2.15 - Penny!
Updated: Jun 18
This episode is really a tiny version of this whole series. The series is “How I Met Your Mother” and spends a lot of time navigating the twisty path Ted took to meet the mother of his children. They’ll do something really similar to this “If I hadn’t done X, I wouldn’t have experienced Y” later in “How Your Mother Met Me” (9.16) and “Right Place, Right Time” (4.22).
This episode also synthesizes a whole lot of writing advice into one easy-to-digest storyline. We, as writers, often talk about backstory, infodumps, character motivation in the form of emotional wounds or personal beliefs, in media res, and a general sense of “does my story start in the right place?”. This episode covers all those things.
If Ted were really telling the story of “How I Met Your Mother,” he would start on the train station platform where he literally met her face to face and they had their first conversation.
But that isn’t really where the story starts, is it? That’s where “meeting” the mother ends, and the writers of this show knew that meeting someone is only part of their love story. In most romantic comedies, the couple meets at the beginning and has to overcome a lot of obstacles; in HIMYM, the couple has to overcome a lot of obstacles in order to meet each other and be ready for marriage and kids together.
So the writers backed up - way up - and told us the story of Ted overcoming those obstacles.
Lots of writers come up with what we call “set pieces” first. Something sparks the idea for a story. A character pops into your mind, fully formed. A “what if” scenario takes hold of your brain and you obsess over it for weeks. A new, unique setting fills your daydreams. You have an actual dream that stays with you. All of these can be the spark that gets your butt in the chair, hands on the keyboard, but none of them are an actual story.
To get a story, you have to dig. Either dig into the past, asking “but why?” or “but how?” or dig into the future by asking “so what?”.
This episode gives us both. It asks “why” and “how” over and over again:
Why is Ted running through an airport? (he had court that morning and was running late)
Why was Ted in court? (he jumped a turnstile)
Why? (Barney couldn’t get off the subway)
Why? (he injured himself)
How? (running a marathon with no training)
Why did he do that? (he bet Marshall, after Marshall had to give up his spot)
Why did Marshall give up his spot? (he injured himself)
How? (fell and broke his toe when Robin surprised him)
Why did Robin surprise him? (because she was taking a nap after pulling an allnighter with Lily)
Why did she do that? (because Lily wanted to go to the wedding dress sale Robin found out about)
How did Robin find out about it? (she and Ted were walking in a different neighborhood than usual)
Why? (because Ted wanted to find a super cheap dinner)
Why? (because he wanted to prove that his lucky penny was worth something)
How did he come to have this lucky penny? (found it on the subway)
The episode also asks the “So what?” question, right at the end:
So Ted doesn’t make it to this job interview? So what? (Ted doesn’t get the job and gets to stay in NYC) (sidenote: unanswered in this episode, but revealed in season four and five, he also keeps working for his current firm, putting his career on the path that leads directly to him meeting the mother of his children)
Had the episode opened up on Ted finding the penny, jumping forward to the wedding sale, then Marshall’s injury, then the marathon day, etc, it would have probably been a fine episode, but more than a little choppy. Okay, so then maybe this could have all been woven into several episodes, revealing each bit of this story week by week. But, remember, this show was not bingeable when it came out; you had to watch week by week, and the chances that you might miss a week or watch out of order was still pretty high.
So in this case, going backward was the best way to make sure it all fit into one episode and kept the emotional throughline consistent. In order to back up effectively, you have to keep asking yourself these “why” and “how” questions, even though you normally don’t reveal it in reverse order like this.
Luke Skywalker is a poor farmboy living with his aunt and uncle. But why?
Because his mother, Padme, died in childbirth and his father, Anakin, had become a psychopathic monster. But how?
Anakin was terrified that Padme was going to die in childbirth and did absolutely everything in his power to prevent that, giving into feral instincts and pushing her closer to death. But why?
Anakin was a paranoid git who was furious with the system he had to live within. But why?
He had been raised in poverty and denied access to an education and sought to control his life and prove his worth, even if it was unnatural.
(this is a good example of a writer putting too much of the backstory into the story too soon: Lucas wrote the entire first six films as one single story, starting way too early and jumping forward through in a really choppy manner)
But those “why” and “how” questions don’t really make a whole story, all on their own. They help establish character, circumstances, and settings, but most of that is for the writer’s knowledge in order to make everything consistent and logical. In order for the story to be really satisfying, there has to be the “so what” question. Most stories focus solely on the “so what” and leave the “why” and “how” questions as backstory for the writer, not the audience.
Scarlett O’Hara is a beautiful young woman who is in love with a man who loves someone else. Okay… so what?
So she marries a guy she doesn’t love in order to prove that she’s desirable and to hopefully make Ashley jealous. Okay… so what?
So her new husband is killed in the war and she’s a seventeen-year-old widow with a baby on the way. Okay… so what?
So she needs to marry for money now, and she does. Etc…
The whole story of Gone With the Wind is Scarlett O’Hara reacting to circumstances and plodding through these “so what” questions.
Stories are developed by asking ourselves “But why?” and “but how?” but those stories play out and are finished by asking ourselves, “okay… so what?” and this episode manages to do both in a very short amount of time.
(this is one of the few episodes that is just absolutely chock-full of continuity problems, so we’re going to ignore that because honestly every sitcom gets away with this every week so HIMYM can do it once or twice in order to facilitate so much other story all in one episode)
Writing Prompt: Play “but why” with your main character. Why is she the way she is? Answering “because that’s her personality” isn’t enough. Our personalities and choices are shaped by forces both external and internal. Why is Ted such a hopeless romantic? Because his parents were aloof and he’s jealous of Marshall’s love life. Why were Ted’s parents aloof? Because they shouldn’t have been together at all and it showed. How did this affect Ted? It made him desperate for affection and a needy dater/boyfriend for years. Etc.