Jumping the Shark

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Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
A while ago, I wrote about surprises in fiction that weren’t surprising.

I’ve been pondering this dilemma again, though this time, it’s more about plot developments that are meant to be exciting, but which are so over the top and inconsistent with what’s gone before that they’re unbelievable and disappointing.

Some of you will be familiar with the expression Jumping the Shark, which came from a daft incident in the comedy series Happy Days, when Fonzie does just that, using water skis to jump over a shark.

Jumping the shark - Wikipedia

This gimmick didn’t save the show from going downhill, though it lasted for another seven years

Recently, I’ve noticed several such desperate twists in novels and films that marred otherwise decent stories. John Colapinto’s novel About The Author is an engrossing thriller about a talentless writer who steals his dead flatmate’s manuscript, which becomes a bestseller. His success is haunted by a woman who stole the flatmate’s laptop, with a copy of the novel on the hard drive. It’s well-written, making me wonder how the situation would be resolved, but there came a point near the end when two unlikely incidents had me saying to myself “That simply wouldn’t have happened.” It felt a bit like John Colapinto had written himself into a corner and needed a way out.

Last night, I watched Greenland, a 2020 disaster movie.

Well-acted and the behaviour, selfish and generous, of people fleeing a comet rang true, but it didn’t take me long to realise that the whole story was a vast Jumping the Shark exercise. Key people have been chosen to be evacuated to Greenland. The hero is a structural engineer needed to rebuild cities. The premise of running to Greenland is so flawed, as if it’s the only country in the world with fallout shelters, that I wondered how the script had ever been accepted. Also, Greenland is treated as if it’s another state of the USA or at least an unincorporated territory, like Puerto Rico. I couldn’t help thinking about a certain President who wanted to buy Greenland, which made things even more absurd.

The movie soon became an excuse to admire Computer-Generated-Imagery, as the comet bombarded the world. Don’t think about it, enjoy your popcorn.

Are we so oversaturated with violent images and unrealistic sights, courtesy of the internet, that the only place to go next is even nastier and more stupid? Some folk state that “Too much ain’t enough,” but it all becomes boring after a while, devoid of meaning.

With my own writing, I like to surprise, even shock the reader, while staying believable. As thriller writer John Buchan advised:

'A good story should have incidents, which defy possibilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible.'

What do you think?

Have things gone too far in the entertainment media?

When writing your stories, how much effort do you give to making what happens credible?

Impossible is as impossible does. It's about staying true to the world rules you've created. Fantasy novels, far-future science fiction and anything by Matthew Reilly are full of things that defy the laws of physics and reality as we know them, but they set the expectations and then stick to them. But if you're writing a novel set in the real world that I, the reader, inhabit, then you'd better not bust out a Magic Missiles spell at the end.

It's all about suspension of disbelief. We make a bargain with our reader: if they accept the world and events of the story, we won't write anything to invalidate that world. A sudden change in characterisation (Daenerys Targaryen, anyone?), the revelation in the last chapter that the hero had in her pocket a set of lockpicks, the sudden appearance of a knight in shining armour - these things break the agreement and show the reader that actually, it's all make-believe after all. What turns these things from unbelievable artifice into a thrilling surprise plot development? Foreshadowing! Show your reader that your heroine carries lockpicks (perhaps in chapter 1, then let them forget about them until they're needed). Show us the character's inner dialogue that leads to their unexpected behaviour, and make sure it's consistent with what we've already seen. In an earlier chapter, show the knight receiving a cryptic message with a location in code. Give the reader a reason to believe.

My personal bugbear is unwarranted coincidences. If your heroes are in trouble miles from anywhere, do not have her brother just happen to be passing by. A coincidence is acceptable as an inciting incident, but almost never as a plot development.

BTW, I loved Greenland. Sometimes in film we have to accept that there are explanations that don't make it to the screen (for instance, perhaps there are geological reasons for the US basing their bunkers in another country. Perhaps they were using existing infrastructure - Project Iceworm - Wikipedia.) As a Doctor Who fan, I am very familiar with giving the producers the benefit of the doubt. In prose fiction I don't think we get as much leeway.
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Short Story Hunters - Podcast Launch

March Flash Club is now open - guest hosted by Emily