Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Did I Just Jump the Shark?

Anybody of a certain age will remember this scene:

It's a summery day. Arthur Fonzarelli is in his white swim trunks and his flotation belt (!). His leather jacket is in place and his hair is shiny. He's water skiing across a glorious sea, and then he performs the most daring stunt of his career. He jumps--ON WATER SKIS--right OVER a shark enclosure ... and into history.

That was the day Happy Days officially jumped the shark. And ever since, anytime a story becomes so ridiculous, so implausible, so tortured and twisted as to be a mockery of itself, we say, with a knowing nod, that it too jumped the shark.

Personally, I've accused at least a zillion stories of jumping the shark. But here's the chilling thought: somewhere, some poor writer came up with this idea ("I know, he can jump a shark in a motorcycle jacket!") and thought it was a good idea. That poor sap was either under too much pressure, or running too low on coffee, to have any perspective on his own dumbassery. He just ran with it.

I finished a scene this morning, and when it was done, I sat back, scratched a bit, and thought, "Did I just jump the shark?" I tested the scene for logic -- it logically held together. It, you know, made sense. It could happen. Everybody's motivations and histories seemed to line up. But I just couldn't shake this niggling feeling that I'd gone two steps too far.

I've had this feeling in the past. Twice. One time, I was dreading reader reaction to a particular sequence. I was sure I'd gone off the deep end. But boy, was I wrong. Readers loved it. Anybody who read that bit said it was some of the best writing I've ever done. Someone even compared it favorably to Neil Gaiman. The second time didn't work out so well. My readers hit that part and (I kid you not) started hooting and howling. One spluttered, "But ... I mean, it's like a bad musical!" Grrr.

So how do you know when you're the cool Fonzi, the guy who can start a jukebox with his fist and get three girls to crowd around him with a snap, or when you're just looking down between your skis into a tank full of sharks?


Erica Orloff said...

Oh . . . I am laughing at this post, Lurker Monkey. I do remember the shark episode.

You know . . . bucase my Demon book has supernatural elements, I sit there and think, "Just what can I get away with?"

Oh . . . and for the record, when you talked me in from the ledge last week . . . regarding a certain . . . um . . . conception in a book. You saved me from jumping the shark.

LurkerMonkey said...

Wait till you see what I just did :)

Jude Hardin said...

Haha. Here it is.It's really not a bad little scene. Kind of suspenseful. What would have made it better, I think, is if The Fonz had lost control and ended up being ripped to shreds by the shark. The last shot could have shown the tattered jacket floating on the blood-stained sea. Of course, that would have been the end of Happy Days (Henry Winkler says they were number one for six more seasons after jumping the shark), but maybe they could have then made Fonzie a ghost or a zombie or something and changed the name to Ghastly Nights.

So that's my technique, Jon, LOL. Whenever I feel like I'm jumping the shark, I crank it up a notch and make it even more over-the-top. But that might not work as well with kids' books, I don't know...

Melanie Avila said...

I have a teeny section that I think is jumping the shark just a little bit. Only one reader has called me out on it, but it was one of those things that's bothered me and I've been holding my breath to see if anyone noticed. That should have been a clue.

Fortunately mine is fairly easy to fix.

LurkerMonkey said...

I hate that holding the breath feeling ... because you're right. It almost means there's a problem.