If you thought watching funny animal videos was a bad habit, a time-sink, a distraction from writing your novel, well, you're probably right. But if you feel like indulging a little self-delusion, here are nine animal videos that EVERY WRITER must study carefully. They were absolutely instrumental for us in writing War of the Encyclopaedists!
÷ ÷ ÷
"Baby French Bulldog (Part 1) He Can't Get Up!"
Just looking at this bulldog pup, you want him to succeed: he's uncommonly cute, a compelling character with a clear goal and clear obstacle. It's not a tense Game of Thrones sword fight, life and death stakes, but it doesn't need to be. The obstacle is small, but it's self-created. That's what makes the thought of the pup's eventual triumph so appealing: it will be a feat of self-improvement.
External obstacles are still important in fiction writing, but in our experience, they're not enough to get readers to root for your characters. To do that, the external obstacles must give rise to internal ones. A character resists the temptation to lie, or struggles to forgive a wrong done to her. Witnessing that psychological growth is compelling, even if it ends without resolution, as it does here. The image echoes in your mind, that poor Sisyphean puppy, rolling his clumsy body back and forth forever.
Peekaboo! There's something inherently pleasurable about it, even for adults. When Ninja Cat is suddenly closer after each visual gap, we can't help but smile. But what really gets us is that the cat seems to think it can fool us if it only moves when we're not looking! Understanding the cat's motive (and delusion) is what allows us to enjoy this scene without seeing the cat move. Our mind fills in the cat's movement.
Can we tortuously relate this to fiction writing? You bet. It's been useful for us to remember that sometimes the greatest tension results from not showing the action. As narrators, we are always leaving our characters and returning to them later, choosing to show some actions and skip over others. This allows for plot efficiency, skipping over actions that the reader can well enough imagine herself (the character fiddling with her belt, propping the lid, dropping a deuce, etc.), but it's also a great opportunity for suspense. The Montauk character in War of the Encyclopaedists, for example, witnesses quite a few horrific things in Baghdad, but we only show the reader a few of them. Many others we chose to keep off camera. The result is that the attention shifts from the event to the psychological effect on the character; each time we return to him, he's a little more prone to anger, a little closer to some future breaking point.
"The Sneezing Baby Panda"
Don't know about you, but we like fiction where characters do things! Where they take actions. Where they react to their complex circumstances, the intersection of their environmental obstacles and desire states. In this sense, all actions are reactions, and the best kind are the unexpected ones. If character A reacts to character B in a totally expected way, why bother writing out that reaction? Why not just let the reader fill that in in her mind? The interesting reactions are almost always unexpected. They're worth their word count because they force the reader to form a more refined mental image of that character's psychology. Unexpected reactions can be under-reactions, overreactions, non-sequitur reactions, etc. This momma panda startling at baby panda's sneeze is an overreaction, one that calls to mind, for us, PTSD.
The "fucked-up vet" is now an archetype in Western fiction — the guy who dives under the table when the car backfires, the kid who cowers when dad starts drinking. These are simple, but like most archetypes, they're based on reality. It's worth bearing in mind that while the "D" in the acronym stands for "disorder," these reactions are adaptive. The abusive drunk's kid has gotten wise to the danger at home, and the combat soldier takes cover immediately because the guy who takes his sweet time might catch a bullet. It only starts looking like a "disorder" when you're in a different environment and the reflex gets triggered by nondangerous stimuli, like a backfiring engine or a baby panda with a head cold. Momma panda's startling forces us to ask what she's seen, where's she's been, and how it differs from the safe but oppressive confinement of her cage. It's a funny moment, but when you realize that such an overreaction is an adaptive behavior for living in a dangerous environment, an environment the Panda no longer knows, a note of melancholy creeps in. The very thing that makes it funny, the inappropriateness of the context, is also what makes it sad.
"Turtle Sex - Funny Funny Funny Turtle Making Weird Noises"
Sex scenes can be hard, err... slippery... you know what we mean. It's difficult to make them sexy without making them lurid, to make them emotional without being sentimental. The awkward and depressing sex scene is one response to this. But we think that's too easy, that it's possible to write a sex scene that is awkward, emotionally charged, and yet still sexy, still ecstatic and intimate without sacrificing the emotional stakes that come with unfulfilled desire. This act of turtle boffing is a great case study. The clunky approach, the brief chase, then the jump-cut straight to the wide-mouthed orgasmic noises(!), which are humorous and gentle, the interval between them slowly increasing, the pan down to the other turtle seeming largely indifferent, the scene going on just a bit too long... The encounter is both awkward and intimate, but awkward and intimate isn't enough. Sex is a bizarre ritual (see Borges's "The Sect of the Phoenix"), and any scene that does it justice would do well to incorporate the bizarre. In the case of this turtle porn, one can't help but stare at that weird tracheal flap opening and closing like an aortic valve.
We strive for all of these qualities in any sex scenes we write: awkward, sexy, intimate, emotional, ecstatic, and bizarre. There's a sex scene in War of the Encyclopaedists that hits all these notes: it involves one party having a bloody nose during the encounter, an event that becomes a source of humor and intimacy through shared mortification. We'd recommend checking out the sex scenes in Francine Prose's Blue Angel and in George Saunders' "Escape from Spiderhead." The former achieves humor through awkwardness and injury, the latter through artificial ecstasy.
"Funny Hamster Eating a Big Corn"
First of all, Hammy is adorable, so we like him immediately. Second, the baby corn is huge to him, and he jams it in his mouth with gusto. His outsize desire is hilarious! His eyes are bigger than his mouth; he waddles around with that huge corn-shaped lump showing through his cheek. But when he tries to run off and can't get anywhere, the camera following him, we reckon with Hammy's context: a prison. And why is Hammy in this cage? For our own amusement, of course. Even though we didn't imprison poor Hammy, we get the impetus for putting him in the cage, handing him a corn, and rolling the tape, so we feel the pang of complicity. It complicates, without diminishing, our sense of joy observing Hammy and his Big Corn.
Vonnegut's fifth rule of creative writing is: "Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of."
Hammy is certainly sweet and innocent, but the event we're witnessing is not sadistic; it's joyous. It's the context that's sadistic. In our writing, we've found Vonnegut's rule to be useful, but we've also found that you can develop character by having good things happen to your protagonists when in an oppressive context (Montauk struggling through Baghdad, Corderoy wallowing in grad school). Purely punishing a likable character will elicit sympathy from a reader; this is fine, but we'd prefer to conjure a more complex mixed emotion. You can allow the reader to take joy in a character's outsize desire, his excitement, while also allowing the reader to see the context of the character's joy: a history of deprivation, an inability to escape, a worry about the existence of future well being.
Can you feel yourself becoming a better writer? Don't answer that. Watch this video.
"Gato Malo :: Thug Life"
The woman behind the camera and Thug Life Cat have conflicting desire states. The woman wants the glass to remain on the table. The cat wants it on the floor (obvi). This is enough to create tension: two characters who want mutually exclusive things. What makes it especially compelling, though, is the consideration of motive. The cat wants to knock the glass off the table because it knows this is something it shouldn't do. The cat is motivated by what Edgar Allen Poe called the "Imp of the Perverse": "Through its promptings we act, for the reason that we should not...the assurance of the wrong or error of any action is often the one unconquerable force which impels us, and alone impels us to its prosecution."
Watching a character do something he knows he shouldn't because he shouldn't is gripping; it makes the character both victimizer and victim. Were the cat's motive fathomable, mundane, the tension would remain in the world, between the two characters. But if the cat is at the mercy of the perverse impulse, then we as viewers experience both anger and pity — the tension exists within our emotional reaction.
We tried to do this as much as possible in War of the Encyclopaedists: when Mani lies to her parents about having a job, when Corderoy falls into a digital seduction of a young girl with cystic fibrosis, when Montauk puts out a bounty on some insurgents responsible for torturing and murdering [SPOILERS!]. The goal in each of these cases was to make the tension transcend the page and inhabit the reader's mind by having the characters, like Thug Life Cat, take actions because they are wrong. A great example of this technique can be found in Patrick McGrath's Asylum.
"The Fluffiest White Dog Trying to Reach Food on the Table — Fun Overload!"
Oh man, this dog is just the best. Fluffy, white, and striving happily for a tasty looking sausage. But he can't quite get it! He's the embodiment of frustrated desire, which is the heart of tension in storytelling. Characters must want things and not be able to immediately achieve them. Two things strike us about Fluffy White Dog. One, the closeness of the goal: the sausage is just beyond the dog's reach. He tries and fails and tries and fails, but he's so, so close. The highest narrative tension happens right before achieving (or ultimately failing to achieve) the goal. We've found this is often a good place to start a scene.
Two, the excitement of the dog: this is an example of frustrated desire without emotional bitterness. We root for the dog in part because he seems happy and pure in his desire; we want him to succeed. An angry dog would be less deserving of our empathy, and we would care less whether he achieved his goal or not. Writing unlikeable characters is a great way to sap the tension from a narrative that otherwise has all the necessary goal and obstacle mechanics. Our favorite narrators love their characters, flaws and all, and you can see that here, too, when the person behind the camera dips her hand into the frame near the end and nudges the sausage toward the dog. In our own writing, we strive to create likable characters, we bear witness as they suffer at the hands of the universe we've created for them, but we also strive to remember that the universe, if it is to seem real, must also sometimes reward a character's efforts. There are some crucial moments in Cormac McCarthy's The Road that work in precisely this way.
"Cockatoo Finding Out He Is Going to the Vet"
Cockatoo's are, by default, hilarious, but this one's also moving. He's so vocal and performative (especially around the 1:20 mark) in expressing his desire NOT to go to the vet. He listens to the man repeat the request, considers for a moment, then screams again, jumping up and down like a toddler. No no, I don't want to! This is perhaps an inverse version of Poe's Imp of the Perverse: a character not doing something because he should. While adults usually aren't as expressive as this cockatoo (or a toddler) about not wanting to do something, we believe that the strength of such refusal instincts never really fades. One simply learns to turn that into an internal monologue. This is great news for fiction writers! Having access to a character's head, you can explore that refusal loop (no, I don't want to; no, I don't want to). We find it to be most compelling when the thing being refused is a decision. In War of the Encyclopaedists, for example, we have a character who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant; she delays and delays making a decision about how to proceed, and this refusal to choose creates wonderful tension, because the clock is ticking and refusing to choose is itself a choice.
"Baby French Bulldog (Part 2) He Gets Up!!!"
Surprise! The pup got up! When we first saw part one, years ago, there was no part two, and that Sisyphean image got stuck in our heads. We're not ashamed to say we love this happy ending. And though many of our favorite books end on a mixed note, we take some solace that life is just a string of endings, all of them seeds for narratives as yet untold. Of course the puppy will grow up, grow old, and die, or perhaps he's dead already, hit by an Escalade in a suburban development, the driver too busy checking his Snapchat. We have trouble not projecting characters on into the future beyond the last page. This makes happy endings uncertain, downer endings delible. Knowing this, we prefer endings that happen at moments already fraught with transformation: the bulldog pup on the edge of a newfound control over his body. It's not just a happy moment, it's transformative.
÷ ÷ ÷
Congratulations! You now basically have an MFA in Creative Writing Bullshitting About Literature. If you liked this listicle, stay tuned for "8 Weird Fruits to Include in Your Next Short Story!"