Writing Lesson From How I Met Your Mother: So Many Ways to Tell a Story

Below, I discuss spoilers for Season 3, Episode 7 of How I Met Your Mother (I mean, it aired back in 2007,  but I’m sometimes really  late to the TV party myself so I’m trying to be courteous. Seriously. I watched my first and so far only episode of Gilmore Girls three weeks ago).

As popular and well-known as How I Met Your Mother was, and for all the flaws it did have, I still don’t actually think it gets enough credit for some of the clever narrative techniques it employed. One of my favorite episodes is “Dowisetrepla”, and what makes it memorable isn’t what the episode is about. To paraphrase Roger Ebert, it’s how it’s about. All that happens is that my favorite fictional couple, Lily (Alyson Hannigan) and Marshal (Jason Segel) buy an apartment, despite the fact that Lily is neck-deep in credit card debt and hasn’t been able to bring herself to tell her husband. He finds out. They fight. Then they make up.

Now, here’s the thing. We never actually see the fight. What we see instead is three of their friends stopping  by their apartment and concluding, ominously, that a fight happened. A water bottle with the label peeled off? Lily peels the labels off things when she feels guilty about something. An empty quart of ice cream? Marshall eats when he’s mad! The calendar on the wall is crooked because someone slammed the door! By using this technique, the writers actually accomplish several things. For one, they avoid boring the audience with things the audience already knows. We know why Lily and Marshall are fighting. We know, or can safely assume, that Marshall is shocked and angry and that Lily is guilty. We don’t actually need to waste five minutes of screen time hearing them verbalize these feelings (and perhaps becoming less likeable in the process), when we could be watching the impromptu film noir parody instead. Secondly, it gives the other three members of the main cast something to do in a story line that mainly hinges on Lily and Marshall’s actions, and do it in a very funny way that still conveys the main plot points. We know exactly what we need to know about the argument without seeing any of it.

I still haven’t discussed what “Dowisetrepla” means, and I’m not going to here. If you don’t know, you’ll have to watch it and find out. If you just plain don’t care, that’s fine too, and probably healthier.

My point here? There are a lot of ways to tell a story or script a scene. If a blow-by-blow account of events in your story just isn’t doing it for you, you might want to explore an less conventional approach. Narrate the same scene from a different character’s point of view, or summarize what happened by showing the impact (“In the end, she got the house, I got the car.”)  You can even skip to the next part of your story and include the missing scene as part of a character’s flashback at a point when it has new relevance (Mad Men has also made at least one good use of this technique). Step outside the stubborn scene or plot point, figure what really needs to be said, and try new ways of saying it.

Best of luck with that!