In the last several months, I’ve read two novels where the evil-doing, rotten, no-good, bad guys kill a horse. Not just any horse; it’s the horse we readers have come to know and like.

Both times I wanted to slam the book closed, maybe throw it against the wall. I won’t mention titles or authors in case we share the same interest in mysteries set in the modern day west. I don’t want to ruin anything for you.

The worst part is I could see it coming.

Any time a writer spends precious words describing someone, human or animal, it usually means we can expect trouble ahead. I worry as soon as I start to care.

It’s the writer’s mandate to keep readers on the edge of their seats. I know this as both a reader and a writer. “Conflict on every page,” the experts advise.

I get it, really I do.

No one wants to read about someone’s humdrum existence. We want stories to take us out of our reality, to engage us so fully we can’t think about anything but the characters and action in the story. While we’re reading, we forget the economy, what’s happening in the Middle East, politics, our jobs, our kids, our lives. For the duration of the book, we become citizens of the land in which we’re immersed. I adore that aspect of reading. The most economical vacations I’ve taken have been between the covers of a good book.

Interestingly, I’ve noted that as I work on the mystery I’m currently writing, I can kill off human characters with relative ease. In fact I rather like the opportunity to exert the writer’s style of vigilante justice and mete out punishment to characters I think deserve it.  But when it comes to killing an animal, I struggle.

What does it say about us as a culture that we seem to need increasing levels of gratuitous violence?

Does killing the horse truly advance the story, or is it simply a quick means of shocking the reader?

“Not the horse,” we moan. It makes us root for the hero even more. We want him, or her, to get that sorry SOB who killed the horse. Could the writer have worked harder to elicit that same response from us, without killing the horse?

I think so.

Yes, it takes work and skill and a laser-sharp editing pencil, but I believe we can do it.

And should.

Years ago I chose to limit the amount of violence I let into my life. I avoid scary movies and gory books as if my life depended on it. In a way, it does. I don’t want the ugly details taking up residence in my head.

And believe me, they do.

Remember the horse head scene from the movie The Godfather?

Me too.

Unfortunately, it’s tucked away in some little wrinkle of my brain, ready to repulse/scare me all over again. As I write, I can see the scene unfold. And I don’t want to.

Neuroscientists are now able to better understand how trauma affects us. Our brain is an associative organ. It encodes traumatic experiences and then tries to connect that particular experience to our others. The images don’t go away.

Ever.

My plea to writers is this:

Think long and hard before you decide to kill off the horse, the dog, or the cat. In almost all cases, they’re innocent bystanders, and you’ve killed them to manipulate my emotions, my brain.

I don’t like it.

Tell your story in the best way you can. Don’t sanitize it for me – I don’t need mollycoddling. At the same time, you better have a darned good, plot-advancing reason to kill the horse.

Hey readers, what do you think?  Leave your comments below.

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