Friday, January 21, 2011

Kill Your Darlings

by Scott Rhoades

There's quite a lot of disagreement over who first suggested that writers will improve their work if they'll "kill their darlings," but whoever said it was right and many of us hate him or her for it. This doesn't mean kill off your characters. It means look for your favorite bits of writing in a story and delete them.

How often have you been excited to take a favorite chapter, or even a favorite passage, to your writing group or to show it to friends, only to have it ripped to shreds, not because it's poor writing but because it's too good, so good that it stands out from the rest of the work like a sore thumb, calls attention to itself, and just doesn't fit?

Chances are it's a passage where you "create a more realistic setting" by showing how much research you did. Or maybe it's a brilliantly detailed description. Perhaps you got so into an idea that you created a long, brilliant scene, written perfectly, that does nothing for your characters or plot, even if it is tremendously fun to read.

When you edit, look for those places where a phrase or word or scene stands out, one that makes you feel proud and maybe even a little brilliant because it sprang out of your head. Then delete it or tone it down. It will hurt, but in the long run it will be for the best.

Sounds easy enough, but it's not. Chances are good you won't be able to spot these bits in your own writing, even if you're good and finding them in other people's work. And if you do find them yourself, you'll probably feel good about them and leave them in because you really like them. They are your darlings, after all.

This is reason number 873 why it's important to be part of a good writing group. They'll point out your darlings, and then you'll go home from the group disappointed and a little bitter, probably feeling like they would have liked it better if they were bright enough to get it. And then you'll remember that you're part of that group because they are smart enough to get it and, as much as it stings, you'll consider what they said and, more often than not, you'll reluctantly realize they might possibly have been right.

Don't actually kill your darlings, though. Nobody wants to get rid of such brilliant writing. Cut them and paste them into another file, where you can save them and put them back in after you've tried the story without them for a while. You'll rarely ever actually put them back in, though. Once you've lived with the story after killing those poor darlings, you'll most likely discover that the story is better without them.

Killing your darlings hurts. It might be the hardest thing about revising. Often, those darlings really are your most creative, artistic writing. But they stand out and distract the reader, and they have to go.

You'll miss them. Terribly. But nobody else will. Grieve for them. Cry for them. But get rid of them.


Yamile said...

Oh how I know the pain of killing darlings! But it's a necessary evil. I hope you don't go home depressed after crit group very often. You write wonderful stories, and I'm honored we're on the same crit group.

Julie Daines said...

I can't help feeling a little guilty here. *cough, cough* I didn't mean to turn you into a murderer! Your writing is excellent. Your story is wonderful. And you have amazing skill with characters and witty dialogue. Please don't be discouraged! Do you need a plate of cookies?

Scott said...

Julie, no worries. When I change the topic from kill your darlings to kill your crit group, then you can worry. :) You gave me a new perspective on that chapter. That's what I want from my group. Sometimes throwing pebbles at sharks results in seeing some teeth.