How to kill your darlings – and get away with it, too.
“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” ― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Writers are artists, creative souls who build entire worlds out of nothing but pen and paper – or however many words they can type per minute.
But they’re also cold, ruthless killers. At least, the good ones are.
Because the truth is that as much as we create, we are also required to kill. Stephen King said that writers needed to learn to “kill your darlings,” no matter how much it hurt, for the sake of their work. What you’ve written might be great – that character is dynamite on the page, that subplot line lightens the mood beautifully, that dialogue sequence is enough to move you to tears even though you know it’s coming – but sometimes, it just doesn’t serve a purpose in the bigger picture.
And, whether for the sake of word count or story progression, that is when it’s time to kill it, and kill it dead.
Having trouble making that call? Here are a few questions to consider while you’re debating whether or not to pull the trigger.
What the hell was I thinking?
We’ve all been there. It was late, you were tired, over-caffeinated. Whatever the reason, you went off on a mini tangent in your WIP, and at the time it seemed both relevant and super important. But even if this excerpt wound up being the most lyrically charged world-building, or the greatest dialogue exchange you’ve ever written, it has to have a reason for appearing in your story. If you can’t answer this first, vital question then this part has no business sticking around. Bang.
Does this actually do anything, or am I just stroking my ego?
This question is a little trickier than the first because there are a lot of variables involved. If your story is complicated enough to have multiple subplots, then you could probably justify including almost anything you’ve written. But that is one slippery slope, one that easily racks up your word count with details that may be intriguing or fun, but ultimately aren’t necessary for moving the story forward. Those unnecessary details accumulate, and can eventually obscure the true plot to the point that your readers lose interest anyway.
So when you self-edit, try to approach the story as you would if you were a casual reader. Did you find this side character an amusing aside, or were you distracted because you thought he or she was going to pop back up, but never did? Could the writer (you) have tightened up that exposition and gotten you to a major point of action that much sooner? The devil is in the details, and in this case, that devil might be you. Bang.
Is this the right direction, or am I lost?
If you decided to keep a questionable section or character in your story, you may find that it leads you in unexpected directions. This isn’t always a bad thing – in fact, I’ve seen and written some iffy material that ended up adding masterful twists to the story (if I may say so myself). But the key is to get a grip on the steering wheel before your writing runs you too far off the road and into a ditch. Because once you’re down there, it’s a lot harder to drag yourself back out.
Think of it like a chess game. If you’ve ever played with real intent, and with an opponent who knows what he or she is doing, then you know that it does you no good to charge ahead blindly. Instead, it’s all in making moves based on potential countermoves. If your main character has a rougher past than you originally planned, that will probably dictate how he or she reacts to certain catalysts in the plot. If a minor character suddenly gets more time in the spotlight, how will the setting change? Or will it? When these sorts of questions can’t be answered, or maybe you decide they aren’t worth the trouble, then you’ll know what you have to take out in order to get everything back on track. Bang.
Will this come into play later?
Feeling dead inside yet? That’s ok, because as you learn to be a better writer, you’ll also become a better editor – i.e. a killer of all things darling. Sometimes, that means finding the loophole and showing mercy when it’s due.
While I use Track Changes to highlight suggested changes and cuts in other writers’ work, my personal projects know only three possible outcomes: cut, stet or orphan. If you’ve been in the writing game, or any area of creative production for a while, you know that “stet” is shorthand for, “keep this as is.” “Cut,” I think speaks for itself. But what about the “orphans?” When I’m going through a round of self-edits, and I come across something that I think is great, just not for the plot at hand, I cut it from the manuscript and drop it off in a different document that I’ve literally labeled, “Orphans.” My dark sense of humor aside, this is where all of the potentially useful stuff lives until I can find it a new home.
Right now, thanks to a rigorous round on my WIP, the orphans doc for me to pull from when I dive into the sequel is roughly 30 pages long. See? I’m not too proud to admit that a bitch went on. But in this case, I saved myself a lot of brainstorming, and can just resurrect some of those genius conversations and plot details in a story that will do them justice. So, not a bang so much as a pause.
Finances and job security woes aside, writing isn’t for the faint of heart. There are plenty of reasons why only a select few make the history books, and it’s not just because some of them had the advantage of writing said memoirs. The ability to make the tough calls, to kill your darlings, is what will will set you apart as a serious, dedicated storyteller, not to mention give your creations the lives they deserve.
If you found this useful, keep an eye out for more insights to come. And if you need someone to help you pull the trigger or bury the bodies – in the literary sense, because what you do in your spare time is absolutely none of my business – I’m your girl.