Story Doctor: When The Action Goes Too Far
This is the first in a new occasional series about stories.
Today let’s look at so-called ‘jumping the shark’. This is the moment when something happens in a story that’s simply too much for the reader/viewer to swallow, and gets its name from an episode of ‘Happy Days’ in which Fonzie performs said stunt. It’s also known as ‘nuking the fridge’ because of the moment when Harrison Ford protects himself from a massive explosion by getting inside a fridge in ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls’.
You can get away with a lot more in a story if you say or do it with a straight face. The most preposterous twists will be accepted if humour is excised. ‘Gone Girl’ treads a fine line, here, asking us to accept an absurd murder plot that no sane person would ever think of inflicting on a partner. That it works (and better in the film than the book) is a testament to Gillian Flynn and David Fincher, who hint that the whole thing may be read as a satire on modern marriage.
I’ve always used humour as a tool in my writing because as much as I enjoy dark, downbeat stories, my own amused resignation to the world around me comes through my writing. Even films like ‘Nightcrawler’ have darkly amusing moments that repay an audience for staying with the plot. It’s essential to keep humour and seriousness separate, though; you can’t have a hero who’s a coroner laughing about a dead body and still make him likeable because it shows disrespect.
This leads to a problem. US TV rollercoasts between happy and sad, serious and silly, violent and sentimental, and sometimes we accept that – the mawkish ‘lesson to be learned’ moments on The Simpsons are wrapped in irony. But in a film or book, the sudden switch leads to patchworking. This was the problem levelled at the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ series, which shoehorned far too much material into each increasingly ADD-afflicted episode.
The crunch came when director Gore Verbinski made ‘The Lone Ranger’. This sprawling epic had some of the best action sequences I’ve ever seen in a movie, and a deliciously deadpan performance from Johnny Depp as Tonto that’s even superior to his Jack Sparrow routine. So what went wrong? Setting aside the argument from some US critics complaining of Tonto’s ethnicity (an irrelevance given that the film is a fantasia on western themes and perceptions of the west) the tone jumps repeatedly from serious (a massacre backstory) to ridiculous (a horse that can seemingly levitate).
The public was unhappy. People commented that it wasn’t believable that the Lone Ranger’s brother’s wife would fall in love with the Lone Ranger just days after her husband’s death. This, in a film that features a horse up a tree.
Either of these tones, whacky or serious, would have worked perfectly on its own, but not both at once. Personally, I thought the film was wonderful entertainment in spite of this admittedly big flaw, but I imagine the Wild West is a thornier subject for Americans. Willa Cather or Cormac McCarthy can present it as purgatory or hell, but accepting westerns purely as a playground of tropes and legends is tougher.
In this sense ‘The Three Amigos’, another wild west fantasia, works better with less because the action is consistent throughout. There are exceptions; the first Indiana Jones film and Tarantino’s ‘Inglorious Basterds’ (spelled that way in order not to trigger email rejections) combined humour with Nazism because more than half a century on we are ready to laugh at the unthinkable. But if you want to reacquaint yourself with the truth in fictional form, read Hans Fallada’s ‘Alone In Berlin’, then see if you’re laughing.
Simpler Is Better
There’s a reason why short stories often make good films. They always have a consistency of tone. When you start adding elements to keep readers and viewers amused, you risk losing them altogether and end up with what I call the ‘Everyone Into The Pool’ approach. In my next Bryant & May book, my agent advised the removal of a major new character because she felt that the main plot would lose impetus if I switched its energy somewhere else. She was right, of course.
Telling a story is like firing an arrow. It starts off at speed, passes a lot of scenery but must remain on its path in order to hit the target.
In the same way, we don’t really like our authors, artists and directors to branch off in directions we’re not used to. Alfred Hitchcock’s few forays into outright comedy (like ‘Mr and Mrs Smith’) were considered disastrous. He simply wasn’t giving us what we had come expect from the Master of Suspense. Equally, labelling can become a nightmare. A friend tells a story of having to shepherd Brett Easton Ellis around and discovering he had, by his own admission, two personas, the public one (arrogant, rude, ill-mannered) and his private, real one (charming, pleasant, well-behaved) because he gave his public what it expected to see.
Similarly, it comes as a shock to hear about Pete Townsend performing on stage and thinking about whether he’d remembered to empty his washing machine. It’s better to present a single face to the public, because a good all-rounder never becomes a superstar. And a book, play or film that tries to please everyone is doomed to fail.