Lizard Brain is a shared blog about Science Fiction and Fantasy from Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

The Dogs Project: Outline

by Daniel Abraham

What is the Dogs Project?

I have this thing about wordcount.  Anyone who’s worked with me can tell you about it.  It’s idiosyncratic, and usually when people find out how it works, they start looking at me funny.  But for outlining a story, it’s a wonderful little kink to have.

Usually, I can do something in about 750 to 1000 words.  The way I’m thinking about Dogs, it’s probably a novelette which puts it anywhere between 7500 and 17500 words.  So when the time came to make the outline, I figured I was looking at about ten things happening start to finish.  Now I knew what the last one was — the guy with the big dog saying “nice doggie” over and over.  Which only begged the question of what the nine things were that happened before.

This is a horror story; the mandate is to present a malefic universe.  I know I’m not going to end things in a conclusive, satisfying way because the ending scene gets its power from the uncertainty and also because pretending I had a solution to the underlying subject feels cheap and disingenuous.  I know that the well I’m drawing from is sexual violence and its aftermath with particular focus on the paradox of most men being good people, and there still being a lot of predators.  I also know I don’t want to have any of that be explicit in the final text.  One of the things that Orson Scott Card said that actually made sense to me (and he and I agree on essentially nothing) was that if a story’s about something, you never use the word.  In this case, I don’t want there to be a rape or any sex or — and this was a decision I wasn’t sure about, but I think I’m going to roll this way — women.  What I’m trying for here is a translation of how I imagine it would be to live in that world into a different context where that dread is fresh and shiny and new.

And I’ve got nine things to do it in.  Here’s what I came up with:

1) Protagonist in hospital, recovering from having been mauled.  His work buddy shows up to visit, bringing the protagonist’s dog along.  The dog is visibly distressed by the whole thing.

The idea here is that the scene give the reader a good hook — here’s a guy who’s in pain, and people who care about him.  We also set up the “good dog” who we’ll be taking away from the protagonist later.

2) Flashback.  The protagonist walking through the park and being attacked by dogs.

This is the scene I’m already dreading.  I have to traumatize the protagonist and the reader enough that all the stuff that comes after makes sense.  I have some ideas about what would make this particularly unpleasant and visceral. I think one of the dogs should have a very friendly face.  I think the attack should begin with the guy thinking that the dogs are playing.  I think the worst of the attack will be when he’s on the ground and one of the dogs has its neck around his throat to keep him from moving.  At some point, the protagonist needs to believe he’s going to die.  It won’t be like a real dog attack, because I’m not aiming for realism here.  And at the end, I’m pretty sure one of the attacking dogs pees on him.  The rest of the story is going to stand or fall on whether this scene does its job.

3) The protagonist goes back to work

This may be a fairly short scene.  We see the work buddy again, we watch the protagnost trying to get back to normal with the sense that it’s not really working.

4) The protagonist tries to take his dog to the park  [ED: In practice, it turns out this needs to be scene 5 and talking to the work buddy needs to be scene 4, but who knew, right?]

Our guy and the good dog head out to the dog park where they always used to go, but the guy can’t do it.  He sees the other animals and freaks out.  The good dog is confused and hurt, trying to go have fun the way he used to, and having his treat taken away (even though poor good dog didn’t do anything wrong).  Hopefully, there’s a growing sense here of claustrophobia and sorrow and resentment.

5) Talking with the work buddy (1 of 2)

I think it’ll be time to take a break from the horribly emotional stuff here, step back, and see our protagonist actually having a moment’s connection with someone.  This is also where I get to put in the idea that most dogs never bite anyone.

6) Losing the dog

The protagonist at home at night and his dog sulking.  When he tries to cajole the dog into being playful, the dog snaps.  At the end of the scene, the dog does and scratches at the door to be let out, and the protagonist lets him out, clear in the knowledge that the dog won’t come back and the protagonist isn’t going to go looking for him.  The metaphor here — in case y’all hadn’t picked it up — is of the nice guy who can’t handle that his lover’s been raped.  From a narrative perspective, this has the advantage of putting my character in even more pain, and also it frees him up to start looking for a new dog (and deciding if he even wants one).

7) Protagonist on the street, getting barked at.  No one else reacts. (Got this scene wrong too.  Seven and eight wound up switching places as well.)

So now that we’ve taken away the protagonist’s companion, I’m going to make him feel a little more threatened and hypervigilant.  We’ll have a scene — probably on his way to work — where a dog barks at him, and he has an anxiety attack.  But no one else seems to pay any attention, so he tries to keep his reaction hidden.

[grr.  numeral eight, close parentheses, not 8) ]The pet store, failing to get a new dog

Our protagonist in a pet shop, thinking that what he needs is a new dog.  Maybe a bigger one, that can also offer some protection.  We go in with him, talk to the shop guy, look at the dogs available for adoption, but our guy keeps seeing the new pets as possible predators, and he winds up leaving without getting a dog.  Chances are, he’d get a good dog, but the consequences of being wrong are too awful.

9) Talking to the work buddy (2 of 2)

We’re almost to the end here, so it’s time to start wrapping up.  I figure it’ll be a conversation about how to feel safe around dogs, with the work buddy pointing out the trade-offs in each one.  Yeah, you could carry a gun, as long as you never want to go to a bar, a bank, or a courthouse.  Yeah, you could do some martial arts class thing, with the understanding that dogs are always going to be faster and bite harder than you will and they hunt in packs, but sure.  We’ll find out that the work buddy was mauled when he was a kid (I’m thinking by a family pet).  When the protagonist asks how long the fear lasts, I think the work buddy will say something along the lines of “It never goes away, you just figure out how to work around it.”  I don’t know the details on that, but I figure I can put it together when I get there.

10) good doggie good doggie good doggie

I don’t know if I can really use a subway car.  I mean, seriously, what’s a Great Dane cross doing wandering around the subway on its own, right?  But I could put him at a bus stop by himself, maybe around twilight.  Have the dog show up, sit on the curb.  Huge animal.  Massive and young and strong.  Probably some scars on its ears.  Not growling or anything.  No expression on its face, or maybe that little smile dogs get sometimes.  The feeling of threat starts ramping up, and the story ends.

So like that.

Come back next time, and I’ll take a swing at that first scene.


9 Responses »

  1. If the kid working on the pet shop gives him some crap about these all being good dogs and there must be something wrong with the guy, that could really sell the subtext.

  2. Work buddy #2 sounds like one kind of mostly-recovered dog mauling survivor. Another kind of survivor might be someone who deals with their fear by poisoning as many dogs as they can get away with, in an attempt to feel in control and safe.

  3. It is amusing, inspiring, and unsettling all at once that once you reveal your Mechanism of Awfulness, people will be really helpful about giving you new ways to ramp up the squick-factor.

    There is an interesting parallel here, by the way, with tabletop role-playing games. Once players trust that the GM is not going to shaft them by punishing them with not being able to play (what PC death is, under most rules texts), they will cheerfully volunteer various ways to make the life of their PC incredibly awful. I suppose it could be that your commenters are just particularly sadistic but I think it says something about your readers’ trust in the social contract that they’ll hand you this kind of ammo.

  4. Wow, this is a fascinating look into your process. Thanks so much for sharing it!

    How long did it take you to break that outline (if you don’t mind me asking)?

  5. One of the reasons my wife started dating me was that she figured she could take me in a fight, if it ever came to that. I was extremely skinny and, for a male, physically weak. Perhaps your protagonist could be comfortable with a tiny dog.

  6. Just a reminder, Daniel won’t be reading these comments until after the whole project is done.

  7. I have Daniel’s kink about word count/length, but only in scripts. I can look at a card on the board, and say — “That scene will be a half page. That one is a page and a half, this other one, three quarters of a page.” I haven’t been wrong yet.

  8. Gotta say, this got far more of a visceral reaction out of me (as a parent and a dog owner constantly thinking about what might happen if…) than almost any rape scene I’ve read.

    The outline did that.

    Which I suppose speaks a lot more to my privilege and fear than anything else, but it’s still fascinating for showing that so effectively.

  9. Love being in on the plotting of a book.

    So glad I found this link.

    Here doggie doggie. Good dog, good dog!