Slackjaw
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Never Kill A Dog Or Cat In Your Novel

A writer’s guide

Photo by Krysten Merriman from Pexels

Never kill a dog or cat in your novel. You’ll lose readers, and you’ll get hate mail.

Say you’ve decided to write that novel, and you insist it really needs the scene based on the time your psycho high-school boyfriend stuck a lit firecracker up an alley-cat’s ass. Please include a warning: “Adorable kitty meets fiery end in this book.” You’ll still lose readers, but you’ll get less hate mail — except from your ex, who may send a mail bomb. (Side note to self: get P.O. box.)

Have fun killing off any humans you want, any way you want — beheaded by bandits, caught in crossfire, wasting away from a broken heart — so long as no dogs or cats are harmed in the process.

Your villain can be a psychopath, though never a psychopathic pedophile. This will make literary agents uncomfortable. However, your hero can be a psychopathic pedophile. Agents will find your hero interesting.

Never make your villain more interesting than your hero. Heroes must not be boring. This is frowned on, almost as much as killing a dog or cat.

Almost.

Nothing is worse than any character, for any reason, killing a cat or dog.

In real life, psychos often kill dogs and cats. But if your fictional hero is a psycho, he must be kind to dogs and cats, so readers will believe he’s misunderstood. Misunderstood heroes often kill people but never kill dogs or cats. Readers would misunderstand.

If you must make a sexual predator your book’s hero, make sure readers get that you get he’s a tragic hero. On second thought, you can’t pull this off. Only Nabokov could, because he was Russian. People expect tragic excess from Russians. Russia is cold. But Lolita still gets banned a lot.

If you believe book-banning makes for great publicity, go ahead: make a sexual predator your hero, so long as he does not kill dogs or cats. That makes for bad publicity.

If one of your characters feels compelled to kill an animal, make it a coyote. Sure, a coyote looks cute as a dog, and readers will feel sorry for it, but then they’ll remember a pack of coyotes once ate their calico or their friend’s Pomeranian, and conclude the fictional coyote’s death was necessary for plot or character development.

If your villain kills a coyote, then shooting, hanging, and stabbing it is overkill. Edit out the stabbing. Otherwise, readers will recommend you see a therapist.

It’s permissible to base this scene on a real-life incident in which a dog was shot by one of your embarrassing relatives — a distant relative. Terrible things happen in real life. Actually, terrible things happen in bestsellers too, except killing dogs and cats. Those books go straight to the bargain bin.

Notable exceptions: Old Yeller, Marley and Me, and The Art of Racing In the Rain. Thing is, those dogs were euthanized.

Unless you’re exceptional, do not euthanize a dog or cat in your book.

If you can’t resist euthanizing a dog or cat in your book, see a therapist. Something is wrong with you.

If a baby dies in your book, this is depressing, but acceptable.

If a dog or cat kills a baby in your book, this is also acceptable, so long as nobody kills the responsible dog or cat. Readers find human death poignant. It reminds them of loss in ways that are healing. But if a dog or cat dies, even a guilty one, your audience will boycott you on behalf of their own pets — who are innocent.

That’s not to say your cat doesn’t dream of killing you. It often does. But it would never admit this in writing. Cats are smart that way.

It’s okay to kill a parrot in your book, or a scarlet macaw, which you should never keep as a pet because they’re endangered.

Come to think of it, don’t kill a scarlet macaw in your book.

Have the cat do it. Cats are murderers.

The dog would never do it. If you’re a dog person, you believe this is because dogs are sweet. If you’re a cat person, you believe this is because dogs are stupid. If you’re a macaw person, well, you’re not going to write a book in which a macaw dies, now are you?

Either way, be true to yourself. Write what’s in your heart. Unless what’s in your heart is to kill a dog or cat.

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Medium humor. Large laughs.

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Cara Lopez Lee

Cara Lopez Lee

Author of They Only Eat Their Husbands. Winner of The Moth StorySlam. Hiker. Lindy hopper. Baker of pies.

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