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!|
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.