1. Be really, really specific with dates and locations. (Know your timeline.)

Something I am always delighted by in the show is the way the characters have the most impressive recall. To prove a point, without missing a beat, they’ll start a story with a month/day/year and location to set the scene (often to relay something that happened off-screen or prior to season one). While difficult to pull off in real life, it’s a great reminder that our characters have led full lives before they walked into our pages, and that it would behoove us to whip out some of those specific memories every now and again.

How I Met Your Mother, Barney Stinson

2. Create (wait for it) anticipation.

Give your characters something to keep an eye on. Perhaps your plot is hurtling toward a tragedy or a big family dinner (same thing). Perhaps there’s a character with a fear established early on that will come back to haunt them. It’s Chekhov’s gun! Leaving breadcrumbs is fun for you, as the writer, and honestly, readers feel super smart when they get to say “I knew it!” People love being in on the joke. Just don’t show your hand too soon—unless it’s (wait for it) Slapsgiving.

3. Don’t be afraid to play with narrative framing.

The whole premise of How I Met Your Mother is a father sitting his kids down to tell them the incredibly long-winded story of his love life, so we already have the outer framework as a story consciously told. It creates an immediate intimacy. This structure also gives us Ted as character and Ted as storyteller. In creative writing workshops, they call this narrative distance. There is time to reflect when you’re not in the thick of it. I guess what I’m saying is: unleash Bob Saget.

4. There’s nothing wrong with earnestness!

There is obviously a fine line between sentiment and sentimentality. Ted Mosby often plays jumprope with this line, but on the whole, I’d say he leans into earnestness in a refreshing way. He just wants love, damnit! Perhaps to combat being overly sappy, the key is also be self-aware. The writers know he’s ridiculous. All the other characters know he’s ridiculous. They cheer him on anyway. There’s something kind of beautiful about that! (She said earnestly!)

5. If you have a character that’s starting to feel stagnant, introduce a wildly surprising background.

Robin was a teenage pop star in Canada? Barney grew up believing Bob Barker was his real father and that’s why he was never around? I’m not saying a character’s shitty behavior can be justified with a jaunt through their past trauma, but hearing the backstory certainly helps round them out as a full character. (There must be a reason Disney keeps remaking fairytales from the villain’s perspective, right?)

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