Kill Your Darlings

In writing, you must kill all your darlings.

—William Faulkner

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?

  1. 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.
     

15 Responses to Kill Your Darlings

  1. Ellie Nov 20 2013 at 8:44 am #

    I can totally relate. On my current WIP, I ended up cutting the entire last four chapters of the entire thing and re-writting the whole climatic ending. It killed me, but in the end I think it made it stronger. And I always have the Old drafts to look at if I get nostalgic 😛

    • Erin Bowman
      Erin Bowman Nov 20 2013 at 10:04 am #

      I think it’s super smart to save old drafts. I actually never “cut” anything permanently… just copy/paste it into a separate document. Who knows when those moments will inspire something new (or serve as a nostalgic pick-me-up)? 😉

      Congrats on rewriting the ending of your WIP!

  2. Patrick Stahl Nov 20 2013 at 6:53 pm #

    I try my best to simply to not write any unnecessary darlings. My first drafts often have less words than the final draft because I’m so careful as I write to only include the necessary parts. Granted, they also take a long time to write…

    • Erin Bowman
      Erin Bowman Nov 21 2013 at 8:27 am #

      I know a few writers in your camp, and they all take a while to get that first draft done too! (Me, on the other hand…I throw everything at the page, which results in a rush of inspiration and a fairly quick draft. But then lots of slashing and cutting of darlings when revising.) 😉

  3. Alexa Y. Nov 22 2013 at 5:01 pm #

    What I love most about this post is that it’s so honest, while at the same time written in a way that’s completely amusing and easy to read. Thank you for sharing what may be the most useful, despite being the hardest to swallow, piece of advice ever!

    • Erin Bowman
      Erin Bowman Nov 23 2013 at 9:40 am #

      Aw, thanks Alexa! So glad you found it helpful! 🙂

  4. Kim Graff Nov 23 2013 at 12:04 am #

    I have no problem with #1 and #2, but #3 can be a struggle for me. I recently had a similar experience with my WIP. There was a scene I adored. It was amusing and funny and sparks were flying between my MC and her love interest. But … in the end … as it was totally unnecessary to the story. The MC and her love interest have plenty of more meaningful scene time together later. So I cut it. (Really, I cut it out and pasted it somewhere else so I can still play around with it when I need a break).

    • Erin Bowman
      Erin Bowman Nov 23 2013 at 9:40 am #

      I totally hear you on this! I had a similar scene between my MC and LI in my sequel. My editor kept saying it was unnecessary and I just did. not. want. to cut it. But when I really looked at the whole of the story arc, she was right, and after removing it, I think it made the other moments between the two characters even MORE meaningful. Man, darlings. Some of them are so hard to let go of. (Like you, I save all those cut pieces in a separate doc. It’s nice to revisit them sometimes…)

  5. Sandy Nov 27 2013 at 11:31 am #

    The last part of your post reminded me of something Jane Espenson (Buffy, Once Upon a Time) said in a commentary. There was a line in a script for an episode that had been taken out but that line had been what had inspired or shaped the theme of the episode (completely paraphrasing here) and she referred to it as the bay leaf. Added in to flavour the soup but taken out later because it’s no longer needed.

    • Erin Bowman
      Erin Bowman Dec 2 2013 at 3:09 pm #

      That is the PERFECT metaphor. Thank you so much for sharing!

  6. Nordlys Jan 12 2014 at 12:17 pm #

    I wrote (drafted) two stories. In one sttory the ‘inspiring’ scene is the one that helps the protagonist to mature, do become more responsable. In the other story, the scene was cut off in the first draft.

    About old drafts. Usually I keep them. Anyway there is a story I had to kill off completely. I could not write anything because of it, so i had to erase that story from my hard disk as a whole.

  7. Annie Feb 28 2014 at 2:56 pm #

    The cool thing is, as hard a I’m sure it was to cut the scene, you now have really cool supporting material you could release as an extra with your book.

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