Don’t Kill the Dog: Sabine Durrant on (Breaking) the Rules of Writing

Lie With Me, by Sabine Durrant, was one of my favourite reads of 2016. It was so good that I lent it to my sister (NatalieReads), who lent it to my mum, who lent it to her friend… and I’m not quite sure where exactly it is right now – I think I’m going to have to buy a handful of copies just to get mine back!

When a book is so good, it’s always fascinating to me to find out a bit more about the author; why they write, what inspires them, and their general thoughts about things. So, as part of the Lie With Me blog tour, here’s a short piece from Sabine Durrant talking about the ‘rules’ of writing – and why sometimes you have to break them!

One of the unspoken rules of screen-writing is: don’t kill the dog. You can slash throats, blow men to pieces, eviscerate women, but give the pooch a nasty end and the studio may well ask for some judicious cuts. (It happened to director Martin McDonagh when he first submitted Seven Psychopaths.) Does the dog die? There’s even a website of the same name with a helpful emoji for every film ever made. 

In books, it’s no different. Stephen King, a lover of corgis, kills off at least one domestic pet in every novel and receives hate mail on the subject. Alex Marwood’s excellent The Wicked Girls collected this one-starrer on Good Reads: “Note to writers: STOP killing defenseless dogs for no reason other than shock value.”

I have thought about the subject a lot – there is a canine in jeopardy in both my last novel, Remember Me This Way, and Lie With Me, my latest. It was the only piece of research I hated doing. (The question “How to poison a dog” led to some horrible threads). But is it gratuitous when the dog gets it in the neck? Not necessarily. It’s in the psychopathology. Most perpetrators of violence have a history of animal cruelty in their profile. Albert deSalvo, the Boston Strangler, found guilty of killing 13 women, shot arrows through dogs and cats he trapped as a child. Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold boasted about mutilating animals for fun. If animal cruelty is a red flag for a criminologist, so it’s a red flag for the reader. A sharp kick to the mutt under the table tells you all you need to know about the person who administers it. A dog is the ultimate innocent, and if its jeopardy heightens the emotional response to the book (underlining the jeopardy of their owner, say), then the writer has done his or her job.

Of course a dog doesn’t deserve to die at the hand of a killer. But then nor does a person.

So what do you think; kill the dog or let it live? I certainly agree that we apply emotions differently to animals and fellow humans. Perhaps it’s the fact that they can’t defend themselves? Either way, some of the saddest parts of books/films for me (and a lot of us) is when the animal dies.

Keep up with the rest of the #LieWithMe blog tour, and check out my full review of Lie With Me here.

2 Comments

  1. I cringe when reading about dogs or cats getting killed in a novel. It’s definitely not pleasant, although if it’s one of the victims in a murder-mystery story, then I don’t mind it that much. If it’s on the level of, say, Marley & Me, which I haven’t read or seen but have been told that the dog passes away, I can’t. The dog can’t be the focus of the story. You can’t make me love this animal and tell me it dies in the end! That’s too heartbreaking! 😀

    • Louise Dickens Reply

      Oh my, Marley & Me IS heartbreaking – but it’s also really feel-good if that makes sense? I think the worst dog deaths for me were in American Psycho and I Am Legend 🙁

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