On the first day of my first college fiction workshop our professor gave us only two rules: no science fiction and no killing the dog.
For anyone who’s ever been involved in an amateur group workshop, the reasons she didn’t want sci-fi go without saying. For anyone who’s never been in this situation, imagine telling a group of lightsaber-wielding adults dressed as Jedis that Star Wars is a flawed narrative. (Point being, people who are heavily invested in their complex fictive universe do not typically take criticism well.)
Over the course of that semester more readily actionable rules emerged. Use contractions whenever possible. If you’re using tons of adverbs your verbs probably aren’t strong enough. Learn the difference between lay and lie (I still Google this one every time).
Now back to the dogs. I hadn’t thought about my professor’s creative restriction on dog death in well over a year. I’d been using another bit of advice she and every other writing teacher preached, which was to read more to write better. While reading a collection of prizewinning short stories I arrived at one whose opening sentence introduced a dog.
Well shit, I thought. I’m about to read another depressing story where the dog dies.
So I braced myself and read on. The dog reminded the young narrator of himself and of the arbitrariness of his own human life. Subsequently, the dog served as an analogue for two other characters and their fragile tethers to life and death. To my amazement, the central action ended and the dog survived. I began to breathe easier. In a short epilogue, the narrator revisited the dog, the dog was shot, and the narrator helped bury him.
I’ve been thinking about this ending for days and for the life of me I can’t figure out why the dog had to die. The narrator already learned his lesson about life and death while the dog was alive. The shooting of the dog was abrupt and wholly unsatisfying. It just felt like another self-gratifying dog death.
What is it about staring into the gentle, trusting eyes of a dog that makes writers want to murder them? Is it because dogs remind us of better versions of ourselves? Dogs are intelligent and capable of rudimentary communication with us, but they’re free of human vices. Their lives are fleetingly short compared to our own. Many of our first great childhood losses was the death of our pet.
Regardless of the reason for doing it, killing the dog in the story feels like a cheap emotional ploy. I think it’s a common trap for new writers to fall into because we learn pretty quickly that “happy” stories are boring and even a little juvenile. Killing the dog is an easy way to impose grief on a reader because virtually everyone likes dogs. It reeks of injustice because it’s almost impossible for a dog to “deserve” to die. These are “deep” themes, so new writers sometimes mistakingly believe including this death will make their stories deep.
I see why my college professor banned dog deaths in her workshops. When done poorly, it reads like a weak attempt to make a story seem more meaningful than it actually is. When done well, it’s a punch in the exact same part of the gut that’s been punched by so many dead dogs in literature before it.
As with all “rules” in writing, you should feel free to break this one. People went berserk over Marley and Me, which would’ve been a forgettable children’s story instead of a dramatic journey of emotional growth if it had gone differently (spoiler: the dog dies). But before you kill the dog, consider: how would the story change if the dog lived? Instead of asking yourself if your story can get away with killing the dog, challenge yourself to get away with not killing it.