Last night, I was making tuna salad for my work lunch. For a treat, I usually allow my dogs to lick the can the fish comes from, and I also give them the water the fish is packed in. Typically one dog commandeers the can–considered to be the most special and important aspect of this treat, and his brother has to make do with lapping up the juice and then circling anxiously until he’s finally allowed his chance at the by-now polished container.
The rule in my house is that no furry individual gets a people-food treat until after the people in the house have finished dining and left the table. Moreover, dogs aren’t allowed in the kitchen while I’m preparing supper. It’s a safety issue. No one handling hot pans or kitchen knives needs to trip over a fur-faced moocher.
However, last night, the rules went out the window. When I opened the can of yellowfin packed in olive oil, something I don’t usually have, the dogs swarmed my kitchen. They would not leave and only reluctantly moved out of the way each time I needed access to the refrigerator. The fish was on the island, and they remained as close to the island as they could get. They were focused, determined, goal-oriented, motivated, and passionate about getting that tuna can. (Incidentally, no, I did not give anyone the drained olive oil. A substitute was found.)
So what does my culinary incident have to do with writing fiction? Let’s consider 10 things a writer can learn from dogs.
- Dogs understand goals. They may be hardwired to instinctively beg for any food in your hand, but they know what they want without any ambivalence or apology. A story protagonist should be focused on a clear, easy-to-understand goal.
- Dogs are strongly motivated to achieve their objective. Call it instinct if you wish, but they aren’t giving up until they succeed. Both the protagonist and antagonist should be powerfully motivated and determined.
- Dogs have a plan. If just showing up doesn’t get the morsel, then how about bumping Master’s leg? If that doesn’t work, what about giving Master THE LOOK? If that doesn’t work, what about whining? If that doesn’t work, any cute tricks to try? The dance? The leap? The back flip? The balancing on the haunches while waving forepaws? If tricks don’t work, send in Brother who has the angelic face and succeeds best in begging. If that doesn’t work, what about the supreme risk of tripping Master?
- Dogs understand that sneaky antagonists generate conflict. Ever try persuading a begging dog to leave the premises? The command is ignored. A louder order achieves a temporary flattening of the ears but the dog doesn’t move. A shout will drive the dog out of the way, but the dog immediately circles and takes up a new position even more in the way, preferably one that requires Master to step over the dog.
- Dogs feel a gamut of emotions. The divine temptation of tuna fragrance hitting the nostrils. The watering of the mouth. The desire. The anticipation and hope. The crash of disappointment. The leap of new hope. Bigger crash of disappointment. The stubborn intensity of trying again. The agony of waiting. That sense of Master wavering. Master is picking up the can. Master is walking toward the utility room. Master is calling. The joy, the ecstasy, the delight of success! Ah, yes, dogs know the rollercoaster of emotions, whether they are spinning in a circle to earn a piece of popcorn or growling at the Fed-Ex guy. And so should your protagonist. Stories aren’t merely reports of character actions. Through viewpoint, your protagonist should feel a variety of emotional reactions–positive and negative–to whatever is happening in the story.
- Dogs believe in what works. Repetition doesn’t faze them. If begging a certain way achieves a laugh and cave-in of rules from Master, then the dog will repeat what was successful. Find writing principles that work and use them again and again. Your characters in each story will be different. The story situation or problem your characters are dealing with are different. But your approach as a writer–the setting up of the story situation, the introduction of a goal-focused protagonist, the clarity of the story’s goal, the determination of the antagonist, and a climatic showdown at the end that resolves the issue–should be the same. Trust writing principles and use them every time.
- Dogs keep things simple. Every time they run outside, it’s their favorite thing to do. Every time they run inside, it’s their favorite thing to do. They live in the moment. They forgive easily. They lavish love with generous hearts. All they ask is Master filling their food bowl on time, Master filling their water bowl when it’s dry, Master remembering there is a cookie at lunch, a cookie after supper, and a cookie at bedtime, and Master scratching tummies and tickling ears occasionally. So should your plot be kept simple. What does your protagonist want? Who wants to stop your protagonist? How will your protagonist overcome opposition to win? Any time you find yourself wound into an excessively complicated plot that has you baffled, simplify it. Clear, direct, easy to understand, exciting.
- Dogs know there’s a time to play ball. Or Frisbee. Or fetch. If your scene is stuck, take a walk. Let the breeze ruffle your hair and blow the cobwebs from your mind. Take some deep breaths and increase the oxygen flow to your brain. For twenty minutes or so don’t gnaw at the problem that has you stymied. Just let your thoughts float freely. Enjoy the pretty sky. Stretch your legs. Take a moment to watch Canada geese putter in the park. And while your dog barks at them, snap a photo. Pause to greet a young mother out strolling with her children. Connect with the real world. You and your dog have shared a pleasant, simple experience outdoors. When you come inside, chances are you’ll feel refreshed and that Gordian knot of a plot problem will be something you can solve.
- Dogs have fun. Optimistic and generally upbeat, they are always ready for adventure. Even better, they believe–with a few exceptions, such as bath-time–that anything and everything will be enjoyable. Writing, too, should be fun. It’s challenging and hard work, but it should never be dreary drudgery. If it is and if you dread sitting down at your keyboard, something is wrong.
- Dogs keep their minds open. New experiences. New days. New people to love. New toys. New treats. Writers need to be receptive to what’s new and believe that almost anything can become fodder for a story, or inspiration for a character or setting.