I’m a big fan of Gary Larson’s Far Side and rue the day he stopped drawing those bizarre and wickedly funny cartoons. One of my favourites shows a couple of typical Larson cows discovered in the act of drawing a meat chart of a human figure. The caption reads: Farmer Brown froze in his tracks; the cows stared wide-eyed back at him. Somewhere, off in the distance, a dog barked.
I recently read a review of a book I’m reading — Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven — taking the author to task for ending a scene with the “ultimate cliche” of a dog barking in the distance.
I googled the phrase, wondering just how much of a cliche it could be. A 2010 article in Slate listed authors from James Joyce to Jodi Picoult who have put variations on this barking dog into their novels. Kurt Vonnegut used it consciously as a kind of leitmotiv in Slaughterhouse Five.
Side note: compiling this information is a lot easier now that ebooks can be searched for particular words or phrases. I’m betting the average reader would hardly notice these recurrent dogs (except as they are used in Slaughterhouse Five, where they are meant to be noticed).
Eventually, an uneasy feeling crept into my ruminations. Could there be — oh, surely not! — a barking dog somewhere in the Herbert West Series, written by one A. Driscoll? I pulled up the books on Adobe Reader and searched on “dog.” And there it was, in Islands of the Gulf Volume 2, The Treasure. Young Herbert West, during an awkward “date” with a girl called Violet, hears a dog barking in the distance when he should be carried away with the thrill of kissing Violet.
So really — what’s going on here? Why do so many writers, including quite a few highly-regarded ones, make this barking dog an accessory to scenes in their novels? In my case, it was unconscious. I lived the scene as I wrote it, and I heard that dog. Revisiting this scene in the course of multiple revisions of the text, I never considered deleting the dog.
That Larson cartoon is a parody of the Moment of Crisis, as when Farmer Brown realizes those cows are Up To Something Serious. Even while laughing at the cartoon, I was reminded of similar moments in various novels, where a terrifying realization breaks upon the protagonist. They know I’m a fake. He’s planning to kill me. Those things aren’t human. Here, the barking dog is more than a filler; it’s a reminder of the ordinary world in which the terrible thing is happening, highlighting the contrast between the mundane and the terrible.
If you find a barking dog in a piece of your writing, put out the dog and reread the paragraph. If its fine without the dog, leave it out. If a necessary tinge of poignancy is missing sans dog, let it back in.
Things other than dogs may serve the same purpose if the presence of a dog is either implausible in the situation or the writer is dutifully trying to avoid cliches. Consider the following:
A bird sang far away, and another replied, nearby.
A little breeze stirred the curtains.
A moth bumped against the lampshade.
A burst of laughter erupted from the street.
A siren wailed in the distance. (This one may be just as common as the dog).
On the other hand, the barking dog may be seen as a secret detail that unites a diversity of writers. William Faulkner, Jackie Collins, Chuck Palahniuk, Stephen King and Henning Mankell are all members of the Order of the Barking Dog. So am I.