Monday, June 21, 2010

Somewhere, A Dog Barked

Pick up any novel, says writer Rosencrans Baldwin, and you’ll find a “throwaway reference” to a dog barking in the distance. Why do they do it? Baldwin postulates it’s because they’re thinking aloud in their prose:

If novelists share anything, it's a distant-dog impulse. Picture an author at work: She's exhausted, gazing at her laptop and dreaming about lunch. "[Author typing.] Boyd slammed the car door shut. He stared at his new condominium, with the for-sale sign in the yard. He picked up a pistol and pointed it at his head. [Author thinking, Now what? Gotta buy time.] Somewhere a dog barked. [Author thinking, Hmm, that'll do.] Then Boyd remembered he did qualify for the tax rebate for first-time home buyers, and put down the gun." If a novel is an archeological record of 4.54 billion decisions, then maybe distant barking dogs are its fossils, evidence of the novelist working out an idea.

Why is this a big deal? She/he continues:

The thing is, these so-called dogs are nameless and faceless, and frankly I doubt them; it's the curious incident when one actually does come into view. Really, are there so many out-of-sight, noisy dogs in the world? Listen: My bet is you'll hear a highway, an A/C unit, or another human before a dog starts yelping.

I’d have to say that’s true. I spent the last weekend camping and, though we were in a rural area populated by a legendary rogue rooster, nary the rooster nor a dog was heard. We did hear an awful lot of traffic; the campground is bordered by a busy farm-to-market road. No dogs, then, barking at Twin Bridges.

I thought I’d test my own nascent novel, “Oont,” to see if I’ve got any superfluous dogs – Baldwin doesn’t mind barking dogs if they’re used in the story, not just put in as a backgroundy noise appendage.

Here’s my near-“somewhere a dog barked” passage:
Dogs yowled as we approached, but the man quieted them quickly down with a few whispered threats and not a few kicks. About a half dozen dogs ran in a merry circle around him as he walked, while others, silent but curious, circled us or sat nearby, sniffing the air.
Fortunately, the dogs in “Oont” go on to have a bigger role in the story than just noisemakers, so I don’t quite fall into that category. (My tell for thinking aloud in prose is repetition, not quite of the Virginia Woolf variety, but close to it.)

So that set me to thinking about some of the authors I favor. Offhand, I can only think of one dog-barking incident in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, coming in “The Fellowship of the Ring,” when a hobbit’s dog barks at, then shies from, the Black Riders. That doesn’t count as superfluous dog-barking, however, per Baldwin’s definition.

No background barkers in Sinclair Lewis’ “Main Street” either, though there are plenty of dog-related folkisms – one character is a crooked as a dog’s hind leg, others are dog-gone tired, or displaying hangdog expressions.

So what does all this mean? Nothing much, except for those like me who get off on this kind of writerly flim-flammery. I’m sure there are plenty of other examples of flim-flam in my writing, so this one test doesn’t prove I’m worth the powder to blow me up. But it’s something to keep in mind as a writer writes.

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