Why does the animal have to die in order to provoke an emotional response from the audience? I realize why novelist and screenwriters lean on this trope. It’s because the dog or whichever animal happens to be there has placed their trust in humans (or they’re vulnerable and cannot run away and hide) and they end up suffering due to our negligence, stupidity or ignorance. Which is why it’s much more tragic to see the animal suffer rather than the random passerby.
I’m a huge animal lover. Open my photo roll on my iPhone and you can see more pictures of my dog than selfies of myself. And it’s not just dogs that I care about, it’s cats and dogs, and birds and pigs and rabbits and guinea pigs etc. Whatever animal life there is, you can bet I’ll shed a few tears when they die a senseless death on screen.
Killing the family pet is suppose to set the scene that there is something bad that is going on in the new family house or to show the character(s) have lost their innocence in some shape or form. But do we have to use the animal’s demise to show this?
I can already hear the keyboard warriors screaming at me. But hear me out before your rampage of heck.
I’m not going to whine and make others change their story for my fragile puppy hugging psyche. I’m not going to try and tell people how to construct the direction of their masterpiece. But what frustrates me the most is it’s cliche and lazy. You don’t have to kill the pet to show how dangerous the situation is getting. There are plenty of other ways to do so.
Here’s a quick example:
June and David are a quirky and lovable couple who decide to go on a road trip for the day with their dog Burt. We see them interacting with the world around them, and with each other. They both have good humor, are kind, likable, and interesting to the audience. Suddenly, their world is changed when they see a bright light flashing in the sky. David is acting out of character by getting out of the car and walking towards the danger, leaving June and Burt behind. June goes to follow him, leaving their beloved pup behind in the car. They’re abducted by aliens and many terrible things happen to them. They wake up far away from their car, and rush to get Burt. The dog is dehydrated and anxious, but happy to be with his people. June and David have been through this horrible experience, but they’re happy to be alive. Worse, there’s nothing they can do about it.They cannot say anything without being branded as crazy, and they have to act like everything is fine.
No dog death. It’s solely relying on growing attached to the characters, and how unfair and terrible their situation has become.
Of course, I’m not saying, that animals cannot die AT ALL in every single story. If it suits the plot, then it must be done. But instead, we shouldn’t rely on this trope to get a gut reaction from the audience. We can do more and do better than that.
I try to avoid these tropes. Emphasis on the try for a reason. It doesn’t always work that easily. And I’m aware of that. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. And my heart bleeds every time I hear that familiar yelp when the innocent dog meets a very unfortunate end.
Some of my favorite books and films have an animal death, which has gotten easier to view with every visit. Somewhat. But no cliche shouldn’t be the get out of jail free card. Every event that happens should be consequential. So, think next time. If you took out that animal death in your novel, does it change the story? Is it better or worse? Find another way to demonstrate the danger or the character’s mental illness, if you can.
But I’m not your boss. Do what you want with your work. I’ll just be over here and try to avoid watching Marley & Me again like the plague.