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Jumping the Shark: A Warning to Writers

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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.
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Paths To Darkness: Deus Ex Machina

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I’ve spent a great deal of time lately reflecting on positive influences for a writer. But as many reviewers point out, it’s just as important to understand negative influences or trends so that readers and writers can avoid them. And since this week marks the return of Legend of Korra, the slightly less spectacular but still worthwhile sequel to Avatar: The Last Airbender, I decided to take time to restart Paths to Darkness and comment on a flaw both series, and many others, suffer from – the deus ex machina.

The Definition, And the Problems

A Latin phrase that translates to ‘god in the machine’, deus ex machina is the sudden resolution of an unsolvable problem, usually by the intervention of a contrived character, event, or device. It’s origins came from Greece, where machines were often used to lower actors playing gods onto the stage during plays. Oftentimes, the gods would enter to save the hero from an insurmountable problem, thereby ensuring a happy ending. However, poets such as Horace criticized the device, warning poets in his work to avoid them. In modern literature, use of the device generally implies a lack of creativity on the part of the writer, who uses the device after writing into a corner. It is also criticized for ruining internal story logic, or to create a forced happy ending to satisfy readers. But unlike other literary flaws, the deus has been used positively, usually as a comic device, or as a deliberate effect by the author.

Examples

Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra– as mentioned, both of these shows, while exceptional in all other aspects, suffer from ending on this note. In Airbender, Aang is conflicted by his duty to kill the villainous Fire Lord, which goes against his belief that life is sacred. Rather than confront this dilemma and make a difficult choice, Aang meets a mystical creature that gives him a new bending technique that allows him to strip the Fire Lord of his power without killing him. Korra actually uses the device twice. First, when Korra learns Airbending at a crucial moment, saving the day despite not using any of the established methods to Airbend or showing any previous ability to do so. And second, at the show’s end, when she is stripped of her power, but has it magically restored by Aang’s sprit to ensure a happy ending.

Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

One of the classic fantasy tales also has a well-known DEM at its conclusion, when Frodo and Sam are trapped on an erupting Mt. Doom following the destruction of the One Ring. At this point, the characters must either escape by their wits, or die. However, neither happens, as they are rescued by eagles and flown to safety.

Franklin Richards

The son of Marvel Comics’ Sue and Reed Richards, Franklin Richards is a mutant, gifted with incredible but undefined cosmic power, which has often been used to solve massive problems instantly. Most recently, the mini-series Fear itself used him as a DEM, by using his power to magically cure Ben Grimm of a demonic possession that had afflicted various Marvel heroes and villains.

Monty Python’s The Life of Brian

A successful parody of the device, the film features scene in which Brian, a Hebrew in the time of Jesus, is saved from a fall by a passing alien ship, which then files him about the world before crashing back in Jerusalem. Brian emerges safely, and the event is never referenced again.

Lord of the Flies

The classic tale of boys left on a island to devolve into mindless savages ends with a navy officer happening to swing by and rescue the children. However, William Golding used the DEM to emphasize the horror the savage boys would’ve inflicted on Ralph (the lone ‘sane’ boy), had the ship not come by. As such, the DEM manages to serve a serious purpose and offer a new question- what is the captain bringing back to land?

For Writers

The DEM is in essence, a test of creativity and integrity. Just like in real life, we may wish for a magic solution to come and solve the problems of our characters. Or perhaps, we fear the results of a downcast ending. While these urges are understandable, remember that as writers, we should always look to challenge ourselves. Real life does not always has easy solutions that fall into our laps, and neither should stories. If you are creative enough to get your story to its end, then you have no need to resort to alien spaceships or magic powers that can somehow solve the problem. You simply need to sit down, look at what you have, and flex your creative muscles to come up with a true, logical, emotional ending. Because anything else, makes as much sense as a giant lion-turtle talking about bending a person’s soul.

Writing Lessons From Kick-Ass: How NOT to write a Hero.

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In today’s blog, I will be using a piece of popular culture to emphasize a point on writing, specifically writing heroes. I bring this up because of the release of Kick-Ass 2, the adaptation of the comic sequel to the comic/film Kick-Ass. Now, for those of you who might be fans of this series, I want to make clear I don’t think either the film or comic are examples of bad writing. The premise is solid, the story is solid, and I enjoy it’s more realistic take on people becoming superheroes. However, watching the film left me with mixed feelings, and I have had little interest in either medium’s version since. The reason for this is very simple- Kick-Ass is a superhero movie that simply doesn’t have any heroes in it. And while writers certainly don’t have to focus on heroic characters, they need to understand them when they do, or anything they’re trying to say with them gets lost. So why does Kick-Ass fail in the department? Here are three reasons why (note; I will only be using the first film as an example, as I have not seen the sequel at the time of this writing).

#3 The Villain is a Better Father then the Hero

Two of Kick-Ass’s most memorable characters are Big Daddy and Hit Girl, two makeshift heroes seeking revenge against gangster Frank D’amico, for falsely imprisoning Big Daddy and causing his wife (Hit Girl’s mother) to commit suicide. This is a classic revenge story, and the audience should easily be able to root for this father daughter duo. But instead, D’amico is portrayed as a more watchful and better parent to his son Chris. How? D’amico consistently puts down his son’s attempts to join organized crime, wanting him to find a better, more honest life then his father.

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“But Dad, why can’t I help you at work?”
“Because you’re not missing Harvard to dump some bodies in the East River

Big Daddy, upon release from prison, immediately set his revenge scheme into motion, training his daughter to be a brutal fighter, training her in guns, weapons, and various fighting techniques from an extremely young age (she is 11 when the film introduces her). As a result, she is desensitized to violence, focuses only on ‘the mission,’ and is basically a grizzled, hardened fighter in the body of an 11 year old. However, we are supposed to root for her and Big Daddy, who has turned his only child into an instrument of his own revenge (since we get the impression Hit-Girl was very young when her mother died, possibly too young to have many strong memories) and rewards her for her violent work.

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“Daddy, can you tell me about Mom?”
“You cripple that gangster there and I’ll see if I can tell you what color her hair was.”

Yet Big Daddy places all the blame on D’amico, even in one scene claiming that D’amico, not him, stole his daughter’s childhood. While revenge-fueled, murderous heroes like the Punisher have thrived for decades, such heroes generally work alone and do not drag others down with them. By dragging his daughter into his own revenger, Big Daddy loses any sympathy from the reader and his actions fail to have any sense of justice, because he is a lesser person then the villain he rails against. Which brings us to the next point…

#2 All the Heroes Are Driven By Revenge Or A Desire to Be Cool

Hit Girl and Big Daddy are clearly driven by their desire for revenge, but rather than using that to build them, they are limited and wasted by it. Their desire to be heroes is purely driven by personal reasons, and there is no sense they have any desire to help anyone else. They brutally go after D’amico and his henchmen, steal his money, and repeat the effort over and over, without any widening of the scope. It is totally believable that once D’amico dies, both characters would simply take his money, hang up their capes, and retire to the Bahamas, because sating their revenge is all that matters in their crusade ( In fact, that is almost what happens in the film). The same idea had Batman fans raging over the ending of the Dark Knight Rises, and it has the same problem here- it makes the characters look selfish and small minded.

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“Yeah, so I spent two years being Batman, eight years sulking, ruined my company, and left after taking down one supervillian. Least I got my parents murderer first.”

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“Wait, you kept going after you got revenge? Why?

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“Girls.”

On the flip side, the movie ends with Kickass’s actions sparking a wave of other makeshift heroes flooding the streets, ready to fight crime. Except none of them cared enough to do something before, but now that there’s a popular, Youtube promoted hero, they suddenly decided to put on costumes and go out to fight. These people are superhero ‘whiggers’- they are simply following a trend without truly understanding it, which most likely means they will stumble along, stopping some minor crimes, until they are either eliminated by the criminals or arrested by the police. And all of it can be laid at Kickass’s feet, who is worse then either side because he managed to be them both. He begins with some altruistic notions, but is basically a kid living out his superhero fantasy to feel cool. And by the end, when he is predictably beaten and tortured for his actions, he joins up with Hit-Girl, commits violent acts of revenge, and then promptly retires, leaving a whole generation of untrained heroes to tackle the villains that tortured them and slaughtered their loved ones.

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“Look, I’m sorry your brother, father, sister, uncle, and cousin were all violently murdered. I didn’t tell them to put on a suit and fight crime…”

#1 There is No Moral Code

All of the violence and selfish behavior in this film are truly symptoms of one major problem- there is absolutely no moral code. The villains are expectedly brutal and psychopathic, but the heroes are the same way. The only difference is that the heroes put on costumes and convince themselves they’re the good guys because they were wronged or they have some misguided thoughts on doing the right thing. But it never justifies mutilating henchmen or putting a child in harm’s way for your own revenge. This movie is basically watching two groups of psychos slaughter each other, and we are told to feel bad for ones in costumes. But their motivations fail because simply put, they make the Punisher, a cold-blooded killer that condones things by going after criminals, a better hero, since he works alone and goes after more criminals then just the ones that personally wronged him. And worst of all, they take the greatest misconception about superheroes and prove it true. We’ve all seen the scene where the police chief or someone in power argues that ‘vigilantes cannot be tolerated, because they’re so dangerous.” Real heroes prove them wrong, but Kick Ass and his group ARE those vigilantes we’re warned about- people who take the law into their own hands and don’t care about the consequences. And there is no greater failure for a hero then that.

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“Can we trust you?”

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“Totally.”

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“Good, cause this guy’s a real problem.”

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