Somewhere, a dog barked
I’ve just reviewed TC Boyle’s novel When the Killing’s Done, and came across two instances of the venerable creative writing cliche Somewhere a dog barked. It’s a curious cliche in that it’s quiet, doesn’t draw attention to itself, and doesn’t sound like a cliche; in fact it sounds like rather fine writing, which adds to the sound palette of a descriptive piece, subtly suggesting tranquility and a sense of space – the barking drifting over the landscape along with the baaing of sheep and the sighing of the wind; or alternatively, suggesting the grimy bustle of an urban scene,with the mean streets lit by yellow neon, and the barking of an unseen dog down some back alley competing with the wail of a police siren… In fact, I’ve used it myself in the past, without realising it was a cliche.
It’s only when you mark a lot of creative writing, as I do, and you see it pop up from time to time in the work of very different writers, that you realise just what a familiar trope it is, although probably each of the individuals using it thinks they’ve thought of it for themselves. It has a distinguished pedigree – the earliest usage I’ve spotted is in Madame Bovary.
But back to TC Boyle. His first usage of it is ‘Somewhere a dog was barking’, and in this instance he uses it to add colour to a hectic, noisy scene where lots of things are happening at once. About 40 pages later,he uses it again, this time to depict a tranquil, empty seascape, but with a completely new twist: ‘Somewhere, a seal was barking.’ (Boyle is American, so by seal he means what a British person would call a sea lion.) Although I’d say in general it’s best avoided, I like the fact that he’s used it twice, in different keys, with different animals.