Carpe Sharknado

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First confession: I did not watch Sharknado.
Second confession: I’m not going to watch Sharknado.
Third confession: I would LOVE to have written Sharknado.

Sharknado, for those of you who may have missed either the movie or the massive internet buzz, is the story of the owner of a beach bar in LA, the people in his life, and what happens when global warming causes flooding that leads to a tornado that sucks up sharks from the ocean and drops them on the beach where they devour his friends. The actor who plays the bar owner, Ian Ziering, is getting rave reviews for taking his role seriously, which he should because taking your role seriously in a movie or a novel like this is crucial. The whole point of writing something like Sharknado is to go all in. The minute you start winking at the audience or your readers, you’re just smarmy and smug and refusing to enter into your own story, starving it of energy and passion. You have to believe that a tornado could suck up sharks that would then remain alive and eat people as they fall, or you have no right to a concept as epic as Sharknado, let alone a title that good. The hero, by the way, is named Fin.

I cannot tell you how much this concept, this story, makes me happy, and I say that in all seriousness because this is what writers have to do make amazing story. There are a lot of story snobs out there moaning about how devoid of value this movie is in much the same way that some of my profs in MFA program moaned about how popular fiction was lowering the IQ of the masses. I tried to point out that the masses just wanted a good story which is what the masses have been wanting since before Gilgamesh, that the reason popular fiction is popular is because it delivers what the masses (aka Real People) want, but they couldn’t see it.

James Poniewozik’s Time Magazine review puts it well:

One of the greatest legacies left behind by the late film critic Roger Ebert–who celebrated some of the movies’ greatest artistic triumphs and also wrote the screenplay for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls–was that a work of art needs to be approached critically on its own terms. A movie like Syfy’s Sharknado, say, should not be judged on how well it fulfills the standards of Band of Brothers. It should be judged on how well it fulfills the standards of a movie with the title Sharknado.

So we must ask different questions of this movie. We must ask: Does it entertain? Does it make us squirm while laughing while reconsidering our commitments to a pescatarian diet? Does it, we must ask above all, give us sharks in a tornado?

Ebert, as usual, gets it exactly right and so does Poniewozik: Comparing stories is ridiculous, especially comparing stories across genres. All that really matters to a viewer or a reader is “Does this story deliver on its promise? Do I get what I came to the screen or page for?” It’s the reason covers are so crucial to a print book’s success, the reason that first scene or chapter is crucial to any book’s success: it’s where you make your promise to the reader. But it’s not enough to set up a cover or a first scene that invites the appropriate reader to the story inside, it has to make that reader want to step in. When a writer opens the door into a story and the viewer or reader peeks inside, there has to be a party in there. Whether or not the reader goes inside depends on the kind of reader and the kind of party, so the key is to make sure that the reader who goes in is going to get the kind of party she or he wants. The brilliance of a title like Sharknado is that you know exactly the kind of party you’re getting (which is why the tagline is “Enough said”).

There are people who are pointing out that sharks would die if a tornado sucked them out of the water, that dropping onto land would kill them, that bombing a tornado would not stop it, that because of this and many other failures of Good Taste and Art, Sharknado is trash, crowding out worthwhile films while pandering to the masses. (Hi, I’m Jenny, and I’m a Mass.) Oddly enough, these people do not point out that there’s no scientific basis for Gregor Samsa turning into a cockroach. That’s because Gregor is throwing the kind of party they like, while Fin is dissecting a shark with a chainsaw. And EVERYBODY SHOULD LIKE THE KIND OF PARTY THEY LIKE BECAUSE OBVIOUSLY, GOOD TASTE. This is not only close-minded, bigoted, and short-sighted, it’s toxic to good storytelling.

One thing that an MFA can do to you, or hanging out in the New York Times Book Review section, for that matter, is make you second-guess your go-for-it instinct. You think, “What if a tornado sucked up sharks and dropped them on land where they ate people. I could call it Sharknado. And then in the end, Bruce Campbell could do a Jonah and cut himself out of the inside of a shark with a chainsaw. Oh, my God, how much fun would that be to write?” And then you remember that sharks can’t live out of the water and the fall would kill them and you couldn’t get Bruce Campbell anyway, and it’s a dumb idea and you go back to thinking about something practical.

This way lies creative disaster. Never ever start thinking about the objections to your story before you’ve written your story. Never ever second guess an idea that makes you breathe faster, that makes a million story moments race through your head, that makes you think, “It would be so much fun to write this story, I want to write this story.” If a Sharknado appears in your frontal lobe, you must write Sharknado. Ignore the naysayers, the literary snobs, the nitpickers, and go for it. I wish I’d thought of something as brilliantly over the top as Sharknado because once you start with sharks in a tornado, there really is no place you cannot go. You are freed from logic, from science, from technology, from rationality. You just have Your Guy (of course, I’d have My Girl) facing airborne fish with teeth. Wind. Flood. Houses falling down. Bridges out. The age-old problem of “Where’s my conflict?” Solved. Antagonist? Coming at you with teeth. Audience hook? “OH MY GOD, THERE ARE SHARKS IN THE TORNADO!” It takes my breath away.

I love everything about Sharknado. I might even have to watch it although bloody horror films about sharks are not my party (I still haven’t seen Jaws). But mostly I need to remember it so that the next time I have a Sharknado moment, I seize it. The world needs stories that don’t give a damn about anything except making the reader’s head explode with joy, and to get that it needs storytellers who can not only recognize when a Sharknado appears before them, but also grasp the idea with both hands and shouts of joy and no fear of what people might think of them for grasping an idea like Sharknado with both hands. It needs writers with chainsaws.

Carpe Sharknado, people. Great stories await if you do.

(For your inspiration: Sharnado sequels that should be written.)

ETA: The Sharknado sequel is scheduled for 2014, except this time the sharks fall on NYC:

47 thoughts on “Carpe Sharknado

  1. I have soooo got to watch Sharknado! It hasn’t been shown in the UK yet, but I must see it now. Although it Bruce Campbell doesn’t chainsaw his way out of it, I will be sorely disappointed (maybe they’ll use that in the sequel).

    And yes, you’re right about it having to be played seriously. Look at Airplane! Played straight, funniest movie ever made (well, tying with Blazing Saddles).

    Also, I haven’t watched this, but saw the headline and thought of you for some reason 🙂

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-23313762

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    1. We _just_ showed the kids “Airplane!” this weekend. I enjoyed watching them watch it – they laughed so hard. And they had a lot of “ah-ha!” moments with many of the jokes. I was thinking the same thing when Jenny wrote about buying into the work.

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      1. Love Airplane! A lot of the humor is so literal . . . a drinking problem, for example. Love the idea of Sharknado, too, but I don’t think I may be the viewer for that (-:. There’s an audience for almost everything, though.

        My favorite title from last year (?) was Cowboys and Aliens. That’s the book I’d love to write (-:.

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  2. This idea of Sharknado should be in our mental toolkit, no matter what we do in our day jobs. The idea of creativity revealed. The dictionary definition of creativity, with the movie poster as the illustration. I am inspired at a higher level!

    The intellectual elites think they are so smart, and their parties are so boring. I have to see this movie now. And, those sequels must happen!

    Thanks for this post!

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  3. “This way lies creative disaster. Never ever start thinking about the objections to your story before you’ve written your story.”

    Ah. I know I’ve killed more than one story by doing that.

    I recommend Jaws. It’s been a _long_ time since I’ve seen it, but I don’t remember the blood – it may have been really gory, I just don’t remember – I remember the thrill..

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  4. I just saw the ad for Sharknado the other day. Immediately made me think of its predecessor Sharktopus, a genetically engineered half-shark, half-octopus commissioned by the military for weaponizing purposes. And then it espcapes and starts with the havoc wreaking. Another SyFy gem that was really popular a few years back. I should mention that I haven’t seen either. But I’ve heard from a lot of people that they enjoyed Sharktopus.

    Really LOVED this post. Had a timely message that I need to remind myself of on a regular basis. Long live the Sharknados and Sharktopus! 🙂

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  5. Re: Buying into the work. I think that’s why a lot of modern RomCom’s fail. The actors need to commit. We need to see/feel the falling in love or we can’t buy into it.

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  6. I saw this tweet from the LACounty Fire PIO: “Can’t say how many requests we’ve had, but yes. We have response plans for #Sharknado they are the same as any other multi-causality incident.” First – HA HA HA HA HA HA HA! Second: LACounty Fire totally gets Sharknado, which makes me very happy.

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    1. For all their awesome teeth, those dudes are just too small – it is more like being pecked to death by ducks. Ducks with teeth. Really sharp teeth. lots and lots of really sharp teeth…. OK maybe you have something there.

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      1. But what if you get the guys from Jurassic Park and they soup up the piranhas to be like, a lot bigger?

        Next movie idea, right there.

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        1. MegaPiranha, also from Syfy. With Tiffany. Yup: the 80s pop star. She and Debbie Gibson later battle it out in Megapython vs. Gateroid. God I love these movies!

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      2. Well, I guess you should go for Pirhanaphooon . . . or Pirhanacane if you are in the western hemisphere (-:. (Don’t talk to me about fresh water fish vs. saltwater storms (-:.)

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    2. Oh God no, I’m still recovering from seeing Piranha when I was way too young and impressionable. Don’t think I could handle piranhas in a tornado. 🙂

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  7. I was reading a Clive James essay on George Orwell yesterday and it charts how he changed his opinion from believing the proletariat were being kept down by popular culture inflicted on them, to realising that the proles drove popular culture. Come the revolution, we were going to be free to listen to classical music and go to art galleries. But, as history has proved, democratic culture gives us what we want – Sharknado.

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    1. This post reminds me of a trip to the MOMA where I was decidedly unimpressed by a curator’s endorsement of an “artist’s” presentation of a VERY LARGE DISCARDED WINDOW BLIND. I “do” neon minimal. I “do” dada, installation, and process art. Crochet has its place. But effing window blinds? This was right after the hurricane that wiped out Haiti: I could only think of how the “cultural” resources that birthed this atrocity could better have been used. Soon after, tired of making “objects”, I traded artmaking for storytelling……

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  8. “If a Sharknado appears in your frontal lobe, you must write Sharknado. Ignore the naysayers, the literary snobs, the nitpickers, and go for it.”

    Applies to life, too. My best life changes were Carpe Sharknado moments.

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  9. Okay, I wrote a great comment on Sharknado and Sharktopus and it somehow disappeared. 🙁

    All I can say is: I loved them both. Not too much blood, just over-the-top deaths. I recommend them. They are fun.

    All the rest of the brilliance is now lost to the ether. 🙁

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  10. This. Absolutely this.

    This is why when I was asked to write a 1930’s pulp novel titled KHAN OF MARS about a hyper-intelligent gorilla being whisked away with his cowboy sidekick to have adventures on the Red Planet where they fight against the tyranny of the Weather Witch, Princess Cyclone my only response was, “FUCK YES”.

    I would have loved to have written SHARKNADO. A friend of mine is responsible for SHARKTOPUS and I hate him for it with a seething rage that only having missed the opportunity to write something called SHARKTOPUS can bring.

    There is nothing wrong with camp, there is nothing wrong with fun, there is nothing wrong with going over the top and being ridiculous. But if you’re gonna do it, go all the way.

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  11. This is a very deep and profound post (on flying sharks, no less). I know I have a very hard time, being a Taurus and all, with not shooting down *everything* due to practical reality. I’ve never really figured out how to resolve the two, despite actually signing up for an online class on “how to mix the mystical and the practical.” It always seems like at some point I do have to get down to brutal reality of, I dunno, explaining how the sharks fly or whatever, then I get stumped, and then I give up.

    Maybe that’s easier to do in fiction, though.

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    1. The lovely thing about writing story is that you can always do that down the road, reverse engineer your solutions. Just get the story down, wild and free, and tame it later.

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      1. I wish, but I can’t reverse-engineer/pants backwards for shit! If I don’t know how it’s going from A-Z, it doesn’t get done.

        But this, among other things, is why I gave up on writing fiction and realized it was just Not My Skill in life. Oh well, that’s what other people are for.

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  12. I loved how everyone just jumped on the twitter trend and life (or my Twitter stream) was all #Sharknado for a bit. It was funny.

    Most importantly it gave us something in common for a while – whether cringing or laughing at the premise or truly enjoying the spectacle, we had something to talk about that transcended all the other crap. This is what good entertainment does, gives us something to enjoy and share with others so that we become more empathetic toward each other. Didn’t matter your name or affiliation or opinion or position, even if you didn’t quite watch it (which ratings say most didn’t) – you spent time pointing together and nodding.

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  13. Oh, I love what you said here. I also think most of the really great literary fiction (for lack of a better term) has its own Carpe Sharknado element. A mad wife hidden in the attic? A very nasty old birthday cake, a woman bent on revenge creating her own little sleeper cell femme fatale, an escaped convict who secretly finances the education of a boy he barely met (and terrorized)? Or, you know, a man who wakes up as a giant bug.

    What you say here about conviction just makes me happy. I’m not sure why, other than it just seems to get to the heart of it. Great story telling — literary, pulp, genre, whatever — takes flight. It has conviction and sincerity at the heart and inspiration let loose. And when the writer achieves that kind of freedom, then she (or he) gives the readers wings, too. That might sound overly twee, but I mean it: it’s why I fell in love with books. I’m sure of it. I entered a writer’s world and was set free to be someone else, live somewhere else, experience a lot of something else’s.

    What you said here just really brought that into focus. It’s what I want for myself when I write. Carpe Sharknado. I may need it on a coffee mug. (I need the coffee, too).

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  14. Did you ever know that you’re my hero? You’re everything I would like to… Hang on, that’s a different movie. 😉 but seriously, yes, a thousand times yes. Both to the part about judging the party on the kind of party it is and on being willing to go with the awesome, even if it doesn’t make any sense. You’re an inspiration!

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  15. I get so angry when stories are dismissed as ‘lowering the IQ of the masses’.

    Inferring the ‘masses’ have a low IQ is purely the invention of the literary elite to explain away the high sales high profits of a popular author as opposed the the exclusive club of low sales figures for literary works which are ‘good for you’ just like Brussels sprouts. Fact is nothing beats a well written novel of any genre, or a well made movie made well!

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  16. Carpe Sharknado <–This. So much this.

    I love, LOVE that you could bring Kafka into a discussion of Sharknado, and it was a spot-on assessment and comparison. Thank you.

    Frankly, I prefer the Sharknado parties to the Kafka soirees, but they do serve nice expensive wines at the Kafkas…

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  17. I find the safest way to watch shark movies is to watch the last 5 minutes or so, so you know who survives, and then watch from the start, and spend the first half of the movie rooting for the sharks. I still haven’t seen Jaws either, but I have watched and greatly enjoyed Deep Blue Sea, which has things like monster sharks in an underwater silo thingie, and reference to vibrators, and so on.

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    1. Deep Blue Sea was awesome! And I love the black guy, who was the chef, who kept saying “I know how this goes! The brother always dies!” Very well done show.

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  18. Thank you! Great post, really lovely, chunky, juicy stuff in there. And this carpe Sharknado doesn’t just apply to fictional writing; I am one of those academic wankers of whom who speak so winningly, and I found myself tied up in all sorts of knots trying to get my thesis absolutely perfect right out of the blocks. It stuffed me up for a couple of years. It’s more than a fear of failure, it’s a terror of humiliation. But then finally I got drunk and Just Wrote. I called the process Freedom to Fuck Up. Out came paragraph after paragraph, and some was good, some was crap, some could be salvaged, some needed to be left to die with the dodgy guy in a polyester shirt who always dies in disaster films.

    I reckon it’s all about accessing the freaky, fabulous part of your mind and soul, and it doesn’t just apply to fiction writing. Slide down those bannisters. Goose that President.

    Thanks again for the timely reminder. And shit, I have to see Sharknado. My ten year old daughter is fascinated by sharks and tornadoes, we have to go. I will regard it as an educational outing. Or, you know, a hoot. (I hope it gets over here to Oz).

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  19. I don’t have an MFA so I don’t know the answer to this question; but perhaps you do, Jenny. How many literary classics were written for the masses originally? Because it does seem to me that the only requirement for literary legitimacy is that your work outlive you in the minds and hearts of the reading public. And if nobody wants to read that book anymore because, darling, that’s so last month, then it couldn’t have been that great to begin with.

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    1. Most of them. Dickens was hugely popular. So were Austen and Charlotte and Emily Bronte. Richardson’s Pamela was a bestseller.

      The things that were acclaimed by the establishment often were not. I give you “The Angel in the House.”

      However, there was a lot of popular fiction that didn’t last. Tons of women’s stories, for example, written by Hawthorne’s “damned scribbling women” who took all his sales.

      I don’t think the true test is whether a book remains famous or popular, but whether when you read it today, it still reaches you, draws you in, makes you part of its world. Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, they all do that because they were terrific writing, not just because they were popular at the time. I can’t remember if The Awakening was a bestseller, my guess is that it was so scandalous it wasn’t, and the first time I read it for a class, I thought, “Eh.” Then I read it again five years later, just for me, and was blown away. Sometimes it’s not only that a book is well-written, it’s that you’re in a place in your own life where it can reach you.

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      1. Wasn’t there also this guy named … named … don’t tell me, it’ll come to me … Shakespeare, yeah, that’s it. His plays were popular entertainment; he wrote a couple of long arty poems for the prestige of it, but his plays were glorious trash. He didn’t write “for the masses,” though: he wrote for everybody. The groundlings below and the schooled elites rattling their jewelry above.

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    1. Of course a lot of it didn’t last, and a lot of today’s fiction won’t either, including what passes the snob test. So, no, popularity alone isn’t the key. But if the writing is really good to begin with, that story stands a much better chance of living on because, as you said, it reaches someone.

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  20. This is what I needed to read today. Thank you. You’ve given me permission to have more fun with the story I’m writing. Occasionally, I write with glee. Other times, my need for practicality sucks the life out of my process. Thanks for giving me a joy hit today! Hail Sharknado!

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  21. Jennie,
    You are one of the romance authors who inspired me to write. Reading your stuff just makes my fingers itch to go type and create my own romantic mayhem. Your humor has gotten me through some tough moments in life that could only be solved by diving into a romance and staying there for a time.
    Thanks for thinking about fiction and doing it out loud so we can all enjoy it and nod like bobble-head dolls on the other side of the computer screen! And long live pop fiction, where some of the truly great moments in literature reside.
    best,
    Cathryn Cade

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  22. I love what you said about joining the party. Promise us a great time and we’ll follow you into whatever crazy story world you create. Faking It and Maybe This Time are my two favorite romance novels. Thanks for sharing your great imagination with the world.

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  23. This is such a great post! I’m coming to it too late to watch tonight (Thurs), but I’ll keep an eye out for it the next time around. I love bad sci-fi. Baal, the Storm God comes to mind. As does Megashark & Giant Octopus. I just had to see the shark jump up to bite a 747 at 30,000 feet! (Of course, my poor ex-submariner husband stayed in the back room until I paused it so he could watch them hit the Turbo button on a nuclear sub!) I like my movies plausible (I had no problem with the superstorm in The Day After Tomorrow, but I lost it when the idiots were trying to keep warm by burning paper all those nice wooden tables and chairs were there for the taking), but I love it when they’re so bad they’re good.

    More than that, I love this line: “Never ever second guess an idea that makes you breathe faster, that makes a million story moments race through your head, that makes you think, “It would be so much fun to write this story.”” I”m plastering this on my wall, and sending it to writing buddies to plaster on theirs. Thanks!

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