I have had a book sitting on the sofa next to me for . . . more than a year. It is the last (so far) in a series I have loved for years, probably more than a decade. I have obsessed over these books, these characters, the stories of their lives, waiting impatiently for the next release.
Now, I have it and I don’t want to read it.
Not because it is the end (it’s not, I don’t think) but because the book before presented me with something incomprehensible. Something I have dreaded for several books leading up to this.
In media, the term is jumping the shark. This refers, literally, to a scene in the show Happy Days where Fonzi, the unofficial star of the show, literally jumps over a shark tank on his motorcycle. Looking back on that stunt now, critics and fans alike share the notion that was the beginning of the end for the show. It was never the same after that.
In the years to follow, that moment has taken on a life of its own and instead of referring to that one specific moment in the life of one specific show, it now refers to the moment any show begins its decline toward the end.
It is not used to talk about book series in the same way, but I posit that is because there are far fewer book series that continue on as long as a show like Happy Days (10 years, 11 seasons, 255 episodes) or that cover a similar span of time. Also, book series have a far narrower reach in audience. While a half-hour television show is easily accessible—and even more so then, before we had hundreds of channels providing hundreds of options for every timeslot—a book series, especially at the tenth, twelfth, fourteenth book, is only reaching its own fans, people who may be more likely to overlook the moments the plot takes a downward turn.
Today, jumping the shark, or the jump the shark moment, in media can refer to a lot of things but some red flags are bigger and redder than others:
New baby—Sometimes this is an actual new baby. The central couple (the parents of a family show) have teen or young adult children who have grown up on the show and then *WHOOPS!* mom is pregnant at 45! Other times it’s an adoption or a cousin comes to live with the family. Occasionally, it is when a member of the family who was an infant/toddler in the beginning, with minimal screen time and no contribution to dialog, suddenly starts stringing together sentences and adopts their own catch phrase.
New adult—Sometimes the new baby is a new adult. A long-lost sibling, an estranged parent looking to make amends. These additions can go one of two ways. Well, three, really, if you count writing them off the show as an option. They can blend in with the rest of the cast seamlessly and the show marches on without a hiccup. Or, for the purposes of this argument, they can throw off the entire ecosystem through bad chemistry, leading to the slow demise of the show.
Resolving unresolved sexual tension—This is another one that could go one of two ways. Typically, when a primary driving force of a show is unresolved sexual tension between two characters, the will they or won’t they, “why don’t you just screw and get it over with” sentiment, resolving that tension leads to discomfort for all involved, but mostly the viewers (readers). Sometimes they do and move on. Awkwardness abounds for an episode and then life goes back to normal. Unfortunately, this is more typical of secondary and side characters. Main characters, on the other hand, tend to become A Couple, with pet names and stolen glances, smooches when they think no one is looking, acting guilty when they find out someone was looking.
This is my least favorite of the jump the shark moments. Possibly because I don’t love romance and am terribly picky about what I do like. And gooey smooshy romance is not my cup of tea.
To the end that I am dragging my feet on reading the next book in this series that was once my favorite but resolving the unresolved tension between two main characters has given me a reason to cringe. I kind of hate it.
If you want to read more of my thoughts on tropes and writing