Media Monday: How I Met Your Mother and Storytelling

how i met your mother
Besides good acting and interesting sets, what constitutes a quality TV show is good writing. When I look for shows I want to watch, that is the key element that I seek out above all others. Because of this I’ve always had my doubts about sitcoms. Cheap jokes, repeated catchphrases, and poorly planned character development are hardly examples of this feature. But this spring when everyone I knew seemed to be on edge about the finale of “How I Met Your Mother,” I couldn’t help but be intrigued.

When I came home for the summer, I went on a month long binge in which I watch all nine seasons of the TV show. The more I watched, the more I began to realize that what had me hooked was the genius writing behind each episode. Following the show’s premise as one long, long, long story Ted is telling to his teenage kids, the writers took full advantage of the storytelling writing style to engage viewers. The show utilizes all the basic qualities of a good story: flashback, foresight, hyperbole, irony, symbolism. Viewers are carried along much like the way readers are led through a book, with privy information to the character’s thoughts and the knowledge of an omniscient narrator (in this case future Ted). With little more, in some cases, than a “He did,” the writers remind viewers that they’re listening to a story, not simply watching unconnected events unfold. Each time Barney surprises Robin with one of his extravagant lies, viewers are duped along with the characters up until the big reveal, creating the suspense story tellers covet.

In fact, HIMYM has many characteristics of metafiction in the sense that it is a self-aware genre. The characters viewers see in the show are essentially characters of Ted’s story, not the real Lily, Marshall, Barney, Robin, and Ted as they actually existed. Often, old Ted admits that he “can’t be sure that it happened this way” or that “Uncle Marshall swears” an event occurred one way or another. The characters on the show are a projection of Ted’s memories, interacting with the story and changing based on his taste and how well he remembers things (such as the episode in which Ted can’t remember why Lily was mad at Barney – or was it the other way around?).

So what can writers learn from the storytelling techniques of “How I Met Your Mother?” First of all, it is essential to have a clear narrator that drives the direction of the story. Even if your narrator is not as active as old Ted is in the story of his quest for love, you should still have an understanding of how your narrator views the events unfolding and the characters affected by them. Second, do whatever it takes to feel what your character feels. Sure, maybe Marshall didn’t jump out a window to go clubbing with Ted and Barney instead of mingle at Lily’s adult gathering, but we sure get a sense for how desperate he was by hearing this. In writing, perspective is everything and “How I Met Your Mother” offers some valuable lessons in how it can shape a story.

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