make it work with her. Repeatedly. And every single time, I feel like I’m yelling at Anakin Skywalker to just choose a different path. We know how it’s going to end. But it’s entertaining. And it’s realistic. So Ted keeps trying, and we keep shaking our heads. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Good fiction is made of bad decisions.
Give your character a rich backstory, but don’t talk about it until it matters. Robin was a pop star, Ted and Marshall were stoners, Lily has a bi-curious streak, Barney doesn’t know who his dad is. These things all matter, they drive our characters, but they aren’t touched on in the first episode. Or even the first season. The details of their past aren’t brought to light until they matter – but once they’re there, they are consistent with who the character is.
Motivations are important. Ted wants to get married. Marshall wants to be an environmental lawyer and save the planet. Lily wants to be an artist. Barney wants to get laid. Robin wants to be a journalist. All their decisions point them in the direction of their goals. Always. Well…
And motivations sometimes change. Sometimes Marshall just needs a good paycheck, so the environmental stuff gets put on hold. Robin questions her independence. Barney falls in love and wants to be treated with respect. And Ted… Ted loses faith. He loses himself. But despite the changes, the characters still make decisions with an eye toward the ultimate goal. Marshall takes the corporate job, but it’s so he can save money for his future and eventually get the job he wants. Ted dates girls who are obviously not “The One” but they are necessary to his growth and development. The story is always written with the end in mind.
What else, friends? Any other great story telling tips from How I Met Your Mother? I’m sure there are more…