Saturday, January 26, 2013

Pets in Print

How do pets impact stories?

Most readers have enjoyed pets at some time in their lives. Children learn empathy from pets. Every emotion from unconditional love and to dealing with death can be illustrated through animals. The movie, Old Yeller, brought me to tears as a child, yet it taught me worlds about love and sacrifice. Just as pets help us grow up to be better adults, they can enhance any theme an author wants to show. So, you tell me, why don’t more authors use pets to create or enhance plot movement?

Here is an excerpt from one of my current stories, Maker of Angels, a western romance:

      Tess reached to stroke my horse’s nose, but he reared back and snorted, front hooves slashing the air in front of her.
      “Whoa, boy.” I yanked on the reins, backing him away from her unwanted advance.
      Tess let out a fragile yelp and cowered as she stepped back.
      Plutus spun in a circle, stomping the ground, and he let out several hard blows. I tightened the reins forcing his head into a submissive position. He settled down but kept turning his head to face Tess.
      “That animal is dangerous!” she shouted. “He should be put down.”
      “Never done that before,” I said in his defense. “Maybe he doesn’t like you."
      Damn good judge of character, I thought.
      “If you and I are going to spend time together, that beast better stay in the stable. If it ever attacks me again, I’ll shoot him myself.”
      I was tempted to set her straight, right then and there, but I knew she might get crazy again. Besides, I promised Clyde I would try to keep things quiet until he healed.
      “You don’t have to shoot my horse, Tess. I’ll keep him away from you.”
      Tess got real angry.
      “I told you to call me Nelly, not Tess. How many times do I have to repeat it?”
      “Sorry, Nelly. I’ll keep Plutus away from you.”

What does the horse’s reaction to the woman tell you in this scene? Using the animal’s intuition about Tess, I hoped to show the reader how vile she is.

SKUNK?  We thought it was a cat!
Animals can play an important role in “showing” just about any emotion a writer can conceive. Let’s say you are writing about a depressed teenager, one who struggles with suicidal ideas and low self-esteem. Introduce a puppy. The teen can talk with the pup, stroke the little animal, or even cry while cuddling with the small critter. Readers quickly feel the child’s angst and get the intended message from the author.

How about the fear by a mother with two small kids, wary of an unseen beast lurking in the darkness of nearby forest? To enhance the tension, add a large family dog barking aggressively, saliva frothing on its muzzle, but even this formidable canine keeps backing away from the growing threat. Tension grows more palpable for the reader when even the protective dog backs down.

Here's one last example . . . this from real life. As a soldier in Vietnam, I visited an orphanage for unwanted kids, mostly half breed offspring of American soldiers. One time, I watched a quiet girl, probably seven or eight years old, as she carried a single butterfly that had landed on her finger. She proudly displayed the beautiful insect to other children until it took to the air and flew away. The child began to cry. I put my arm around her shoulders and consoled her, saying it was good of her to let the tiny creature go free. She told me she was not crying about the loss of the butterfly. She said, “I cry because the butterfly can go home to its mother, while I have no mother to go home to.”

It sure seems simple, this concept of showing tension and emotions through animal scenes. So, why do I see so few of them in stories? Evil, despair, love, anger, compassion, even lust—you name the feeling or source of tension—it can almost always be enhanced with carefully crafted pet or wild animal passages. Think about how you might work animals into your story. I promise, you will come to love this writing tool.


  1. Very interesting observations, Dean. I've always been an animal-lover, but never introduced many (if any) animals into my stories.

    Food for thought! Thank you.

    1. Dan, your stories are excellent candidates for animal scenes. Imagine Carlos "reading" the caution of a nearby stray dog as it stares intently at a potential ambush point. Or, Gyle making "friends" with a hungry squirrel in the woods of the North Carolina trainging facility. He feeds it peanuts from a snack pouch he got while on his flight to the facility. The skittish little creature stays close as Gyle keeps dropping a nut every so often. Suddenly, the squirrel scampers up a nearby tree, leaving the latest nut on the ground. Guyle and Carlos instantly prepare for a fight against a yet-unseen foe...all by reading animal behavior.

      You can also use pets to show a soft side to hard or evil characters. I hope you explore this small writing tool. And, as usual, thank you for your comments...Dean

  2. Replies
    1. Stacey, it means a lot to me that a literary agent would enjoy my meandering thoughts and take time to mention it. Thank you for commenting...Dean

  3. Good post. I agree, that readers can releate to animals, and can learn about the characters through how they relate/react to animals in the story and visa versa.

    A thing for a writer to be wary of is making sure such scenes are not blatant or awkward, but instead flow as any other event or description as the plot advances.

    1. Terry,

      I agree. Natural incorporation of animals depends on prior integration of the creature in the story. If it has not been "seen" before and suddenly passes into and out of an important setting, then the writer's insertion of it becomes obvious and unnatural. But, if the critter has been seen a few times before in passing, then its behavior in a more important scene flows normally.

      Great point! Thank you for your observation...Dean

  4. I love your blog, Dean!

    It is fun and informative, and I'm truly looking forward to holding an autographed copy of Maker of Angels!

    Thank you for sharing your life experiences, your wonderful advice, and the excerpt of your book.

    Much <3 and respect,
    Sass :)

    1. Sass, your approval means a lot to me. For anyone who does not know, Sass is one of the most creative and exciting fantasy storytellers I know. It was my privilege to beta-read her latest novel, The Secrets of Albion Falls. This story will carry you into a fascinating world with deep character development and surprising twists from beginning to end. Watch for it on Amazon--coming soon!

      Thank you, Sass...Dean


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