There are places that authors fear to tread and rightly so. Some things are taboo and off limits, even in the fictionalized place where we create our stories and taking a certain plot twist can completely lose a reader or worse, make them angry.
I have a tendency to write dark fiction and that is thin ice to tread. It’s not hard to make a wrong move. It takes scruples and sense of self to avoid it because when weaving a story (i.e., pantsing), it has a life of its own; taking a direction that almost seems to be beyond the author’s control. The story is completely in the author’s control of course, but it can sometimes feel like it has its own personae and is making choices for itself, such as having your antihero become a predator on the weak, vulnerable or trusting. Who would like Batman if he was a rapist or child molester? Rapists and Child molesters, that’s who, and no one else.
Now, that was an obvious example. Make your villain that guy, but don’t do it with your protagonist. What about something that might seem safer and less connected to humanity?
What about killing the dog?
Consider the Jurassic Park movies, if you can manage to dredge up that footage from the archives of your memory. In the first movie, a rather greedy lawyer is eaten off a toilet by a Tyrannosaurus Rex. I remember seeing this in the theater and the full cinema of people burst into laughter, and I was laughing along with them.
Then consider Jurassic Park II, Lost world. Maybe you saw it, maybe you didn’t. Maybe you did, but flushed it from memory for something more interesting. Whatever the case, a Tyrannosaurus Rex is unleashed on San Diego. Here you go, T-Rex running amok in the streets of suburban California, and there is a one specific scene – a solitary, tastefully done, but still taboo scene.
It’s the only scene I can actually remember from the movie. The scene was a dog in someone’s backyard, chained to a doghouse, barking at the approaching dinosaur. If ever there is a time I wish a dog would sound the alarm, it would be when a dinosaur was approaching my home! The T-Rex comes into the scene and moments later, the barking stops and the T-Rex is shown in all its CGI glory, a doghouse hanging from a chain in its mouth.
No one in the theater laughed, though some gasped. Again, I was among them. Not funny. Not funny.
So a lawyer (a human being) dying horribly, eaten by a T-Rex is funny to a most people, but a dog (just a dog) eaten by a T-Rex makes people squeamish. I admit that I was even annoyed that the dog was chained to his doghouse when it was in a fenced-in backyard. There is a whole different conversation that can be pursued at this point, but I won’t go there – I’m sticking with the subject of killing a dog and what resonates with an audience and what doesn’t.
Now, I don’t recall any dogs being eaten in the first or second book written by Michael Crichton – this was done for the visual impact in the film alone and it failed badly. In fact, the whole sequel was quite mediocre by critic’s reviews, despite record box office numbers achieved by riding on the success of the first movie.
So, can you ever kill the dog?
There are two exceptions I will cite where it was done successfully, and I will show you why I still think it was a bad move.
One: Marley and Me, by John Grogan. The problems and tensions caused by the Golden Retriever’s neuroses and behavior, and the undying devotion, love and trust shown towards his human family as they grow up to accept him for what he is, contrasted with the grief they feel when he finally dies from a stomach torsion condition; this is a story that could put even the most callous-hearted person in tears.
Two: Hennessey, by Stephen Toulouse (from My Microsoft Life). Stephen tells the true account of how his loving and loved Golden Retriever was dying and he could not spend time with her in those last days because of a dire emergency at work that drew him away.
Why are these stories not good?
I read reviews of Marley and Me beforehand. I saw what I was in for, and as a dog lover, I refused to subject myself or my family to that sort of pain for the pretense of entertainment. I have not read the book nor have I seen the movie, and I never will. I swear, for a dog lover, Where the Red Fern Grows will scar you for life. It did for me, and Marley and Me have all the same elements. I have buried much-loved fur-family and know what the loss feels like without a movie shoving it in my face. Marley and Me as a book and movie had success, but I am convinced that those who bought in were misled dog lovers or suffering from latent emotional masochism.
Hennessey, Stephen Toulouse’s story from his autobiographical My Microsoft Life, caught me by surprise because there were no reviews to warn me. I immediately connected with his loving relationship with his dog, Hennessey, and then the way he was torn between the demands of work and the time with Hennessey, who was dying of a digestive complication. As I read the story in bed to my wife (we read to each other – always have), we cried and even sobbed. There were times I literally had to wipe my eyes so I could see to continue reading. I also wished Sven Jaschan would contract leprosy and have his hands drop off, and you will just have to read Toulouse’s story to make the comment relevant.
I hated reading this story. It was a true account of events and well written; a loving story that I identified with on multiple levels. I detested every single tragic moment of reading it.
So what can we learn from this? The title said it all: Don’t kill the dog. Ever.
In closing, I will share a link to a blog by author, David Rosenfelt. If you want to read a touching story about loving dogs that won’t rip your heart from your chest and show it to you while it is still beating, check it out: Whatever You Do, Don’t Kill the Dog.
I am now going to bed with my wife, who still love me, 29 years after we married. Suck that, Internet. Jasper (an 8-month-old terrier mix) and Jojo (an 9-year-old Beagle) jump up for petting before bedtime, and my 18-year-old son, Spencer, will feed them before we all go to sleep. I enjoy my life and the love I give and receive. I relish it and try not to think about the truth that we all will all die someday.
Good stories are about surviving, not dying.
© Mitch Lavender, 2012, 2017