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?