The Power of Decency in Fiction

by James Scott Bell

If you’ve been in my workshops or read a few of my writing books, you know about the “pet the dog” beat. The name is not original with me, but comes from the old Hollywood screenwriters. Blake Snyder changed it to “save the cat.” So pet lover-writers can choose their preferred metaphor.

I have refined the concept to make it something more specific than merely doing something nice for someone. In my view, the best pet-the-dog moments are those where the protagonist helps someone weaker or more vulnerable than himself, and by doing so places himself in further jeopardy. Thus, it falls naturally into Act 2, usually on either side of the midpoint.

I think of Katniss Everdeen helping little Rue in The Hunger Games. Or Richard Kimble in the movie The Fugitive, saving a little boy’s life in the hospital emergency ward (and having his cover blown as a result).

David Janssen as The Fugitive

And speaking of The Fugitive, I’ve been watching the old TV series starring David Janssen. The show was a big hit in the 60s, and after watching a few I came to see that a big part of the reason is the pet-the-dog motif in almost every episode. There usually comes a time when someone is in need of medical attention. Kimble, therefore, has a dilemma. He can help and give away his medical skills (leading to suspicions about his background). Or he can quietly walk away.

What do you think this decent guy does?

An episode called “Fatso” will serve as an example. It’s a particularly good entry, directed by one of the best of that rare breed, the female Hollywood director—Ida Lupino.

Kimble (now using the name Bill Carter) has hitched a ride with a traveling salesman who is fighting off sleep. For safety’s sake, Kimble takes the wheel into the next town. Unfortunately, an errant driver forces Kimble to swerve and rear end a parked car.

Knowing the local cops will soon be on the scene, Kimble tries to sneak away, but is nabbed by the sheriff and arrested for fleeing the scene of an accident. They take his prints. Kimble, sitting in the clink, knows it’s just a matter of time before they identify who he is.

Jack Weston as David in “Fatso”

He shares his cell with a sad sack, an overweight drunk named David (played by that reliable character actor of the time, Jack Weston). When the sheriff comes to release David, Kimble socks the lawman and knocks him out. He heads for the door. David begs Kimble to take him along. They hop a train, heading for David’s boyhood home.

Meanwhile, Lt. Philip Gerard (Barry Morse), who is always one step behind Kimble, gets the report based on Kimble’s prints. He flies to Kentucky where all this is taking place.

Kimble learns that David, who everyone calls “slow,” wants to see his estranged father, who is dying on the horse ranch where he grew up. David is full of fear because of his father’s disapproval. Something happened in the past that caused his father to throw him out.

Kimble and David arrive at the ranch and are met by David’s younger brother, Frank. This guy is a real jerk. He calls David “Fatso” and needles him about that terrible thing that happened.

Frank is also suspicious of Kimble. Why would a guy like this befriend a loser like David?

As the episode goes on, with Gerard getting closer and Frank feeding the local sheriff his suspicions, Kimble tries to help David. Knowing that the only way David can become whole again is to confront the past, not run from it. To gain David’s trust, Kimble admits he’s a doctor. He then walks David through the night that the barn burned down and killed several horses. David was drunk and alone on the farm, and everyone, including David, is convinced he set the fire.

But Kimble does some digging and finds out that Frank was AWOL that night from the local army base. He presents this evidence to David’s father and mother. They confront Frank. He confesses. He set David up to get him disowned and out of the will.

David’s father asks for David’s forgiveness.

It’s all very redemptive, but there’s one problem: Gerard has just pulled up to the house with the sheriff!

The mother, played with gusto by that wonderful character actress Glenda Farrell, sends Kimble out the back door and proceeds to delay the investigators.

In each show’s epilogue, as we see Kimble disappear into the night, we hear the dulcet tones of one of the great voice-over actors, William Conrad, giving an ominous send-off. In “Fatso,” he says: “A Fugitive has to watch his step. Every step he takes, every hour, every minute, every second, any move he makes might lead to Death Row. There’s no way of knowing in advance. There’s never any way of knowing.”

Thus, virtually every episode is built around Kimble, on the run, arriving in some locale where he manages to pick up a menial job, but then gets involved with another character who is having some life-and-death problem, too … and Kimble is in a position to help.

I say this pet-the-dog motif is the secret of the show’s popularity. David Janssen was perfect for the part. He does a lot of acting with his face—trying to appear innocent as the questions get more pointed; attempting to ignore someone’s troubles even as his core goodness makes that impossible.

The movie works in the same way, with a similar stellar acting job by Harrison Ford. There’s one moment that makes me smile every time. After Kimble saves the little boy’s life in the hospital, he’s confronted by a doctor (Julianne Moore) who had seen him checking out the boy’s X-ray. She calls security. Kimble races to the stairs and starts down, almost bumping into someone.

“Excuse me,” he says.

I love it! Even as he’s running for his life, he can’t give up his fundamental decency.

Why do we respond so strongly to this motif? It’s not hard to understand. In this life, which Hobbes described as “nasty, brutish, and short,” we long for decency, thirst for kindness, are grateful for compassion. Seeing it manifested in a lead character draws us to him, creates the bond that is one of the big secrets of successful fiction.

What are some of your favorite pet-the-dog moments in movies or books? Don’t you find yourself really drawn to characters who show compassion for the vulnerable?

26 thoughts on “The Power of Decency in Fiction

  1. I love this. These are the lives I find interesting, the type of characters I like to write and read about. Good, decent people in tough situations where character wins.

    My favorite movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, is full of these moments. George saves his little brother from drowning. George saves the druggist from accidentally poisoning someone. George stays to run the building and loan. Each incident costs him something. He wonders if it was all worth it. Then he sees what would have happened if he was never there.

    I watch this movie every Christmas Eve while I wrap presents. I never get tired of it.

    • Can’t go wrong with It’s a Wonderful Life. And Jimmy Stewart virtually defined decency as a trait of the everyman protagonist, from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington on down the line.

  2. I love, love, love “The Ocean at the End of the Lane”. It’s not the narrator’s pet-the-dog moment, but rather his reaction to being the recipient of that action that brought me to tears. His reaction to the memory was so visceral, so painful, and we feel that because we’re seeing it for the first time. We get that extra knife twist because we know that it happened long ago and the girl who made the sacrifice is still paying the consequence.

    I think Neil cranked up the emotion in that scene by letting the narrator realize and feel that sacrifice, and then lose it again–right in front of us. Because what’s sadder than finding out someone loved you so much they gave (essentially) their life for yours? Having someone love you that much–and you never know.

    I must have read that scene half a dozen times just trying to absorb the shift.

  3. In “Braveheart,” William Wallace rouses his fellow Scots to successfully resist English occupation. Despite having been declared an outlaw, and on the run, this man of war risks meeting with the English to discuss peace.

    Sadly, it’s a trap. Wallace sacrifices himself for his countrymen.

  4. Judging by your post & the replies, the pet-the-dog/save-the-cat moment is both very visceral to reader/viewer and, of all the teaching points in writing, seems to be best at revealing instant imagery. Shows like Bonanza were built around this concept. The Cartwrights weren’t running from the law, but almost every episode saw them risking their neck to help someone else because they just couldn’t do anything else. I think of the 3rd season episode “The Ride” where Adam recognized a hooded man who gunned down a sweet old station master named Toby Barker in cold blood and reported it to the sheriff–yet no one, not his family, not the sheriff, not even the town, believed he was right. He risked the wrath of his family, his friends, and his life to prove it in the end. This technique is even used wonderfully in a humor episode from season 3 called “Springtime”.

    In Zane Grey’s “Forlorn River”, the ‘Nevada’ character has found anonymity working on the ranch with Ben Ide, able to put his past behind him. Even became a partner in the ranch But when Ben is framed and his life and reputation are at stake, Nevada doesn’t hesitate to step in and use his skill set as a gunslinger, even if it means he now has to go back on the run to avoid capture. Technically the gun-slinging “Save-the-Ide” moment doesn’t come till near the end, but we know from earlier in the story that Nevada will do what he has to to save his friend.

    I never consciously thought about in much in other genres, but that’s why I love the western in particular.

  5. This is not as dramatic or crucial as the other ones, but at the end of the third Pirates of the Caribbean, Barbosa pauses in the middle of an intense battle to perform Elizabeth’s and Will’s wedding. While the two getting married fight throughout, Barbosa puts down his sowrd, puts his hand to his heart and recites the vows. One reason this is one of my favorite movies is that they present characters that are clearly “bad” and definitely selfish but who perferm little acts of goodness. Like when Jack Sparrow gives up his long search for power and immortality to save Will’s life. It’s barely thirty seconds in the movie, something that you can easily miss—though I don’t know how you can keep your eyes off the screen at that point—but it speaks volumes.

  6. Thanks, Jim for a great post.

    I read with interest your conclusion: “I say this pet-the-dog motif is the secret of the show’s popularity.”

    I’m currently reading your friend, Donald Maass’ latest – The Emotional Craft of Fiction. (Sorry to plug his book on your blog.) His premise is that the novelist is “inducing for each reader a unique emotional journey through a story.” And a powerful emotional experience is what moves a reader, and therefore one of the most important keys to success of a book.

    Your pet the dog beat is certainly a high point in creating that emotion.

    Maass also discusses your mirror moment and the place it plays in creating that emotion.

    Whenever I think of “pet the dog” or “the mirror moment,” I always think of your discussion of The Fugitive.

    • Steve, a Don Maass plug is always welcome here. His new book is terrific, and I was flattered to be mentioned in it.

      I can’t say enough about The Fugitive, both movie and TV series. So many great lessons.

  7. Excellent post on your site, JSB. Halfway through I was going to write “good one.” But by the end, I thought your work excellent. Of course, you had top subject matter portrayed excellently by the actors, writers, and directors were excellent. Plus, for me, this brought back nostalgic memories. I was approaching age eight when this episode was broadcast. Looking back, The Fugitive was almost certainly the only series my mother, father, and I viewed together. My younger brother and sister were too young to watch. I have a memory of my parents and I watching The Fugitive. But, even if one had never viewed the program, your point is well made.

    • What a great memory to have, Robert. I was really young but remember watching Perry Mason with my lawyer father. Watching those shows again is also nostalgic and a reminder of the golden age of television. Raymond Burr was so awesome.

      Reading the novels, especially the early ones, you can pick up the secret of their popularity. It wasn’t the mysteries per se, but Mason’s dogged and single-minded devotion to his client’s welfare that was key.

  8. I’m thinking that it wouldn’t be good to just throw in a self-sacrificing action without first prepping it. Somehow the character has to have pet the dog,or pet some dog, before they take a risk or sacrifice something to save the dog. Otherwise couldn’t it seem like sentimentality or a deus ex machina? I.e., I think we have to believe the action is in character.

    Or would it be OK to have a (major) self-sacrificial action that reveals something about the character that we didn’t know before?

    • If it’s going to be sacrificial, and the character knows it, then yes, a relationship ought to exist. But if a character is confronted with a situation where he can help another, even thought there’s risk, it works.

      In either case, revealing the potential for such an action in Act 1 is a good move. I think of Brando in On The Waterfront, showing his momentary gut wrench at having been the unwitting tool of the mob rubbing out a stoolie. We see the potential. When it comes to his sacrifice, we can accept it.

  9. For me, “rescue the dog” is more of an earlier and minor defining moment than the big final moral choice the main character must make at the end of the story. Rescuing the dog is a hint that the main character is capable of choosing to do the right thing.

    The very best example of the hero’s moral choice as well as the precursor of THE FUGITIVE is LES MISERABLES by Victor Hugo where Jean Valjean is chased by policeman Javert.

    • In my thinking, Marilynn, a “care package” at the beginning is a good bonding agent. “Pet the dog” is around the middle of Act 2. Sacrifice is usually for Act 3. As you can tell, it’s an ascending trajectory, which makes story sense.

      In the TV series, Gerard is very Javert-like.

  10. In the “Star Trek” series, especially the original series, there are many of these moments even though they’re prohibited. Starfleet’s Prime Directive prevents its explorers from interfering with the development of sentient species they encounter, no matter what. But Kirk can’t stand by when he is observing a planet and sees trouble brewing below. Time and again he risks his career, not to mention his life and the lives of his crew, to save lives. But there’s one tragic moment when he can’t, no matter what the cost to someone he loves. In “The City on the Edge of Forever,” Kirk and Spock go back in time to New York in the mid-1930s, pursuing McCoy, who has somehow changed history. Spock discovers that McCoy saved the life of a woman who then persuaded FDR to keep the US out of WW2, allowing the Germans to develop atomic weapons first and conquer the world. Kirk must now allow Edith Keeler, with whom he has fallen in love, to die in a traffic accident in order to restore the original time-line. A moral dilemma that real time-travelers might very well encounter (and perhaps they have). What if a rogue time-traveler goes back to 1920 to kill Adolf Hitler? Preventing that act sentences untold millions to death in the next two decades.

  11. A rather epic pet-the-dog moment comes at the end of The Exorcist. The old priest is dead, and Father Karas loses it and starts to beat her (or more correctly, the devil). The Devil is winning when Karas says, “Come into me! Take me!” and the devil jumps into his essence instead. The now-possessed priest is this-close to killing the girl when he suddenly gathers his final strength and hurls himself through the window and falls to his death.

    Pretty good ending, I’d say.

    • Oh! I just thought of another one…from one of my fave movies.
      The ending of “Bridge On the River Kwai.” The British commander who belatedly realizes his folly and says, “what have I done?” He is wounded and falls on the detonator that then blows up the bridge. Now, we can debate that his fall was serendipity, but I chose to believe he wanted to be, in the end, heroic.

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