Jumping the Shark

Published January 2, 2012 by christinenorris

So I was talking to someone the other day, and we were discussing a certain book trilogy. Now, it’s one of my FAVORITE series, and I adore the books, but I mentioned that I thought the final book ‘jumped the shark’ just a little bit. (If you don’t know what that means, Google it)

She said ‘how can a book like that jump the shark? It’s a fantasy, the whole thing is a ridiculous concept. Rather than get into a discussion (or, more likely, an argument) I let it go. This person is not a writer, and doesn’t usually read YA or fantasy. No biggie.

It’s often said that writers lie for a living. Which is technically true, I suppose. But more importantly, they build a story that could be the truth. And I don’t mean the vampires or dystopian future or any of that being the truth. It’s not about that. Let me see if I can explain it.

An author, especially a speculative fiction author, spends a great deal of time world building. Usually. Especially if the world of their novel is set in a ‘not now, not here’ place. Historicals require research, completely made-up worlds require sitting and wracking your brains to build a world from the ground up. I’ve done workshops on how this is done, and it’s too long a process to repeat here. But you build a place, maybe draw a map if you need to, and then you put people into the world. And you develop rules for that world, and an economy, and a political system, and if need been a religion or three. It’s a complete and total world.

When, as a reader, you pick up a fantasy/SF/Horror novel, or any book really, you commit yourself to what’s called suspension of disbelief. It happens in theater too, or at a movie. What it means is that you realize that what you are about to experience is not real, but for the purposes of the story–it is. Without suspension of disbelief, you’d never buy that a play takes place in multiple locations and skips in time. Same thing with TV and movies, and in books, well, Harry Potter would never have made it. Nor A Christmas Carol,  for that matter.  As a reader, you agree to believe the ridiculous, for just a little while.

HOWEVER, that does NOT mean that a writer can just pull out any old thing, slap it on the page, and call it a book. There are RULES. Most times the author sets the rules not by listing them, but by showing you how things work in the course of the story, with maybe a little explanation sidebar once in awhile (or, if you’re JRR Tolkien, fifty pages worth). We get to know the characters through the story as well, and we begin to understand them as actual people.

So, if somewhere in the third book of a trilogy, the main character behaves in a way that falls outside what we have been shown to be her personality, that is out of character, we stop and wonder. Is there a reason for it? Sometimes there is, and usually if it’s a POV character, we are told the reason for it right away. BUT sometimes an author writes something that DOESN’T FIT. Doesn’t fit with how the character should behave, or react, or it seems reaching for the author to write it, overly dramatic or with the sole purpose of shocking us, while the character makes no comment on it at all.  (or, in one case and not the book I was discussing originally, an author spends two books telling us how things work in a certain version of reality and then proceeds to have her main character break every single one of the rules she has established for the mere purpose of showing us that she is special. That’s a cheap trick.)

When that happens, our suspension of disbelief is shattered, and we stop and go ‘uh, that’s not right’, or ‘that’s dumb’, or we become so annoyed we throw the book across the room.

And that is when a book jumps the shark. And yes, a fantasy novel, set in the maybe-future, or a world that never existed at all, most certainly can jump the shark.

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