Jumping the Shark. We all love this phrase don’t we? It’s a hilarious example of how a TV show can get the story wrong. I mean seriously The Fonz water skiing? In his jacket? Okay I get the jacket, The Fonz did everything in his jacket. But water skiing? I think it was an excuse to the send the cast and crew to the beach for a few days. Here ya go, take a moment, I’ll wait. Enjoy. Youtube link to the actual event on Happy Days.
In all seriousness, Jumping the Shark is a real problem in storytelling. We may not experience it that often in novel writing because we don’t usually use an episodic story structure. You Jump the Shark when you’ve run out of everything you could possibly say or do with your characters, run out of every possible combination of plots. You resort to the unthinkable. Jumping the Shark.
What if you wanted to write episodic fiction?
The episodic story structure works brilliantly when done well. It produces the never ending series. Any writer who loves the world they’ve built, or who has readers who love the world you’ve built, could benefit from using an episodic story structure.
Young children also enjoy the predictability of the episodic structure. Children love the familiarity of the characters and the predictability of the plot. Think of The Magic Tree House series by Mary Pope Osborne.
It’s that same predictability and familiarity that can cause you to jump the shark. I think the episodic style probably works best for writers who plot (but pantsers, let me know your thoughts). When you plot an episodic series, there are a few things I’ve learned that we need to keep in mind that can help avoid the dreaded loss of potential ideas.
The main character of the story needs to have depth. So do all the characters but the main character needs to be able to pull this episodic thing off. He or she needs to be a stand out among characters, we’re going to want to follow him or her on this journey, no matter where it goes. The key to keeping readers reading without having to resort to extraordinary shark jumping, is to make sure that your character, this awesome personality, GROWS along a character arc. Even if you’re planning 50 episodes in your series your protagonist is going to have grow across those 50 novels. If he/she doesn’t your reader will get bored. And so will you.
Another important aspect of writing the episodic story is the plot. Becoming the master of tension is important here. Keeping the reader turning the page, caring about what happens. Not only does the main character have to evolve so does the plot and linking the two will create the best backdrop.
What I’ve just stumbled through in this blog post, Chris over at King of Elfland’s 2nd Cousin, *giggle* has done a brilliant job on breaking down the episodic series into an understandable and useful 3 part blog post. If you want to avoid jumping the shark keep these things in mind:
1. Main Character – must be interesting and have something going on that forces them repeatedly into adventures.
2. Main character must emotionally grow over the course of the series. the emotional arc must exist
3. Plot and pacing – Action and a mystery to solve, with a sense of escalation. As Chris mentions, you can’t save the world in book 1.
4. Tension – keep the pages turning. Donald Maass does a great job in his book The Fire in Fiction about the importance of tension in each scene.
5. Leave the reader wanting more on both the story conflict and the emotional conflict.