Pet the Dog — Signpost Scene #8

by Abigail K. Perry
published in Writing

Much like the second signpost scene (The Care Package) in James Scott Bell’s SuperStructure, the Pet the Dog scene gives the reader a chance to catch his/her breath while reinforcing care and concern for the story’s Lead (protagonist). Think about it, if the Lead thinks “only of himself,” readers “get a negative impression.” If we have no reason to care about the Lead then, well, we’re putting the book down.

In order to avoid losing your readers, give them a Pet-The-Dog scene immediately before or after The Mirror Moment: this can be “as extreme as having the Lead save somebody’s life, or as small as giving a kind word to someone in need.”

Whatever it is, raise the stakes by making the Lead put his/her own interests aside in order to aid the needs of another. If nothing else, this illustrates potential for goodness within the Lead, even if we only mostly see their nasty, darker insides.

Pet the Dog Requirements and Examples

If you’re a screenwriter, you might think “pet the dog” sounds oddly familiar. That’s because it is. The screenwriter Blake Snyder coined the term “save the cat” back in 2005 when he published his book, Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. Basically, it’s a moment early on in a film when we’re still getting acquainted with the Lead; it’s a sympathetic action the Lead makes that influences our impression and likeability of him/her.

Some of these actions could involve helping/protecting the:

  • Elderly   
  • Weak
  • Young/innocent
  • Animals, particularly dogs (get it, pet the dog?)
  • Underprivileged/oppressed
  • Distressed

Ultimately, it’s a character/animal that the Lead puts above their own interests, even at the risk of losing their want/objective in the scene. (FYI: If you choose one of these examples for your #WIP, make sure you don’t create a melodramatic scene by throwing in something completely random. The strongest Pet the Dog moments will weave in a greater purpose, and probably will become a key player in the Lead’s ability to accomplish his/her story objective—i.e. wants, and needs.)

The Save-The-Cat moment in a film is, essentially, James Scott Bell’s The Care Package scene, signpost scene #2.

So if the purpose for The Care Package and the Pet the Dog scenes are similar, how are they different?

If I’m being honest, they’re more alike than not, but the trick is the scene’s placing in the plot: Pet the Dog occurs right after The Mirror Moment in order to show or reinforce that the Lead has a heart. (Bell admits that this could be a “reluctant heart,” depending on the character/genre you’re writing, but he/she “follows it nonetheless.”)

For today, let’s focus on a badass heroine with a more obvious Pet the Dog scene—yet an incredibly strong one.

Of course I’m talking about Katniss Everdeen and when she befriends Rue.

The Hunger Games: Pet the Dog

Katniss’s Pet the Dog scene occurs immediately after her Mirror Moment, when she was tied to a tree, injured, all while being stalked by Capital 1 and 2 tributes, along with Peeta and some others pulled into the gang of elites. And although Rue, hidden in a different tree, is the one who points out the Tracker Jackers, the girls are separated during the desperate escape. Katniss later wakes up from her hallucinated state, covered in leaves that work like medicine for her wounds. Meanwhile, Rue lingers near Katniss at a distance, not sure if Katniss will bring her into her inner-circle, or kill her. Rue is easy prey, after all, and Katniss could benefit from one less opponent in the games.

And yet, Rue is 12-years-old. So young! Not to mention she mirrors a less naive replica of Prim (foil character alert!).

So yes, yes of course Katniss chooses to join forces with Rue. This little girl is scared and alone. Yes, yes, a thousand times over yes.

Passage: The Katniss and Rue Scene

Why this Works

This scene shows Katniss helping somebody weaker than herself and risking her own neck in the process—during the Part II section of the story (Katniss does this for Prim in Part I, and her soothing Prim’s nerves while dressing her for The Reaping is The Care Package scene. Spot a pattern?).

“As seen with the Care Package, we are sympathetically drawn to characters who don’t only think of themselves.” – James Scott Bell, SuperStructure

Pet the Dog scenes intensify our love (or at least concern/curiosity) for the Lead, thus reminding us that there’s a whole lot more we have to learn about the Lead, and we have an entire second half of the book to figure that complex personality out.

If I’ve learned anything about storytelling over the years, it’s that a story is only as strong as our love for and/or interest in the main characters.

Don’t give us a reason to like your Lead, show us a reason to LOVE him/her.

Writing Assignment

Now that you understand the Pet the Dog moment, go back to your #WIP. Ask yourself:

  • Do I want my Pet the Dog moment to come slightly before or after The Mirror Moment?
  • How can I show my Lead’s concern for somebody while making it intentional for the plot—i.e. not random or melodramatic?
  • Why will this action make my readers love my Lead?
  • What is the Pet the Dog moment for other books in the genre I’m writing?

Once you’ve figured these out, give writing your Pet the Dog scene a go. Write a scene in Act II where your Lead sets aside his/her own safety and interests to help someone else, at the risk of hindering his/her personal interests.

You can do it. I have faith in you, and as always, I’m here to answer any of your questions.

Good luck!

P. S.

If you benefited from this passage, send it to another #WritingCommunity friend! It’s scary to share our work, but we can only grow when we gather the courage to put our work out in the world. Find a writing community that supports your values while maintaining honesty when giving feedback. I’ll be that person for you, or if you don’t want to share with me, go find a group in your local community or social media. They’re out there. They’re all around! And I bet they’re dying to meet you.

Abigail K. Perry is an editorial intern for P. S. Literary Agency as well as a women’s and fantasy/women’s fiction writer (she’s an aspiring literary agent, freelance editor, and published author). Abigail is getting certified in The Story Grid editing methodology in February 2019.

During her day job, Abigail teaches creative writing and film production to grades 9-12. She received her B.S. in TV, Radio, and Film from Syracuse University and her Master’s in Education from Endicott College; she has interned as a creative production intern for Overbrook Entertainment and as a marketing and sales (special projects) intern for Charlesbridge Publishing.

In other experiences, Abigail is a member of the DIY MFA street team and a loyal follower of Writer’s Digest and The Story Grid, where she has participated in a number of conferences, retreats, workshops, and webinars. She holds stories close to her heart, and she’s always looking for ways to help writers polish/sell their #WIP into a publishable manuscript. For more #WritingCommunity #WriteTip #AmWriting #WritingPrompt #AmEditing #AskEditor resources, follow Abigail on twitter @abigailkperry, Instagram @abigailkperry, and website

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