Jumping the Shark: When to Quit Your Story

sharkI love this expression! Jumping the Shark is an idiom crated by Jon Hein to identify the moment when a television show begins to decline in quality and can frequently be identified by a particular scene or episode. The writer uses some type of gimmick in a desperate attempt to keep the viewer from losing interest, but alas, it isn’t enough to save the day. The name comes from a fifth season scene in the sit-com Happy Days when Fonzie jumps over a shark on water skis. The writers hoped to use Henry Winkler’s water skiing talents to give the show a needed spike. The phrase has broadened over the years to identify when a brand, design, or creative effort has lost appeal…and it’s time to quit.

I’ve thought about this a lot and came to the conclusion that the most frequent example of Jumping the Shark in a novel is…okay, wait for it…I hate to say it…marriage! It seems that so many stories revolve around the act of falling in love, and…truly…I get it! The lure of two people being drawn to each other, working out their differences, the magnetic attraction of hormones, the sexual tension, the conflict, it’s thrilling and we easily internalize it to be our own adventure. But think about it for a minute. As soon as two characters fall in love and get married, the story is over. THE END! No more tension, no more hot sex, no more attraction. I find this sad, and too horrible to analyze. Take a million shows you’ve seen on TV or books you’ve read. Once anelli nuzialiChristian Grey and Anastasia get married, game over, Derek Shepard and Meredith Grey on Grey’s Anatomy, done, Gideon Cross and Eva same thing, Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth and Jayne Eyre and you know who. This brings up so many questions I don’t know where to begin. And I’m already nearly over my word count!

It seems to go against human nature. Marriage should be the beginning, not The End! Maybe that’s why so many marriages break up. Could fiction be the real reason for the high divorce rate? Are we so suckered in by the romance, the fairy tale, that we can’t enjoy the bliss of being in love forever? Doing the laundry, cooking dinner, taking out the garbage, maintaining the cars, mowing the lawn…that we lose sight of the hot sexy attraction? You know I’m telling the truth. As soon as your characters get married and live happily ever after…you’re done. Sadly.

As writers, we need to not drag out a good thing to the bitter end. Does the story always have to be resolved? I never end a novel with all the loose ends tied up, or if I do, I always throw something in at the end to make the reader wonder IF there is a happy ending in the future. The best part of loving a story is the lack of a totally happy ending. Gone With the Wind comes to mind. Would we love that story if they ended up together? I think not.

You know if you’ve read our monthly What We’re Reading posts that I’m fond of Sylvia Day’s Crossfire series. I eagerly awaited the last book in the trilogy as did all her other fans. But Ms. Day decided she just couldn’t end the series with the third book, a promise she made to her readers, and stretched her good fortune with the popularity of the series to a fourth book. Well, her fans went ballistic! They threatened to never read her again! All because she just didn’t know it was time to quit. Alas, the temptation to keep a good thing going is too hard to overcome sometimes.

Just for jollies I’ve included the top ten jumping the shark moments in TV history. You can easily find them online.

10. Will & Grace – Guest Stars Galore.

9. The Cosby Show – Olivia joins the cast.

8. ER – Helicopter Hell

7. Grey’s Anatomy – The musical episode

6. Seinfeld 1998: The series finale

5. Prison Break 2005-2009: Everything after season one

4. Felicity – Felicity cuts her hair

3. Alias 2001-2006: “My name isn’t Michael Vaughn”

2. Roseanne – They win the lottery

1. Happy Days – Fonzie literally jumps over a shark

Author: Caryn McGill

Caryn is a former high school science teacher, school district administrator and adjunct college professor.

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