Have you ever heard the term “Jump the Shark”?
It’s a term that’s been used in film making and writing for some time. It comes from the television show Happy Days. A childhood favorite of mine, actually (I watched reruns. I’m not that old. Come on).
In the later episodes of the show, the writers had run out of stories to tell. But the show still had a pretty decent following. In order to keep up with viewer demand, the show went to greater and greater extremes. The stories got stranger and stranger.
Eventually they took it too far when a popular character, The Fonz, literally… jumped the shark. On water skis. You see the problem here, don’t you?
A lot of shows over the ages have figartively "jumped the shark". Alias. Chuck. The 100.
Usually a show starts with a certain arc. There is a central conflict that is presented, and each episode gets closer and closer to solving that. Usually it takes around 3 - 4 seasons. If, however, the show is well accepted (especially in this current media-friendly age) the show can continue past this original premise and start getting more and more extreme. Things keep escalating. Nothing gets resolved. Until finally interest peters out and the show is given a half-hearted resolution. This is an issue that has ruined many a good show.
Shows like Supernatural and Phineas and Ferb have made fun of the fact that they themselves are following this trope.
Look, I understand. As a storyteller I want to give people what they want. Not only does it make me feel good when people want more of my work, it also means that I have a better chance of selling books. And in Hollywood, the stakes and rewards are a lot higher than they might be with a self-published book series.
That is why Avatar the Last Airbender was such an amazing show. It lasted three seasons, fulfilled it’s original story, and stopped. Sure, they added on a different series. I choose to pretend that doesn’t exist.
It’s rare that a show has the restraint to create something truly amazing and then end it. Even when the fans are clamoring for more. Perhaps Harry Potter is another good example of this, but then there is Pottermore and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Isn’t there?
The only thing worse than a show that starts good and spirals out of control, is a show that doesn’t have a story to begin with. I’ve seen it a lot with books. An author starts a book, but doesn’t plan or rewrite. The plot meanders here. Skips around there. Swings in a hammock. Lolly gags on the beach. The characters are at best paper thin and blank. At worse they are wishy-washy with more contradictions than a cult handbook.
In television you don’t often see this. There are to many people putting in too much hard work.
Voltron, Legendary Defender was the last show I would expect this from. After all, it’s from the writers of Avatar the Last Airbender. It started out really strong, with concise storytelling that stays on track and didn’t waste your time while still providing powerful, easy-to-connect-with characters. Sure there were a few things that needed a bit of improvement, but the first two seasons of the show were as close to perfection as a kids show can get.
And don’t turn your nose up at a kids show. You are missing out on much more than you know.
But in the end of the second season, the show killed off the main antagonist in an epic battle. I wondered “how on earth are they going to top this?”
The answer? Well, the weren’t. I feel like the writers finished season two of their scripts and looked at each other with horror. Now what?
Season three just made me angry. The characters we loved so much were either gone altogether, or so warped they didn’t even make any sense. Most of the episodes didn’t have any clear direction. The entire season covered almost no ground. And the climactic ending episode is literally an info dump. A giant flashback with very little new information even introduced.
The next season was marginally better… but by that point anything would have been. And I was crushed.
The first two seasons of Voltron had me entranced. In love. I binged through the show, and immediately started at the beginning again. I spent hours on Pinterest, looking at fan art. I named my cat after a character.
I haven’t even watched the last two seasons. I refuse to. It just makes me angry. Not in a good way either.
There are two major things I think were the deciding factor in the downfall of Voltron.
They failed to plan role each episode would play in the overall story before they wrote each season.
They put the opinions of their fans before the story.
Forget jumping the shark. Voltron did a face-plant on the ramp.
Why is this so important to me? I’m a writer. And as a modern writer, I interact with my readers on multiple platforms. I get to answer questions, talk about my characters, and hint at what comes next. I get to hear predictions. I get to hear what my readers want most.
While those things are important to consider, especially as a business person, there is something that is more valuable to me. The story.
These books that I am writing are a piece of me in the world. If I don’t plot my steps carefully, I might be swayed to the right or the left by the suggestions of a million voices. Voices that demand what is popular or what is of interest at the moment, but that cannot create something of lasting impact. You see a book cannot be written by the off handed opinions of a hundred people. It has to be the product of the passion and desire of a single vision. And that vison can last.
I hope my vision stays clear.