Jumping the Shark: A Warning to Writers
Greetings once again. Today, I’d like to discuss a concept that has been defined by television, but applies to any creative writing outlet. That is the infamous term ‘jumping the shark,’ a phrase that TV watchers and critics know mean a show is doomed. But what is this concept, and how does it apply to writers?
To start, jumping the shark began with the classic sitcom Happy Days, taken from a Hawaiian vacation episode in which lead character Fonzie literally jumps over a shark while on water skis. Prior to this, the show had focused on relatable stories of young men and women growing up in the 1950’s. However, this episode was seen as pushing the show into ridiculous territory, damaging Fonzie’s character (as he had previously been injured in a motorcycle stunt and had learned from the experience), and showing the writers as desperate. The show did continue, but the focus shifted to Fonzie’s near superhuman charisma, as previous story concepts were shelved. As a result, the show’s appeal dropped over the reminder of its run, and ‘jumping the shark’ became the go-to term for a story that had lost focus, or showed desperation to keep viewers interested.
However, despite the term becoming popular, many other examples of shark-jumping have been documented over the years. While there are far too many to list, these are a few examples.
- ER’s Helicopter- Dr. Robert Romano loses his arm to a helicopter blade, and is then killed when a burning chopper falls out of the sky, in this doctor-based drama.
- Brady Bunch’s Cousin Oliver- a young cousin is introduced to bring a fresh perspective but fails to mesh with the cast (and creates ‘Cousin Oliver Syndrome’ for TV viewers everywhere)
- Roseanne- The show’s final season depicted the blue collar family winning the lottery, only to reveal at the end that the entire story was a fantasy concocted by Roseanne to cope with the loss of her (TV) husband.
- Heroes, Season 2- a superhero show with a clear leader starts its second season with said leader depowered and amnesiac, while the others scramble to find a purpose.
- ‘Nuking the Fridge’- a new variant on the shark jump, taken from the final Indiana Jones film (in which the protagonist survives a nuclear blast by hiding inside a lead lined refrigerator), this term refers to the point when a franchise has been creatively exhausted by sequels.
But why does TV and movie mistakes mean anything to writers? Because all storytelling comes from writers, and we can be just as prone to lose focus as anyone else. So to avoid making these same, desperate mistakes, writers need to keep a few things in mind.
- If you add a new character, do it because the story needs it, not because it will seem fresh.
- Always keep your character’s journeys in your mind. What they do in the future is shaped by what they do in the past.
- Keep your tone consistent- if something seems out of place or even foolish, you’re likely close to a shark jump.
- And most important of all- know when it’s over. Almost all ‘shark-jumping’ can be attributed to a story that went on beyond the writers’ ability to keep it fresh and vibrant. If you have nothing left to say, it may very well be because you’ve said all there is to say. And ending your story on a satisfying note is far better then sending your serial killer lead to Oregon to start life as a lumberjack.