“In writing, you must kill your darlings.”
~ William Faulkner.
Every writer has heard this is advice. Most, at one time or another, have secretly hoped it didn’t apply to them. Some have agonized over it. And the best writers have learned to apply it: painfully, judiciously.
It’s more than a platitude, more than a super-random movie with Dan Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg.
Killing your darlings means sacrificing — in the name of the story — the original ideas, the adorable moments, the BEST THING EVER you wrote when you first started working on your thing. Sometimes what started out as a touching, funny or scary scene didn’t work in execution the way it did in your head. Or now that you’re 30,000 words in, the story and the characters have evolved, and your darling scene, that adorable character quirk or snappy line of dialogue, no longer suit what the story has become.
New writers in particular are vulnerable here. [Unless you are just naturally insightful from the start, and have no blind spots for your own work, in which case, go away I hate you.] As newbies, our first indication that some part of our prose should be marked for death usually comes from friends, early readers and critique group members. They stand just out of punching distance and bravely confess, as gently as possible, that something about the story doesn’t work for them. This is exactly as easy as telling someone their baby is ugly, and often earns a similar reaction from the writer.
We’ve worked so hard. And that one idea was so funny/sweet/terrifying when we came up with it; sometimes it was the reason we wrote the damn book in the first place. How can someone say that the scene where the bear falls out of the rowboat doesn’t work? It was the seed for the whole story!
But the truth is, it doesn’t work. Not anymore. Because somewhere along the way, that comic bear-in-a-rowboat scene became part of a horror novel or a coming of age story or a drama about an Alaskan fisherman with terminal cancer.
And the less palatable truth (one that experienced writers learn to recognize) is that you knew it. You knew before anyone told you that the scene with the bear in the rowboat didn’t work anymore, because:
- It took you way longer to write than you thought it would.
- You stalled out writing the scene before or after it.
- It held you back from doing other things in the story, or you had to do some crazy tantric word yoga to make the rest of the story fit.
- You got lost for hours googling “wet bear fur” to get the description just right because something felt off about the whole thing.
- When you re-read your story, something about that scene felt different from the rest of the book, or
- You rushed past it without reading too carefully because in your mind it was already perfect.
In any case, there was probably a split second between your writer’s intuition throwing a red flag, and your ego swooping in with a rationalization: “I’m adding a touch of humor here,” or “this is the heart of the story, I must be doing something else wrong,” or “I can’t change this part, I’ve already put a bear on the book cover.”
But for that split second, you knew. Which is why you must take your hand from the throat of your critique partner and put it on the delete key instead. The worst thing a writer can do in such circumstances is to ignore the warning signs, and contort the story to make it fit around that one device. Killing your darlings is about having the flexibility of mind to recognize that the very thing that got you started writing a story may no longer be relevant to the story itself. That’s a tough moment to face: many a mediocre book has been penned by an author who could not summon the courage it requires.
Ahem. Now that I’m further along in my writing journey, I recognize the bear in the rowboat a little earlier each time, and I find it easier to say goodbye to him when I do. For me, it helps to honor the original idea that brought me to the story. I think of it as the scaffolding that allowed me to build the real story underneath. At some point in the construction process, the scaffolding must come down, but that doesn’t detract from its usefulness.
So. To make the new story work, you have to thank the bear for his service, hand him a towel, and move on with your writing life. If it makes you (or the bear) feel better, you can keep him in a file in your writing closet in case you need him for another story. I have a main folder on my laptop and a subfolder for every story I write called “Murdered Darlings,” because I can’t bear –sorry– to delete them in case I change my mind later. This is the writer’s version of hoarding and I am unapologetic about it.
That said, want to guess how many times I have fished a murdered darling out of the cold Alaskan waters of my deletion folder? Yep. Zero.
Because once a scene or device is gone, the story is usually better and I don’t need to go back. The bear served his purpose by allowing me to get into the story that really needed to be written, even though he wasn’t destined to remain part of it. So long, friend bear.
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