Animals in Stories

A common way to use pets in stories is to get us all emotionally attached to them… and then kill them off. And then we all hate you for it because WHY? How dare you kill off Fido! Pets have been introduced and killed off in nearly every book I’ve read or movie I’ve watched, and it’s always sad. Obviously this is a great way to evoke emotion from readers, but what if–what if–I told you that you could let the pet live? No really, you can do that.

Pets can be more than just your twisted idea of a sad chapter to bum out the protagonist (and the rest of us). They can do so much more for the plot line and your MC.

In the high fantasy I’m working on, one of my characters has a wolf who she often leans on for support in difficult times. He is her comfort and safety net. Without him she feels alone. Having an animal who is important to the protagonist in such a way can really give them the courage to face all the conflict ahead of them in the story–especially when separated from the pet at times when they need the pet to be brave.

Animal senses can also be implemented into the story to provide little hints, such as a dog growling or barking at a character who is revealed to belong to the dark side later, or a horse who gets skittish in certain parts of a forest rumoured to be cursed.

Pets can warn characters of danger or stop them from doing something dangerous. Instead of the MC risking their life fighting the minor thugs of the story, the pet can protect them instead. This shouldn’t be used as a crutch, but it can be used at the start of the story–before development–to establish the trust between human and pet. (Later, the MC must be able to stand on their own to show how far they’ve come.)

Not all animals can be on the protagonist’s side, of course. In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, humans clash against the apes in battle, and in The Hunger Games, animal-like creatures try to take a bite out of the heroes.

Just be careful what you write where animals are concerned (or violence in general). No one wants to read about animal cruelty. It isn’t cool and it certainly isn’t entertaining, and you’ll find your story being thrown aside pretty rapidly. But, of course, I shouldn’t need to point this out… unless you’re the kind of monster who grins the whole way through Marley and Me.

Happy writing,

Sandra

Common Sense VS. Science

Who will win out: the scientists who have studied all their lives to solve this world-destroying threat OR this random character with no knowledge of anything who just happens to have a bit of common sense on their side? You guessed it! It’s totally the random character with no background in science.

This drives me nuts! It’s really insulting to all the science-loving characters in a story–and honestly just downright unbelievable anyhow. It’s also a really common trope in many books these days. Along comes the protagonist who just happens to have all the answers without really stopping to think or study the problem at hand. Years of studying has nothing on this character.

It ties in with the whole “chosen one” trope, where the MC is better than experts at basically everything and learns all they need to know almost instantly (or in the heat of battle). It doesn’t quite work that way in real life. If you throw me into an operating room and expect me to adapt and save the life of a dying person who is bleeding out on a table… I’m going to faint instead. And probably take a doctor or a tray of instruments down with me. So, maybe your character isn’t so iffy around blood, but they certainly wouldn’t be able to perform an operation without medical knowledge. I don’t care what you say to justify it otherwise.

When I begin a new story, I stop and think for a moment. Can my character do this? What does my character have to go through to accomplish such a task? In Sky Knight, my protagonist trained for years at an academy before taking to the skies to track down criminals. If she hadn’t trained for so long, the story would have been quite different. It’s good to think about where the character is going and what is needed to make it to the end of the story.

While you might have a good plot line going for you, if your character comes off as all-knowing, it really damages the story. Try to find balance. Have a good build-up, where your character can learn all they need to learn in order to overcome the conflict in the story, and don’t surprise the readers with additional problems halfway through the plot that the character can sudden master because of past studying we were never informed about.

I like to balance this all-knowing problem with having other characters around who all have skills helpful to the plot line. If you have several important characters, give them something to do other than slapping on titles like “the love interest” or “the sidekick” or “the comic relief”. While it’s cool to have a protagonist who can do anything and everything (looking at you, Smallville), it’s more entertaining and believable to have balance amongst your characters.

Happy writing,

Sandra

(NOTE: I actually LOVE Smallville. My issue rests solely with Superman.)

Over-Explaining a Scene

Let’s talk about heavy explanation in a scene.

For example:

I saw the light on over the door. It must be my sister, coming home late from the dance. I heard laughter outside, followed by giggling, and then quiet talking. She must be with someone. Her date brought her home, probably. I looked out the window to see an unfamiliar truck at the end of the driveway. Yeah, definitely not her vehicle. It was probably John from down the street, the guy she’s been crushing on for a month now.

Yes, yes, we get it–you’re very observant, Protagonist. Everything is over-explained to us and now we’re annoyed by subtly having our intelligence insulted. Always assume your reader is smart enough to guess what’s going on in a scene. If you drag out the scene, it gets boring really fast and we’ll probably skip over it to reach the good parts.

Try a simpler approach. For example:

I saw the light on over the door. It must be my sister, coming home late from the dance. I heard laughter outside, followed by quiet talking. Without moving from the stairs, I waited for her to come inside and then grinned as I asked, “Who were you with?”

“John,” she said, a bit sheepishly.

Now the protagonist is being direct instead of acting like a shady creep. And now we get some interaction between two characters instead of a giant bubble of thoughts shifting around in the protagonist’s mind. It’s so much more enjoyable to read about “action” than the musings of a character (and by action I mean the plot is moving swiftly instead of at the pace of a snail).

This little problem often pops up when the protagonist is describing something–like a place or clothing or another character. Tolkien’s works are often disliked (not by me) for his long explanations. High fantasy can be excused at times for this, though not when it happens repeatedly. Terry Goodkind explains what a Mord-Sith is about a bill-zillion times throughout his series, and always with the same exact passage. I always skip it because it’s unnecessary. Detail is good; too much detail feels like the story is being stubbornly dragged out. Try to find some common ground between what’s too little and too much in a scene.

For example, if you spend a whole page talking about a tree, I’m probably going to skip through that rather quickly. And repetition can be a serious flaw in a story. For everything that is good and holy, don’t repeat yourself. I caught myself a few times in a previous manuscript with my protagonist explaining her problems repeatedly, and deleted all mention of said problems, allowing the reader to figure the problems out through the character’s failures and struggles instead. Show, don’t tell. (I was going to link to my post about showing instead of telling but I think imagined writing it, so next month I’ll probably touch upon the importance of showing instead of telling if I can’t find that blasted post before then.)

Happy writing,

Sandra