Tuesday, May 4, 2010

That One Question We Always Hear

It never fails. At some point in every conference, some writer will ask a variation of this question.

"Can I ::insert controversial plot device here::?"

Can I have a lesbian sex scene in a straight romance?
Can I let my shifters mate in animal form?
Can I cover fifty years in a 60,000 word story?

And so on.

Every time I hear one of these questions, there's a suspended moment in which I want so badly to answer the question with one of my own.

"I don't know. Can you?"

Because, really, it all comes back to you. Do you have the writing chops to pull it off? Do you understand the pitfalls of the plot device, and do you know how to write around it?

Of course, I never answer that way, though I do frequently answer with references to authors who could, who did, and who might show you the way if you pay attention to their tactics. I offer that knowing that the real answer has little to do with who already "got away with it," and everything to do with whether you understand the mechanics behind your own question and whether you have the writing skills to make it work. Luckily, both of those things are within your grasp.

To begin, we must understand why the plot device is controversial or forbidden. Let's start with an example, one of the oldest rules in romance: Never kill the pet.

The stories behind this rule have taken on an almost urban-legend flavor.

I heard about this one book where the cat died in a fire/car wreck/hail of bullets, and the author got hundreds of hate letters over it.

But the thing is, behind those legends, there's a real author (or authors) with a pack of letters complaining about the damned cat (as she's inevitably come to think of it) -- which isn't even a real cat, but an imaginary cat in a made-up fiction book about people who don't even exist. Should she be flattered that her books seem real enough that people are angry about the damned cat? Hard to feel flattered when everyone's yelling at her. One thing's for sure. She'll never write a book where the pet dies again!

And now you want to write a book where Hester Heroine has a most beloved little chihuahua with a complete wardrobe of tiny little sweaters and booties. And you need an event in chapter 9 that will break down Hester's snarky exterior and let her warm woman's heart shine through, preferably also providing an opportunity for Horatio Hero to wrap his arms around her. Aha! you think. I'll have the bad guys feed poisoned steak to the dog! The Hester can weep and Horatio can squeeze and, what the heck, it's not like the chihuahua has a real role in the plot, anyway. No great loss.

Why is this a bad idea? Why do romance writers adopt the rule to never kill the pet?

It's because of the hero. On some deep primal level, chicks dig guys who can keep us alive. In fact, it's one of the two sociobiological purposes of the human male (the other being to father children). Men are supposed to fight off predators and thereby keep us from becoming dead. Are you surprised by that? Do you tend to think that hunting meat is the true male job? That's really just an ancillary benefit to a much deeper and broader purpose, most of which doesn't come up very often in modern life. Most of our natural predators are well in hand these days.

But the purpose itself lives on, hardwired into the male body and psyche. This isn't a bad thing. In fact, it's part of why women love men. Underlying many popular romance stories will be the notion that the female has to make sure that the man is willing to protect her. This is why heroes are so often cops and SEALs and soldiers. She has to believe she can trust him, that her life and the lives of their future children are safe with him. And if his job is to fight bad guys, well, then, we can bet he's tapped right into that lovely primal dynamic.

Enter the pet.

The pet, in this context, is symbolic of both the weaker creature admitted to the home's center (like children) and the tamed male (the guard dog, you might say, whose potentially harmful instincts are being channeled for good).

In other words, killing a pet causes two problems way down deep in our lizard brains. Because on that level, killing a pet is no different from killing a baby. AND killing a pet is the symbolic equivalent of killing off the male's better nature, the part of him that uses his wildness and strength for the greater good.

On a much more immediate level, we just don't like to see cute little chihuahuas in perky sweaters and matching boots get killed off by the bad guys. Not even imaginary chihuahuas in made-up fiction books about people who don't even exist. That's true, but that's also not enough to explain the depth of outrage when someone actually does kill a pet in a romance novel.

OK. Now, after we've thought all the way through the deeper reasons behind the rule, the next step is to try to understand when or if it would be okay to kill the pet. I'm going to pose this as a question to Team Comments now. Working with the example of Horatio and Hester and the chihuahua, is there a way to write that so that the dog can be offed and the reader's lizard brain won't go into seizures? What details might you introduce to make it work? These are hard questions, but if you can get through this, you can probably figure out the problems of shifter sex, lesbian sex, and enormous time gaps with ease.



Kassandra said...

An evil pet. I saw it done in a Kate Atkinson novel. It was the third book in her series, so we knew the hero very well, knew him to be flawed and sweet, yet a former cop and an all around man's man. He kills a killer dog with his bare hands. I came away with the feeling that, hey, if that thing was coming at me, I hope a man steps up to dispatch it. But he couldn't have killed a dog in the first book of the series. In fact, Kate gives us a live dog with a lot of charm in that book. Another way to justify dog death later on.

Dave Shaw said...

Wow. I guess this is another reason I should never write romance. In my current WIP, I even kill my protagonist. Fortunately, it's fantasy, so she recovers. Good thing, since it's first person. LOL

Can you kill the mean old landlady's obnoxious little animal, or is that off limits, too? If the heroine keeps a pet that's less desirable, a snake, perhaps, is that expendable? What if it has some terminal disease or severe old age at the outset of the story? Are romances allowed to have tear-jerk scenes? Flashbacks, maybe?

Do I sound like too much of a philistine here? >;-)

Deb Salisbury, Magic Seeker and Mantua-Maker said...

I started a story where I planned to have a 12 year old die. I've since read that's even worse than a pet dying. It may be a good thing that story limped to its own death.

Would foreshadowing the dog's death help? Or having the dog die while tripping the villain as the hero rescues the lady?

Jami Gold said...

Wow, great topic! I'm one of those writers who doesn't pay attention to those rules because my plots don't just throw things together willy-nilly. If the dog dies, it's because the dog has to die.

A part of me enjoys making my characters' lives hell because I'm mean and I like it. Mwhahahaha! :) But I never do anything just to be mean. My characters completely drive the story - to the point that they argue with me when I want to wuss out sometimes.

I'm with you, Dave, in my stories, the MC might die, steal precious jewels, cheat on her husband, lie to everyone, become an addict, turn into a mass murderer, etc. :) If that's what has to happen in the story, then it's my responsibility to make it work.

As for the question about the dog, what if the heroine ignored the hero's warnings about danger and after a big argument where he begged her to let him protect her, she sent him away to avoid his temptations (complete with threats of police involvement and accusations of stalking). Then, of course, the bad guy comes to kill her and the dog gets it as he tries to protect her. The hero isn't implicated in any type of failure and the heroine gets to make her life-changing decision.

I think I'd have it so that the dog was male and the hero had given it to her - a protector-by-proxy situation. Then the dog would be like a stand-in for him and might let the reader subconsciously think that 'yeah, the hero would die to protect her too'. Yep, I could make that work. :)

Jami G.

Jordan said...

How about a mercy killing?

True story: my BIL is a cop. In four(?) years on the force, he just recently discharged his weapon in the line of duty for the first time. He shot and killed his target.

A kitten.

(The rest of the story: the kitten had been hit by a car and was dying. My BIL checked with dispatch—putting animals out of their misery is department policy. They even have a form for it.)

Personally, I have no problem with pets dying. But, as I discovered with my last pet, I am so not an animal person. My characters don't have pets to kill.

Julie Harrington said...

I read a romance many years back where the heroine trained dogs for a living. In the end I think all 3 of the dogs died when the bad guy stormed her island to kill her. The dogs did their job, died protecting her and bought her enough time (though she didn't realize it until later) to get herself in an area where she could protect herself and have the hero get to her in time. I have vague memories of the heroine getting shot in that as well, but I'd have to go dig the book out. It worked for me and I didn't think it reflected badly on the hero at all.

I think if the dog's death is a result of protecting the owner and a "sacrifice" on the animal's part driven by love and instinct and not fumbling/bumbling or stupidity on the part of the characters, I'd have no problems with it.


Edittorrent said...

The dog sacrifices itself to save the heroine. Sniffle. What a brave dog!

Riley Murphy said...

Okay, first I have to say, I can’t see myself writing a scene like that – I’d never put the tissues down long enough to type it. But, that in itself, might be a good reason for me to try. *pause here while I consider this for a moment* (insert Jeopardy theme song playing in the background) Hmm…nope. :D

Yet, if I were going to write a scene like that, I would have Hester’s beloved and old pet – simply be naturally sick from old age stuff (I’d have her know this internally, but in the beginning of the story, she doesn’t want to face it.) Eventually she has to – and maybe she does this because she’s grown during the course of my story. And with the help of her hero, she’s strong enough to see that her little baby’s quality of life is not what it should be and that it’s her own selfish desire to keep him with her at all cost and her unwillingness to face the tough decision, that has allowed her little sweetie to deteriorate. There is enough drama in this – losing her beloved baby – I wouldn’t want to overshadow it with added hyped up drama. I’d use this normal real-life occurrence to draw her and the hero closer – as he unflinchingly faces this tragic, but universal event with her. Heck, maybe she learns that she can draw on someone else’s strength for a change, and it’s nice.

You could do lots of stuff from the hero’s perspective too. Maybe he thinks she’s a hard-ass and then he sees how she does everything in her power to keep this mangy three legged, one eyed - deaf dog comfortable –which highlights the nurturing aspect of her personality - her loyalty, love and devotion – hmm...maybe if I felt another layer needed to be added here, I’d have the dog be the last connection to a sad past she needs to put away - so she can move forward with a brighter future. Maybe this would show the hero why she’s been reluctant to put her dog down and why too, she’s reluctant to have a relationship with him – or something like that – so that this sad event is a good jump off to something new and hopeful.

Hey, there is a short answer to all this. The dog dying should be relevant to the depth of the story -period. Otherwise it’s just plain mean to kill an animal for effect– even a fictional one. :D

My feeling? If it’s not woven into the story for the purpose of a character’s emotional growth – or used as vehicle for both character’s to bond because for some reason they couldn’t before – or to signify a sad end –that opens the door to a hopeful future, I think the reader won’t buy it. Instead of moving forward with the story – they’ll be stuck going - WTF? I loved that little guy – when they should be going *sigh* even in death that little doggie was good to her. Look, because of his death the hero finally gets how wonderful she is – isn’t that great?

So, my take on this? If you're going to introduce something into your story that in real-life terms is deeply painful, tragic or shocking - whatever it is, better move the story forward and allow the characters to learn and grow, or else it will stop a savvy reader cold.

Just my .02

Erastes said...

It's like anything in books: from "was" or "that" - to sex scenes to deaths. If you can lift that device from the book and it makes NO DIFFERENCE to the plot or characterisation then cut it out.

Gehayi said...

I'd say that if the animal's death fits the story and makes sense, leave it in. If kids can cope with the deaths of Aslan, Charlotte, Ol' Yeller, Sounder, an entire warren of rabbits in Watership Down and Bambi's mother, then I think that adults can deal with the death of Hester Heroine's pet poodle.

Jason Black said...

My gut impulse would be to kill the dog, but in a situation where the hero is prevented from saving the dog, despite trying like hell.

Like, maybe, the hero gets captured by the bad guy (who, clearly, will have used some sort of dirty cheater trick to accomplish this). So, while the hero is tied up, bodily immobilized, the bad guy kills the dog right in front of him. On purpose, while the hero is struggling mightily to break the ropes that hold him fast.

Basically: kill the dog while preserving the reader's trust in the hero as someone who will do everything he can to save the dog (or the girl). It just so happens that in this case, the hero was powerless.

Similarly, you could send the hero on a business trip and kill the dog while he's away. Hard to blame a guy for what happens while he's not there, especially if he's not there because he's fulfilling his meat-hunting function in pursuit of that same broader survival goal he's there for. Tragic irony, yes, but I'd say you have an even shot at making something like that work.

Roz Morris aka @Roz_Morris . Blog: Nail Your Novel said...

Has nobody made the 'Save the Cat' joke yet? Sorry... RIP Blake Snyder

Seriously, you make some great points about dos and don'ts. If you want to pull off a plot device that is usually taboo, first understand why it is. There's usually some underlying reason in the primal ways stories work, rather than a convention that has never been tested. Once you understand that, then you can start to see if it's possible to make it work.

There are no writing rules, only laws of physics. If you know what you're doing, you can bend them.

Eeleen Lee said...

as any creative artist knows, 'learn all the rules so that you know how and when to break/bend them'

Eva Gale said...

Well, I don't think I'd write a villian who killed the animals, but perhaps kick them. Those poor hedgehogs would be launched like shot put, and that would be a shame. Poor little hedgehogs. *wipestear*

OK, my real question of the day- none of this killing pet stuff...

How many gay characters can I have in a full length contemporary romance? I have three. They are in my head firmly and a part of an ensemble cast.

Victoria Mixon said...

Now, there's a rule I hadn't heard before. Beautiful!

The problem with letting the bad guys kill the dog while the hero tries desperately to save it is that it proves exactly the opposite of what you're trying to prove: the hero can't protect anyone from the bad guys, not even a chihuahua in booties.

The only way to kill the pet is to make the reader want it dead. What pet do we want dead? Well, Cujo kind of fits the bill.

Remember the cardinal rule of fiction: it's always about the reader.

I'm an independent editor, so I see this type of issue crop up in all sorts of manuscripts. "What can you get away with?" I remind everyone of Flannery O'Connor's dry comment, "You can do anything in fiction that you can get away with. Unfortunately, nobody's ever gotten away with much."