Oh, get your minds out of the gutter.
This week’s topic comes from a comedy sketch done many years ago by British comedian Benny Hill. He’s best known in America for having lots of scantily clad women dancing around him, while the rest of the world also remembers his ability to rattle off some clever wordplay or jokes. If I do this right, though, “patting the dog” will become a regular writing phrase and we’ll all get to give him credit for that, too.
Many years back, Hill did a sketch where he played a foreign film director being interviewed by the press. When asked about his new film (and I’m paraphrasing a bit here), he explains in broken English that it’s a “deeply emotional tale of love and human kindness.” When the interviewer prods him a bit, Hill goes into further detail.
“It’s about a man who tries to leave the mob and sees his friends slaughtered by criminals with machetes. So he tracks down the villains and kills them all. Then he finds their boss and kills him in front of the man’s family. Then he kills the man’s wife, and then his children. Then he desecrates their bodies and, as he leaves, he sets fire to their home.”
“I thought it was a deeply emotional tale of love and human kindness?”
“It is,” insists Hill. “As he walks out the door, he pats the dog on the head.”
That got a big laugh from the studio audience. And from me, even though I was only eleven and really watching the show for the scantily clad women. It was clever enough to stick with me, even past those distractions.
See, the studio audience and I both recognized the absurdity of what Hill’s character was suggesting—that one miniscule, token act could balance out, or even override, the atrocities he’d just described. Patting the dog is a nice thing to do, yes, but in all honesty it’s kind of low on the scale. Heck, for most of us it’s more of an automatic response than a deliberate act of kindness. We see a dog and we pat him or her on the head. That's all there is to it. We probably think more about tying our shoes in the morning.
So the idea that patting the dog would make us completely change our views on this character or this story is... well, laughable. It’s too little, too late. It’s the weakest kind of spin job.
And yet, how often have we seen this sort of thing in books or movies? We’ll have a completely unlikable person who does nothing we can sympathize with or relate to. Violent drug dealers, sadistic assassins, abusive spouses, jerk bosses, there’s dozens of characters that could fit this category. And all too often, the writer will give them some tiny, banal moment that’s supposed to make us suddenly change how we feel about them. They pat a dog. They thank the guy who sells them their morning coffee. They get drunk and confess their awful childhood. They go to church and say their prayers.
Y’see, Timmy, if I’m patting the dog, it means I’ve got a character who’s doing some small, token thing that’s supposed to counterbalance a lot of really awful things. And that just doesn’t work. I can’t spend page after page making the audience feel one way about a character, then expect their views to completely shift because of one minor action.
Now, at the risk of possible Armageddon, let’s mix dogs and cats
I’ve mentioned the “save the cat” moment once or thrice. This is Blake Snyder’s term for when a character does something small and quick early on in the story that gets us on their side. His example of this is “saving the cat” (which some writers take way, way too literally) but it can be any number of things. It’s just a simple action that assures us this person is a decent human being. In my new book 14, the main character’s saving the cat moment is when he decides not to drown a cockroach.
Here’s a well-known save the cat moment from the movie Robocop. Remember when we see the still-human Murphy practicing his quick-draw and spinning his pistol into his holster? He explains that he’s learning the trick for his son, who sees all the great cops on television do it and therefore assumes his dad should also be able to do it (because his dad must be a great cop). And, Murphy tells his new partner with a grin, it is just kind of cool. It’s a quick little moment, barely thirty seconds long and only about fifteen minutes into the film, but it establishes Murphy’s a good dad and an overall decent guy.
Now, the big catch with a save the cat moment is that we’ve never been against this character. Saving the cat has never been about changing our view of a person, it’s about emphasizing our view of them. It’s just a shortcut to help the reader like them quicker so the writer can move on to more important things. Like, say, the plot.
A lot of folks try to have half-assed save the cat moments in their stories, but really they’re just patting the dog. A couple easy ways to figure out which column my random act of kindness falls in...
--If everything I’ve done up till this point has been to make the character unlikable, then this moment is patting the dog.
--If it comes more than halfway through the story, odds are I’m patting the dog.
--If I’m trying to change the reader’s perception of my character with this moment, I’m just patting the dog.
This isn’t to say I can’t reverse how my readers see one of my characters, but it’s not going to be a quick fix thing that I can do with one line. It’s going to take lots of moments and a lot of work. It’s a long process that can’t be rushed. Even if I’m doing it with a clever twist, the reader needs to look back and see that the seeds of this change stretch all through my story.
Because there’s another word for when someone does a sudden reversal like that. It’s called a betrayal. And no one likes to be betrayed. Even if it’s just by characters in something they’re reading.
Next time, I’d like to run some numbers by you real quick.
Until then, go write. And remember to thank Benny Hill.