Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Brad Parks and the Moonlighting Dilemma

 DEBORAH CROMBIE: Here at JRW we are always thrilled to have a visit from the talented, erudite (take that, Brad!) and always entertaining Brad Parks! And Brad's topic today is one that is dear to my heart, as I've dealt with the same "Will They/Won't They and what the heck happens if they do?" dilemma in my own books.

First, here's a bit about Brad's new book, The Player--

When he hears residents of a Newark neighborhood are getting sick—and even dying—from a strange disease, investigative reporter Carter Ross dives into the story—so deep he comes down with the illness himself. With even more motivation to track down the source of the disease, Carter soon hits upon a nearby construction site. But when the project's developer is found dead, and his mob ties surface, Carter knows he's looking at a story much bigger—and with even more dangerous consequences—than an environmental hazard.
Back in the newsroom, Carter has his hands full with his current girlfriend and with the paper's newest eager intern, not to mention his boss and former girlfriend Tina Thompson, who has some news for Carter that's about to make tangling with the mob seem simple by comparison..

It was a hard choice to pick just one quote from the praise for this book, but in the end I went with Booklist:

"Compulsively readable. . . Ink-stained heroes are a dying breed. Enjoy this one while you can."

But then I was already hooked just from the synopsis...

Take it away, Brad!


The show originally aired Sept. 20, 1977. It was the third episode in the fifth season of Happy Days, then one of television’s most popular programs, and it was given the innocuous title “Hollywood: Part 3.”
            By most measures, it was another rousing success for the franchise. It pulled a 50-plus share—these days, only the Super Bowl surpasses a number like that—and was watched by more than thirty million people.
            Sadly, it will not be remembered for any of that.
It will be remembered as the one where Fonzie jumped the shark.
Thanks to YouTube, which assures that no moment of ignominy is ever lost, you can judge the scene’s merits for yourself. Go ahead. I’ll wait. Just don’t get lost in shark attack videos for twenty minutes like I did. It’s only a 45-second clip…
… Okay, so first reaction: Wow, was that really a future Academy Award-winning director driving the boat?
Second reaction: Pretty bad, right?
Now, let’s be clear, I am theoretically here at Jungle Red to pimp a new book—it’s called THE PLAYER, it got some starred reviews, please buy it—but I am mostly here to pump the Reds and the rest of the salon dwellers for your collected wisdom about a writing problem I’ve been pondering.
But first back to the Fonz. As all except for a few iceberg-stranded Inuit know, that scene ended up inspiring the website, www.jumptheshark.com, which invited users to opine about the moment
their favorite shows passed their sell-by date. In the early days of the internet—we’re talking 1997 here folks—it quickly became a sensation.
While the site no longer exists, “jump the shark” has solidified its place in the modern lexicon to the point where it is so overused—do we really need to talk about when a politician has jumped the shark?—the phrase, itself, is in danger of jumping the shark.
But what I really want to explore is one of the most heartbreakingly common causes of JTS Syndrome: when two characters whose sexual tension has been a primary source of conflict in a long story arc finally get it on.
This sad turn of events is perhaps best captured by the eighties classic Moonlighting. When Dave and Maddie finally got together, a show that had Americans huddled around their 28-inch round-screen televisions went straight into the tank.
            Now, let’s be clear, since we’re all readers: book series can jump the shark, too. We can all think of authors who charmed us with their early work only to disappoint us later. But we’ll mostly be too polite (cough Janet Evanovich cough) to mention them.
            Nevertheless, I’ve been thinking about this a lot because of a writing dilemma I’m currently having. In THE PLAYER, the aforementioned fifth installment of my series featuring sometimes dashing investigative reporter Carter Ross, two characters who have been gravitating towards one another for quite some time end up getting even more enmeshed. (I won’t give away more, though all twenty-eight of my fans can probably guess who I’m talking about).
            The question is: what do I do now? In some ways, events have conspired to the point where it would be unrealistic for the characters not to get together.
            On the other hand, if I let them have their Happily Ever After, would their matrimony lead to shark-jumping?
            Now, I’d like to think the relentless pacing of my novels, the layers of suspense that I build—to say nothing of my deathless prose—make it impossible for the series to even come close to hurtling any cartilaginous marine fishes.
But I bet the writers at Moonlighting thought that, too. And look how that turned out.
            Clearly, the consummation of a longstanding relationship can be done well. Going back to the television world, I think of the show Castle. When Richard Castle and Kate Beckett got together at the beginning of this season, the show’s intensely loyal following—which I count myself among—braced for the worst. Yet we’ve been rewarded with another marvelously entertaining season. The interplay between Castle and Beckett has changed, obviously, but it’s as delightful as ever.
The question is: what separates Castle from Moonlighting? How do you get two characters together yet still keep it interesting? Do you have to find a way to keep some kind of dynamic tension between the lovers? Or do you run the risk of jumping the shark even more, like Moonlighting did when it had Maddie marry some dude she had just met on a train in a lame attempt to keep her and Dave apart?
Help me Reds! You’re my only hope.

Brad Parks is the only author in history to have won the Shamus, Nero and Lefty Awards. His latest book, THE PLAYER, received starred reviews from Kirkus and Library Journal. RT Book Reviews made it a Top Pick for March, saying, “Parks has quietly entered the top echelon of the mystery field.” The Reds know this is absurd, since Brad has never done anything quietly in his life. Nevertheless, you can visit him at www.BradParksBooks.com.

DEBS: So, readers, tell Brad (and us!) what you think? (If you can tear yourself away from watching YouTube videos of the Fonz...) Is it possible to overcome the Moonlighting Syndrome?


  1. I think that when the writer remains true to the characters as they were before the two of them got together, there’s a much better chance that the new relationship will not destroy the ongoing story. Obviously, some things are bound to change, but the characters shouldn’t suddenly become totally different people, behaving in ways that are at odds with what the reader/viewer has come to expect . . . together is good, but it’s much less successful when either of them completely loses who they were before. I think this is why the Castle and Beckett relationship works and the Maddie and Dave one did not . . . .

    Congratulations on “The Player” . . . I’m looking forward to reading it . . . .

  2. After meeting you at Deadly Ink last year, I have a hunch you know what you're doing, Ace, and the magic will continue to flow. I believe Joan has the key, and the reason Moonlighting died -- Are the characters being themselves in getting together, or puppets in a play needing new surprises? Good luck from an old rim rat.

  3. Some couples, you can tell from the first chapter of the first book, will be getting together. All you have to do is look forward to it. I'm thinking of Gemma and Duncan. With other couples? Huge risk. What do you do the morning after?

  4. Well, I don't notice that Debs', Julia's, or Rhys' series have been canceled after their female and male leads got together. These Jungle Reds have figured out, as you said, how to keep the tension up even in the face of, gulp, matrimony. (I'm sorry, Susan, I haven't gotten to your books, yet, so I don't know if your characters have 'gotten it on' yet or not.) So it clearly depends on how the author pulls it off. And I look forward to adding your book to my stack, Brad!

  5. Hi Brad. How lovely of you to bring up Moonlighting. A delightful show, and Cybil Shepherd ran around in wedgies. That alone made it ground-breaking.

    Sometimes a series takes so long to get the characters together, I worry I'm going to have to read geriatric sex scenes before it's said and done.

    A wise person once said: Marriage doesn't end problems, it opens up a whole new set of different problems.

  6. When I was in my early teens, and obsessed with Gone With The Wind, I did a lot of "if only" pondering. IF ONLY Scarlett had figured out that she really loved Rhett before he burned out on her, IF ONLY Melanie had told Scarlett sooner that Rhett really loved her, etc. And then I realized that they wouldn't have been the characters they were if they'd come around to their realizations early enough to live happily ever after.

    I do love Castle, and I was afraid it wouldn't work once they got together, but I agree that it has. And I think it is because the characters had the seeds of who they've become from the beginning, so for them to grow a little, without losing all of their early defensive behaviors, keeps them true to themselves.

    In my second novel, I got to the end and thought, "HOW do I resolve this?", and I went back and reread the book from the beginning, and the answer was a throwaway line in Chapter 2. Sometimes you have something early on that tells you more than you'd realized, and you can use it later, and this is true about characterization.

    That said, half the "shark jumping" of that scene with the Fonz is that his stunt double is so obviously NOT him.

  7. Moonlighting has been the cause of many frustrated fictional relationships. Too many tv shows, especially, and a few book series (JE, cough) got caught up in the fear of losing fans if a relationship were consummated that they began manufacturing sometimes ridiculous ways to keep it from happening. NOT getting the couple together, or choosing which relationship to develop, has been the show motion shark jump in many a series. Moonlighting should never have let Dave and Maddie get together because we never really liked either character, we just liked the way they irritated each other. Castle works because we like both characters, and like the way they interact.

  8. Hi Brad, so lovely to meet you! I've dealt with/been dealing with this issue myself in the Maggie Hope series. For a while I skirted it by creating a love triangle. However, at the end of the day, it lead to a realization — why does my heroine have to be paired off with anyone at all? (Given that there's World War II and my gal is a spy makes this more true to the character.)

  9. OH, my. I am so happy to be here today so I can secretly lurk and see why you all tell Brad, then steal it. I'm with you, brother. Got exactly the same dilemma.

    Jake and Jane 4-evah? Or...

    Congratulations, Brad, on your wild success! xoxoo

  10. I tend to think that Joan and Ramona are right.

    Be true to the characters. If they are the same people before as after, I think it works. If they do a complete 180, well, not so much.

    And marriage does not remove complications - nor does having children. It just introduces new ones. Just look at Rhys's latest.

    And Hank, I'll be extremely interested to see where the Jake/Jane relationship goes!

  11. Many writers (as evidenced above) have succeeded after letting their characters get and stay together the question isn't whether it can be done, but whether a particular writer can pull it off.

    I have no doubt you can do whatever you choose, Brad, and it will turn out just fine.

    ~ Jim

  12. I'm lurking and watching, too, for future reference, but I'm also "thinking aloud."

    I like Sandi's explanation: we never really liked David and Maddie, let alone thought they should be a couple. They both had too much ego for us to connect with them. Plus, after their encounter, the show's vibe slipped from a "dramedy" about a scrappy PI firm to a soap opera. If we wanted soap opera, we could've watched Dallas or Dynasty. :)

    I also see both Moonlighting and Castle as products of their times. Moonlighting was on TV thirty years ago?? :) (Yikes) Society was very different then.

    As for Castle, both Kate and Rick have been likeable from the beginning. Each is a successful individual and yet they're even better together. Unlike David the PI, Kate may have been annoyed with having a tagalong ridealong, but she was a reader and a secret (for a while) Derek Storm fan. They were always attracted to each other, even longed for each other, but kept it under wraps for years (seasons) for professional reasons.

    Kate and Rick are always professional, except for minor slips. David and Maddie seemed to come unmoored after they got together.

    Ooops. I went on like Hans Gruber "talk(ing) mens fashions all day." :(

  13. The problem comes when a series gets stale and THAT becomes the reason that the couple DO IT. Weddings, babies - same deal.

    I also hate it when two characters finally get together and then one of them gets bumped off... or kidnapped... So the getting together was just a way to raise the stakes.

    Whatever you do, hide the strings and pulleys.

  14. Oh, and HI BRAD! We're so tickled to have you guesting today on Jungle Red!

  15. I'm glad( or at least I hope) it's not apparent in my books how much I worried about whether readers would lose interest in my series once Gemma and Duncan got married. But it reached the point where it was stupid and annoying for them NOT to get married. And out of character. They are responsible, likeable (for the most part) people who care about each other and their kids. It was the right thing to do. And I agree with Ramona--marriage can make things more interesting rather than less.

    And I also agree about Castle and Beckett. They compliment each other, and it's been such fun to see them grow in the relationship.

    Brad, I have no doubt you can get your characters together without JTS!

  16. First off, I agree with the ideas presented above- staying true to the characters (and not having obvious stunt doubles).

    Second...Brad! You forgot me! I'm your twenty-ninth fan! Can't wait to read "The Player!"

  17. Sandi's point is dead on!

    Yup, marriage brings its own set of conflicts, doesn't it? That is, if it's a normal marriage. Only fairy tale characters live happily ever after.

  18. Hi Brad. Congrats on the new book. I've been facing this problem myself since Molly Murphy married Daniel Sullivan and Lady Georgie is on the path to marriage with Darcy. It certainly has changed the dynamic and made the stories more challenging. But in Molly's case it has made her more real--how do you solve a crime with a husband and a young baby to take care of? Why do you solve it? Good motive needed (and reason that her husband can't solve it).

  19. Welcome back, Brad! Looking forward to another great book!

    If there are genuine reasons that have kept a couple apart (and not obviously manufactured for drama), those reasons will still affect their relationship if they get together or marry, plus there are the inevitable stressors of marriage and parenthood. I think writers have lived under the shadow of Moonlighting for too long. Look at Rhys, Julia, and Debs and analyze how they've managed it so successfully.

  20. Interesting topic, Brad. And, of course, I now have yet another author to add to my TBR list, as your new book and series sound right up my alley of reading.

    I think Joan nailed it with her assessment of what makes the coupling successful, the characters staying true to themselves. As a big fan of Castle, I so wanted Beckett and Castle to get together, but I was so afraid that the series would go downhill afterwards. I'm so delighted that their joining has successfully worked, and while they are still themselves, they have actually grown as people/characters in the compromises and considerations they have had to make.

    Now, in looking at some of my favorite couples--Duncan and Gemma, Clare and Russ, Molly and Daniel, Jane and Jake--I think their getting together was just a natural evolution of the storylines, and a precaution against fans carrying torches outside the authors' houses if it didn't happen (Hank, are you paying attention?). Deborah, Julia, and Rhys have definitely let the characters stay true to themselves while solidifying their couple status. And, not that they don't still face challenges as couples. Now, how is Hank going to keep Jane and Jake both in their careers and happy with themselves when they get together, as their situation poses real career threats if they get together. Well, I'm counting on Hank to get that worked out in book three (remember the torches at the door motivation).

    I'm reading a book right now where the two main characters are facing off about their differences and the impossibility of their union, and I'm not quite sure how I want it to go. The romantic in me wants them to get together, but as Joan pointed out, not at the sake of either character having to give up their essence.

  21. This has been an amazing outpouring everyone! Thank you SO much. I'm totally cutting and pasting all of this in a Word file so I can look at it while writing.

    Okay, so, keep it natural... keep the characters who they are... read Deb, Julia and Rhys to figure out how it's done. This is great!

  22. Oh, and btw:

    @Ellen Kozak: That actually IS Henry Winkler. Apparently, half the reason the show's organizers shot the scene is because he first came to fame as a champion waterskier. Who knew??

  23. @paulabuck: Actually, I already counted you among the 28. What can I say? I've always been hoping you might come on board.

  24. @Rhonda Lane. I think there's a lot of wisdom here:
    "As for Castle, both Kate and Rick have been likeable from the beginning. Each is a successful individual and yet they're even better together... David and Maddie seemed to come unmoored after they got together."

    So just like you want to make sure an individual character is likeable, you want to make sure the couple -- as a unit -- is likeable.

  25. Oh, and Hank:

    I hope you appreciate I made it through a whole post that was mostly about television and never ONCE made fun of TV news people. See? It really is just Carter Ross who has that bent...

    Hugs to all. Back later. Heading up to DC for a signing at the fabulous One More Page books in Arlington!

  26. Fascinating column, and comments! The topic brought to mind J.D. Robb's "In Death" series - it was written with the deliberate intent for the main characters to get together from the start; the interest from there has been seeing both of them grow and change within their marriage, the choices they confront and the decisions they make along the way.

  27. Someone on Twitter brought up Dorothy Sayers--not the best example, in my opinion. Sayers lost interest in Peter and Harriet once they got together. If you're going back to Golden Age (and later) couples in English mysteries, what about Roderick Alleyn and Agatha Troy? They were both interesting and independent characters, and marriage only made them more so.

  28. Welcome back Brad, we're always happy to have a good jolt of testosterone at Jungle Red!

    I loved the Fonzie clip, though I don't remember seeing it, though I watched the show religiously. Best of all has to be skiing in the black leather jacket:)

    Honestly I can't answer this question because I've never had a main character with a satisfactory love life. I always try putting them in therapy...sometimes that helps:)

    good luck and congrats on the new book!

  29. Rhys, I am trying to recall if the last Constable Evans mystery in the series ended when Constable Evans and Bronwen got married or when they were on their honeymoon? They were one of my favorite couples.

    Brad Parks, I agree with the others that the characters have to be likable. Now I have another new author to add to my list of books to read, I look forward to reading your books.


    p.s. apologies in advance if this shows up twice on the blog.

  30. @ Roberta - You're always happy to have a good jolt of testosterone but Bryan Gruley was busy so you got me instead.

  31. @Brad--if it IS Henry Winkler (who comes here often, because the show was set here and because of the "bronze Fonz" on our Riverwalk) why do the face and the body shape change in shots showing the skiing, as opposed to those showing his face at the start and the end? But I will make inquiries next time he is in town.

  32. Aww...we love Bryan Gruley! HOw was the signing?

    And yes, Brad, I did notice. And I am still smiling.

    And you'll notice I made Jane a newspaper reporter.
    For now.

  33. Hank, is that a clue, "for now"? Hmm, maybe I won't have to show up at your door with a torch after all (see my first post). Sounds like a compromise might be in the works for Jane and Jake career-wise. Yay!

  34. I agree with the others - it is all in how it is done.

    I never watching Moonlighting, but honestly I was ready to whack the next person who worried about the Moonlighting effect for Castle. (I write a recap of the show, so I got that a lot).

    Another recent show that got the main couple together in a great way was Chuck. They got together in season 2.5, and it didn't hurt the show at all.

    The secret in both cases is to find organic issues they can work through as a couple in their relationship. Honestly, Beckett and Castle are stronger now then they have ever been because of their relationship. On Chuck, Chuck and Sarah had lots to work through because of her past and her attitude toward relationships. We still root for both couples, and we love the growth we see them bring out in each other.

    That's what makes a relationship work or not work.

    (That and professional actors. I've heard rumors that part of the reason Moonlighting fell apart when the couple got together was behind the scenes issues. Don't know if it is true or not, but it is something to consider. I know it affected my 80's favorite example - Scarecrow and Mrs. King. Kate Jackson was sick so couldn't do as much of the show. That killed it.)

  35. Cut and paste Hallie's comments front and center: when two characters get together for no other reason but because the series is stale, bleah! When or if your couple comes together, that step arises out of how the writer has built them, as a logical extension of their lives. Loved the example of Roderick and Troy. I feel as if Helen got killed off in nameless author's (cough, Elizabeth George, cough)series in order to be able to introduce future love interests in Inspector Lynley's life. I thought Lynley succeeding in loving and building a life with Helen was great--like Kincaid and Gemma--the romance, the marriage, have not killed that series at all! Ditto for our other JR writers!