Killing Your Darlings

One of the most common pieces of writing advice you will hear is:

“In writing, you must kill your darlings” – William Faulkner

Knowing this is one thing, and doing it is another. This is something I have really been working on lately, since it’s come up repeatedly in my current story.

To me, what this is talking about are those scenes or little turns of phrase you try to fit into the story, but they just don’t quite fit. Maybe they were the inspiration of the entire piece; often an entire story springs out of a single line of dialog or a scene that just sort of springs into your head, fully formed. However, once you start working on the story, things change. As you are working on getting the characters to that scene or line of dialog, things happen and evolve. And when you get to that pivotal moment you realize, “This isn’t going to work anymore.” Maybe the character doesn’t seem like he would perform the action you imagined in the scene. Maybe the character ended up somewhere else, and isn’t in the scene at all. Maybe your concept of the character changed as you realized them more fully.

This is also true for outlines. Usually, when I’m starting a story, I’ll jot down some notes as a series of loosely connected scenes. But connecting those scenes is the hard part, and often times they don’t connect. It is surprisingly hard to not put in a scene that is envisioned so perfectly in your head. You can’t help but cling to these “darlings”. So you try to force them in, and if you’re not careful, you’ll end up having somebody do something they wouldn’t otherwise do, just to get a certain thing into the story.

For me personally, I tend to think very broadly about a story. So when I start writing the story and filling in the gaps, I realize I would need to write a novel to be able to connect up all the ideas. So my darlings are usually cut, not because they don’t fit motive-wise, but because they’re outside of the scope of the story I’m trying to tell. In order to have a punchy short story, you have to narrow your focus onto the important events (even if it means cutting out some really great scenes).

Sometimes it’s not about cutting, but just about changing. But again, if you’ve imagined a scene so perfectly, your first instinct is to avoid changing it. For example, in my current story, I imagined the protagonist reading a letter to discover an important piece of information. But when I got there, I realized it was too boring! Instead, I needed the character to go out and interrogate someone to get that information. Along the same lines, I had imagined the very denouement taking place with the protagonist recovering in a hospital room. Given what has happened to him up to that point, it is very realistic to imagine it that way. However, who wants the whole story wrapped up while the protagonist is somewhere else? He needed to be there, in the heart of the action! So both of these scenes had to be completely rewritten.

So that’s it. It’s hard, but I’m getting better. (And by better, I mean more ruthless!)


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