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: