Thursday, April 3, 2014

Perils of the Writer: Knowing When to Deviate from the Outline

So, earlier this week, the long running series How I Met Your Mother had its final episode.  And, despite some excellent moments in there, its ending left me cold, and I was far from the only one to think so.  It was, quite frankly, not the appropriate ending for the nine years they had built up.   

SPOILERS: Specifically, in the time frame where older Ted is telling his kids the story, the mother is already dead, and he's more or less telling them the whole story to put the idea in their head that maybe he should start dating again.  More specifically, that he should date his on-again, off-again flame from before meeting their mother, who the kids know as Aunt Robin.  The kids approve, and the last shot is Old Ted showing up at Old Robin's apartment, carrying a blue French horn in a direct callback to the very first episode.

But here's the thing: this was the ending the writers had intended from early on.  They had shot the scenes where the kids actively suggest and approve of Ted getting together with Robin way back in the beginning of the show, since they didn't know how long they would go, and the actors playing the kids were growing up.  So, they had had this footage for eight years, and had always intended this as the ending.

And you know what?  If they had used it as an ending then, at the end one of the first couple seasons?  It probably would have worked.

But at this point, it wasn't right.  The show had spent much time demonstrating how toxic Ted's affections for Robin were, how definitively their relationship didn't work, how much he needed to make a point of letting her go.  They had developed, rather well, the romance and marriage of Robin and Barney.  And biggest of all, they had Cristin Milioti join the cast in the last season as the titular mother.  Milioti managed to pull of the high-wire balance act of making Tracy-- the mother's name, revealed in the penultimate moments of the show-- into a real and vivacious person that the audience cared about.  All these things which made that ending, that old footage, completely inappropriate for the story they had built up.

I've gotten rather long-winded here. 

As anyone who's been reading this blog for a while will attest, I'm an outliner.  I'm big into making the Big Plan as part of the writing process.

But even with that: you need to embrace when the story has, through the organic process of writing it, shifted in a different direction.  Sometimes the worst choice you can make is to stick doggedly to an endgame plan that no longer fits your story. 

The big question is, how do you know if this is how you're doing?  For me, the biggest sign is when I'm working and feel myself at odds with where I'm going and where I "need" things to be.  This was part of my problem when writing Way of the Shield-- finding ways to fit what I had planned for the end sequence when that just was not working.

"Kill your darlings", I was told in film school, and that still applies-- including throwing away the ending you've been sitting on for eight years when your story demands it be something else.


Madison said...

Good points. I ended up tweaking the planned ending to my book, as I realized it no longer made much sense. Also, I ended up liking my new ending better than the one I had planned anyway!

It's always a good thing for a writer to keep in mind.

Aaron said...

The one choice that I'll give backhanded credit for is introducing an entirely new character. Introducing Cristin Milioti as the Pixie Dream Girl (though admittedly not a Manic one)was the best worst-choice given their commitment to their ending. As late as last season they were thinking it would have been Victoria. I think that ending would have sucked. Better that The Mother was still relatively unknown character with a tragic backstory. She was truly Ted's dream girl, being into zany things, meeting is a cosmically fated way. Any realism to her character would have really made the return to Robin that much worse.

What probably trapped them was that was all that they had to hand the story together. With each additional year, they needed some reason as to why this epically long story was going on. The Office brought things back to the documentary (I wonder what Modern Family and Parks and Rec will do; probably imitation is the best way to go). Thomas and Bays probably didn't want it to just be a shaggy dog story, so they went with the ending they thought had oomph. There was no plan B, and a "they got married an lived happily ever after" probably was too great of an offense to their artistic sensibilities. So, we get the ending they envisioned.

That said, the ending was still terrible. There are so many levels it didn't work on. One reviewed said it undid everything the show put together for 9 seasons, and I agree. It also didn't break new ground. I'm sorry, cancer (or any extended illness) isn't sweet and romantic. It's ugly and crushing. In no way can they say they dealt with that head on. The Mother's own story of losing a fiancé was completely sanitized. She wasn't in therapy, on meds, or dealing with on-screen crying jags. She just didn't date. I really like Milioti, and I hope she has a long career, but this character was just a deux ex machina for Ted and the gang. Total Pixie Dream Girl if there ever was one.

Kevin Smith said that for Clerks, test audiences hated the ending where Dante got shot, so he changed it, and that was basically why he ended up having a career. I think this ending will only end up being a warning to others on how not to attempt a landing.