by Jerry Waxler
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John Grogan’s memoir about a dog and his family was a huge success while in print, and then went galactic when produced as a movie starring Jennifer Aniston. Because “Marley and Me” was so popular, I avoided it, preferring to stick to the byways. But the book kept calling to me, especially after my review of a bird-buddy memoir, “Alex and Me” by Irene Pepperberg. So I finally put “Marley and Me” on the reading pile. Now I’m a fan, happy to revel in the pleasures and pains of this story.
There’s nothing fantastic or magnificent about a young family and a dog. And so, to earn its success it must have been told exceptionally well. That offers an excellent learning opportunity for the rest of us who want to turn the events of our lives into stories worth reading.
Suspenseful writing is not just for murders
Suspense sounds like an emotion best suited for horror or murder movies. However, every story needs to build up enough pressure to keep the reader turning pages. Grogan is an expert at applying this pressure without car chases or ticking bombs. His main tool for generating suspense is embarrassment.
Awkward social situations are regular features in stories. For example, when characters are preparing a wedding, there is the implied suspense they might humiliate the family by canceling. Or in a teen story, the protagonist may act against their values in order to avoid being humiliated by peers. I find such tension as gut wrenching as a murder mystery, and considerably more likely to occur in real life.
Marley’s oafish doggy behavior constantly makes the reader squirm. In one scene, the family walks through a picturesque town square, with people calmly eating dinner at outdoor cafes. Grogan hints that Marley is about to disrupt the peace and so my heart beats faster. I cringe as they tie Marley to the table. Even though I know it’s coming, I want to stand up and shout “NO” when Marley breaks into a run, dragging the table across the square. After it’s over, I can’t relax, because Grogan keeps me wondering about Marley’s next caper.
Write a story about an embarrassing incident. If you’re like me you have probably blotted out your embarrassing moments, so it might be harder to find them than almost any other type of memory. This reluctance to reveal embarrassing situations reduces the impact of my stories. When Joan Rivers tells stories, she goes straight for her most revealing, embarrassing, awkward details, the things most of us would keep secret, and as a result, her stories are world famous.
Foreshadowing or teeing up the shot
The technique of letting the reader know something is going to happen is called foreshadowing, and is an important element in the author’s page-turning arsenal. Grogan uses a variety of foreshadowing techniques in “Marley and Me.”
I compare one of his techniques to teeing up a golf ball. First he plants the problem in the reader’s mind, like the fact that on his birthday, there was no party and he was dejected. Later his wife springs a surprise party, proving his family really does love him. By planting the problem in your mind first, and then swinging later, Grogan heightens the tension as well as the ensuing relief.
In the previous example, you don’t even realize you were set up until you’re struck by the surprise. At other times, he informs you in advance. So when John and his wife visit the litter of puppies, the seller introduces them to the puppies’ mild mannered mom. But the cagey sales woman evades questions about the dad. After they put money down on Marley, a crazed, filthy dog comes barreling past. This was the father of the puppies and his out-of-control behavior sets us up to worry about what’s going to happen later.
It’s natural to want to relieve the tension of a story immediately after establishing it. But sometimes you can generate more satisfaction by waiting. Scan the stories you have written for your memoir, and tease apart the initial tension. Then insert a delay before resolving it.
Establish mood by reporting what other people say
Marley had been invited to act in a movie that was going to be shot in a neighboring town. The Grogans, late to the appointment, pull up to a blockade near the movie set. When the cop learns who they are, he shouts to another policeman, “He’s got the dog.” In that moment, the reader learns about an important emotion because one of the characters says it.
Look through your anecdotes and scenes for an episode that would be heightened in this way. Was there someone nearby who said something intense or important or focused that would highlight the emotional impact you are trying to convey?
Establishing the emotional authenticity of a dog
I think pets are people, but since they don’t speak English, the writer must use a variety of techniques to convey the dog’s intentions and “thoughts.” Body language is one such device. Marley crashes through the crowd, or jumps up and puts his paws on people’s shoulders. Another technique is to point out cause and effect. If there’s a thunderstorm and Marley claws at the dry wall trying to dig his way out of the room, it doesn’t take a dog psychologist to know that Marley is terrified of thunder. So now we know one of his fears, even though he can’t speak.
Now that we know one of Marley’s hang-ups we can use it to supply even more information, by putting words in the animal’s mouth. For example, after lightening damages the house, Grogan interprets the look on Marley’s face. “It was as if he was saying, ‘See, I told you so.'” Grogan’s portrayal of Marley’s “thought” process is part of the fun of the book.
Understanding a dog’s entire life span
A dog’s life span is short enough that a human can see the whole thing unfolding, from beginning to end. And so, while this is a love story, it is also an exploration of the peculiar fact that we don’t live forever. “Marley and Me” is about loving and losing. We meet Marley as a tiny pup, befriend him, love him, watch him grow up, and then grow older. By focusing on the love between man and dog, Grogan has offered a lovely, uplifting lifelong buddy story, and he makes it seem so easy.
More memoir writing resources
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