In writing, you must kill all your darlings.
I’ve always thought that I understood this wise piece of advice fairly well. In short, do not grow so attached to your own writing that you are incapable of cutting unnecessary1 elements simply because they hold special meaning.
I feel like Faulkner’s advice can be interpreted several ways:
1. KILL YOUR CHARACTER DARLINGS
“But I can’t kill off the Hero’s Bestie. He’s my betas’ favorite character. He’s my favorite character. I know he’d do anything to save the Hero, that he’d sacrifice himself here without question, but I’m positive there’s a way he can get out of this scene alive.”
But will it feel forced and unnatural? Will the emotional dynamics suffer in the following scenes because of it? It sounds like Hero’s Bestie really, truly needs to die for the sake of the story. It’s gonna hurt, as all meaningful character deaths should, but roll up your sleeves and off him.
2. KILL YOUR PROSE DARLINGS
“But this is without a doubt the best bit of writing I’ve produced in my entire life. Look at how brilliant and deep and symbolic and powerful! If paragraphs could win the Nobel Prize, this would win.”
Sure, sure. But it’s not adding anything to the plot, and you’re so blindingly in love with it, there’s a good chance its poetic ‘brilliance’ resonates more with you than your reader. Axe it.
3. KILL YOUR UNNECESSARY DARLINGS
“But I love this huge sprawling cast! They are all completely necessary.”
Nope, I think Characters A and B can be combined, making things easier on your reader.
“Fine, but I’m keeping that scene where the Hero is sitting on the roof—alone, quiet—watching the sun rise.”
If he had a revelation that moved the plot forward, I’d be all for that, but right now it’s just a bunch of extra pages. Cut it, or make it a necessary moment in the Hero’s journey.
Spotting these darlings in my own manuscripts has always been fairly straightforward for me, but I recently discovered one that I’d been unknowingly holding on to for months. (14, to be exact)
The manuscript in question is a standalone fantasy WIP that I’m currently revising. (Again. For the five millionth time.) The idea for the story came to me as single scene. I saw this one scene vividly in my head—so unique and magical and thrilling and fun—and my muse exploded. I could foresee how this moment would lead to the inciting incident, how the entire story would unfold from there. I couldn’t write fast enough.
When betas later told me that this inspirational scene was confusing, I made it clearer. When they said the pacing suffered because of it, I tightened. When one reader asked if I really needed it, I said, “YES! Absolutely.” How could I cut the scene that birthed the entire concept for the novel? This story only exists because of the inspirational surge that scene provided. Plus, there would be no inciting incident without the scene, no way for the protagonist to reach the Point When Everything Changes.
The funny thing about writing a novel is that sometimes you have no idea what it’s about until you finish drafting it.
I’d grown so attached to the source of my inspiration, that I was blind to the fact that the scene no longer fit my completed story. (Unnecessary darling, perhaps?)
Two weeks ago, I finally cut this beloved scene.
I spent a long time brainstorming how else the protagonist could reach the inciting incident, and a few possibilities came to mind. I fleshed them out, experimented, and suddenly, strings started coming together. I saw a solution that was better paced, had higher stakes, more closely matched the tone of the following pages…
I realize now that while my beloved scene may have sparked the idea for the story, it was not a fitting lens through which to tell it. I could cut those pages and still get the protagonist to where she needed to be. In fact, cutting was required to be true to her story.
What I wouldn’t give to have realized this twelve months ago.
So this has been a PSA on killing your darlings. No matter how beloved, how dear to your heart, how closely tied to your story’s source of inspiration, if your darlings are not adding to the novel in a meaningful way, you MUST cut them.
Writer’s block is often the result of not knowing what happens next, but perhaps just as frequently the culprit is something you’ve already written. Go back through your pages. What is there because it needs to be, and what is there because you’re too attached to let it go?
- Unnecessary is the key word here. It is entirely possible to adore a bit of your prose and have that darling be entirely vital and significant to your story. ↩