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  • Nancy Kimball

But does the dog die?


I'm not sure if I found the death of Daisy in John Wick or the deaths of Dan and Ann in Where the Red Fern Grows to be more traumatic. I don't like thinking about it to be honest. Yet I still found it peculiar when reviews for my debut novel, Chasing the Lion, began rolling in, there was a scene of animal violence that a lot of reviewers commented on being adversely affected by. (CAUTION: Spoilers ahead) Not the scene earlier in the novel where the hero earns the name 'Lion Killer' which seemed to pass through without mention, but later in the novel, in a flashback of a venatio (beast hunt) involving an infant elephant and its enraged mother. One reviewer went so far as to say they had to put the book down, and almost did not pick it back up again.

That scene was challenging for me to write, and edit, and was emotional on several levels. But not nearly as much as some of the other significant powerful scenes involving brutality against my hero and heroine. No tears in the author, no tears in the reader, am I right? But it was the elephant scene that really affected reviewers enough to consistently mention it. Some in caution, some as a trigger alert, and one in particular declaring the entire novel was a page turner, but for that scene, where they had to put the book down and almost did not pick it up again they found it so upsetting.

I found this fascinating. Yet to be fair, I was pretty indignant on behalf of my hero and his fellow characters as well. Jonathan endured such extraordinary suffering in a multitude of ways, and the elephant scene is the one you found difficult to stomach? What does that even mean? What does that say about humanity? What does that say about my work? Why was *that* what broke through from the fictional plane to tap too deeply into the human experience and a reader's emotional core?

As I continue to chew on this seeming juxtaposition, I came up with a few of my own theories why this happened.

1. We're desensitized to violence, even extreme violence, by adult humans against other adult humans.

2. Something cuddly and cute activates our protectiveness and caretaker instincts on an instinctual level.

3. Slaughtering said cute animal is uncomfortable and off-putting so it is rarely brought to the page or screen because it is "a tough sell" in a business where the selling is the point (usually.)

Turns out I'm not the only one asking why. You can take a deep dive on it in this excellent article below whose subtitle is "Why People Need Websites like 'Does the Dog Die?'":

In it was a quote from behavioral scientist Clive Wynne, founding director of the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University, which says "If you're watching fiction, then you take the death of people for granted, whereas the death of an animal somehow breaks through that fictional lightness." Or reading, in our case, it would seem has the same effect. Which is part of how the website (this is a thing) Does the Dog Die has evolved to track over 90 categories in an index of sorts of a particular element of upsetting. It's a genuinely fascinating list to me to peruse and think on.

For myself, managing two works in process at the moment, I'm not to editing stage yet so do not have to think there quite yet. I am a big believer in the adage "Write like no one but you will see it, then edit like everyone else will see it." But I would be lying if I said I wasn't thinking much more carefully about how we're going to get through the "October Horse" ritual for the Ancient Romans.

I promise you this though, we're certainly not killing the dog. If there is a dog. I don't need that kind of angry reader backlash in my life or the disapproving stares from the muse/mascot Eric T. pictured above.

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Mary Ellen Goodwin
Mary Ellen Goodwin
Jan 14, 2023

You're right in animals dying does cause more stress than humans dying. I was so upset with Old Yeller or the wolf in Dances with Wolves being killed

Jan 14, 2023
Replying to

That was so awful, and his horse too, I remember that because I was crying 😭

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