The Fiction Toolkit, Part 3
Shelly Lowenkopf -- April 4, 2006
Another in a series of excerpts from Shelly Lowenkopf's forthcoming book, The Fiction Writer's Tool Kit: Terms, Concepts, and Devices for Building a Better Story. In this article Shelly examines the "choking Doberman."
choking Doberman, the -- an eponymous device calculated to arrest the reader's attention through the opening pages of a story and into its development. A paradigm opening concept for a plot-driven story.
A woman returns home from grocery shopping to find her pet Doberman having a choking fit. She rushes the gasping dog to a vet, who examines the dog, but sees no reason for the breathing difficulties. He decides on a tracheotomy, telling the worried owner that the procedure wasn't anything she'd want to watch, suggesting the woman go home and leave the Doberman there overnight. When the woman arrives home, the phone is ringing. When she answers, she is surprised to hear the vet. "Get out of the house immediately! Go to the neighbor's and call the police."
Who could fail to be intrigued by such an opening?
Very few, it seems, because what started as an exercise in arresting beginnings in a creative writing class ended up as a post on an internet site that deals with debunking urban myths. This intriguing concatenation of events, classic in its allure and promise of story to come, ultimately shoots itself in the foot by the very qualities it sets in motion. After such a fine beginning, the payoff has nowhere to go but a downward spiral. It plays out with the vet having discovered two human fingers lodged in the dog's throat, a result of the Doberman having attacked an escaped killer who was attempting to hide in the house of the unlucky dog and its owner. When the police arrive, the escaped killer is found unconscious, in a state of shock, and somewhat the bloodier for wear.
The concept was so good that it gained the kind of repetition and currency momentum common to the urban myth. In much the same way that a successful movie or TV series beget imitations, the choking Doberman began appearing on urban myth internet sites as having originated in numerous Canadian and U.S. locales. It was so successful that it even made the jump from web site to book, The Choking Doberman and Other Urban Legends. During his tenure in the Department of Theater at the University of New Mexico, Digby Wolfe frequently invoked the Doberman as a splendid example of the opening velocity needed to get a story underway.
E. B. White, the New Yorker writer, children's novelist, and co-author of a legendary style guide, once wrote, "Whoever sets pen to paper writes of himself whether knowingly or not." In similar fashion, writers who attempt to fashion a compelling opening to a story, pushing at the outer limits of plausibility, write of the choking Doberman, whether they know it or not.
Remember: the choking Doberman is a plot-driven device. While effective, it is no substitute for characters the reader has been made to care for.
Shelly Lowenkopf's soon-to-be-published The Fiction Writer's Tool Kit: Terms, Concepts, and Devices for Building a Better Story. is more than a lexicon. It defines a conceptual language for thinking about fiction, providing the writer with the tools to raise the level of craftsmanship of his own work.