Friday, October 5, 2012

Kill Your Darlings

Kill Your Darlings Word Cloud
courtesy of
William Faulkner famously once wrote, ‘in writing, you must kill all your darlings’. This is rather extreme, though very true. It is a tough truth to face; a truth I have only just come to terms with.

It is a shame that some of the things we hold most dear in our writing must face the chop. It is as if the heart and soul we poured into creating this section of masterful prose is wasted. But, it needn’t be. See, when we kill our darlings we give breathing space to other ideas that had previously been suffocated by the greedy being we called our darling.

What is a ‘darling’, you may well ask. It is a hard thing to define, but I view it as something you as a writer really, really love unconditionally. For example, you may have this brilliant idea of a scene where the protagonist enters a witty riposte with the antagonist and comes out on top. You love like your first born. It is amazing. It showcases your clever mind and makes the reader see how much cooler the protagonist is than the bad guy.

Cut it.

Plain and simple.

It will cry out in pain. It does not want to die. In your mind there will be a violent battle between you want and what your story needs. I can assure you that there will be blood. You will have family of the scene (scenes that rely on it) protesting that you don’t slaughter their baby.

But you must.

Why? That scene that shows off your writing ability is not required. What is needed is a scene that shows off your plot, your characters. As writers, our job is to remain invisible. Our brilliance shines when nobody realises it, not when someone comments ‘that’s a great metaphor’ in the middle of an action sequence. We want readers crying out for more of the character, more of the plot. Unless you are writing literary fiction the thing you don’t want is people saying ‘I really want more of those lovely metaphors about that character … you know the one I mean … yeah, the character with hair like a carrot … can’t remember his name or what I did, but his hair was described beautifully’.

As always, there are exceptions. Sometimes you will write something really clever and advances the plot and/or character. It does happen. In fact I’d say for good writers it happens a lot. Nevertheless, you need to separate what makes you look good and what makes a good book. Sometimes the line is so blurred you’d be right to question its existence. It is there, though. There is a line.

There are other times to kill your darlings, too. The best way to explain is through an example. I had two ideas in my head, both of which advanced the plot and developed character. One of the ideas would lead onto another good idea I had. The other would lead straight into the crux of the story quickly. Try as I might I could not get both ideas to fit. I had to kill one of my darlings. To make matters worse one of these scenes had been in my head since I started writing the novel. It truly was my baby.

I killed my baby. I took it to the side and shot it in the back of the head. I hated myself for doing it, but deep down I knew it was the right thing to do. I spent over a week deliberating between the two and it came down to a simple press of the metaphorical delete button in my head. The idea I chose to kill would have led straight into the main story. I killed it because the other idea developed character and allowed me to slow the pace slightly without stopping the story. I hope the readers won’t notice where this slaughter happened. I hope they won’t even notice me when they read the scene.

Did I chose correctly? Only time will tell, but I hope I did. If I chose wrongly then I have to rework three chapters of plot and character development in my head that came because of this decision.

Hope this helps,
Matt B

Also available here


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