Writing Tips: Kill Your Darlings

writing tips kill your darlings

Writing tips: kill your darlings.

Some writing tips are cryptic.

When I first came across writing advice that said, “kill your darlings,” I thought it meant we should kill off our favorite characters. That seemed ridiculous. I mean, there are situations in which a story calls for characters to die, but to make a sweeping rule that we should default to killing off our most beloved characters is pretty extreme.

Almost immediately, I realized it was so ridiculous that it couldn’t possibly be the intent of the statement, and I concluded that although “kill your darlings” means that we should be willing and prepared to kill our favorite characters if the story calls for doing so, it also has a broader meaning. We writers must be prepared to cut our favorite sentences, paragraphs, and chapters, if doing so improves our work.

That’s solid advice, and I agree with it.

Some writing tips have more than one meaning. “Kill your darlings” isn’t just about being true to a story you’re writing insofar as you’re willing to put your most beloved characters to death. What it means, in the broadest sense, is that we have to be willing to let go of any element of our writing that is not essential or beneficial. Killing off characters is the most obvious way to “kill your darlings,” so let’s look at that first.

Kill Your Characters

Every so often, I read a story and think that either too many characters were unnecessarily killed off or certain characters should have been killed off because it wasn’t believable that nobody died.

Like many readers, I’m not a big fan of gratuitous violence. If the story calls for violence, then I’m fine with it, and I do think that literature needs to explore themes like violence because it’s a prevalent problem in our culture. But when violence is glamorized or when it’s inserted into a scene without having any relevance to the story, it annoys me. Gratuitous violence is often used to kill off characters and sometimes, it makes me feel like I’m being manipulated — like somebody wants me to be sad about a character’s death so I’ll forge a deeper emotional connection to the story. If it’s all done without relevance to the story or in a way that is unbelievable, it has the opposite effect. It kills my connection with the story because the story becomes formulaic in a negative way.

The same is true when characters die by means other than violence. If I feel like the author is just having fun killing off characters to get a rise out of me, I get irritated and find something else to read.

Having said that, death is universal. Everybody dies eventually, so I think death is an important topic to explore in fiction. Stories that deal with death in ways that are effective and meaningful resonate with me and deepen my emotional connection to a story. When I’m reading a war story where bullets are flying and bombs are blazing and the five main characters, all of whom are fighting on the front line, manage to survive with a few minor injuries, I find it unbelievable. A story like that calls for the death of a darling because that’s the truth of the story.

Killing Scenes and Chapters

But let’s get away from killing off characters because “kill your darlings” goes beyond characters.

We all have paragraphs, scenes, and chapters that we’re proud of. For whatever reasons, we get attached to these parts of our work. If we realize that a favorite scene is not moving the story forward or doing anything for the story whatsoever, we have to contemplate cutting it. We might try to revise it and work something important into it so we can save it, but some scenes can’t be resuscitated. They must be cut in order to maintain the integrity of the manuscript.

The same is true of sentences, paragraphs, and entire chapters. They may contain some of our best work — dazzling turns of phrases, vivid imagery, and compelling ideas. But if these portions of our work are not relevant or even essential to the larger body, then they are dragging us down, even if they are brilliant.

And that’s another way that we sometimes must kill our darlings — by snipping or radically revising some of our best work. It’s unfortunate. It’s a bummer. And it hurts to highlight huge swaths of text that we labored over and loved, and then press the delete button. But if these excerpts are weakening the larger piece, they’ve got to go.

Putting Substance First

I believe that in fiction, the story has to come first. In an essay, the thesis has to come first. In a poem, we have a little more wiggle room, but even then, the intent of the poem has to come first.

When I cut 40,000 words of a manuscript, I felt relieved and unburdened. I had to let go of some good stuff — characters, scenes, chapters, words, and sentences that represented some of my best work. A little of everything got cut. I wasn’t happy about it, but I knew that it would make the story one hundred percent better. I also knew that I could save that material and reuse it if the opportunity ever arises.

It’s hard to let go. It’s especially hard to let go of something we’re proud of, something we’re attached to, worked hard on, or something we love. That’s the lesson of death — when death occurs in fiction and is carried out well, in a meaningful way, it’s almost always about letting go. That’s something everyone has to do, not just writers.

We writers have to learn to let go of our darlings. Whether they are characters, scenes, or sentences, we have to expunge pieces of our work that we admire because they do not speak truth to the story we’re trying to tell.

Have you ever killed off a favorite character, eliminated a great scene, or deleted a snazzy sentence? Was it hard? Did you save it? Share your thoughts and experiences with killing your darlings or share some of your favorite writing tips by leaving a comment.

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About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.

Comments

16 Responses to “Writing Tips: Kill Your Darlings”

  1. Diya Nishana says:

    Killing off characters is challenging and painful. I’ve never done that before. If I ever do that, I feel guilty and strike the whole thing off. This post has inspired me to be courageous and kill my characters off if it is necessary from today(!). Great post! Keep it up!

  2. Kelvin Kao says:

    On a somewhat related note, sometimes I found it more suspenseful to put someone that’s not the main character, but still someone that the reader cares about, in danger. The reason is that there’s a real possibility that the particular supporting character can be killed, while we sort of know that the main character can’t be killed, otherwise there would be no one significant enough to carry the rest of the book. In that case, the death of the main character seems like an empty threat.

  3. I love killing off characters. I must. However, I don’t think I’ve killed one off gratuitously; they die because the story requires it. Sometimes, it’s not even planned – it just simply happens.

    I’ve never killed an entire chapter, but I have indeed killed words, sentences, even paragraphs I thought were particularly well written. Folks in critique groups can often point out that which needs to be cut. If they can make their case with the logic of story point, I gladly cut things. But, I admit the first few times it was very hard fro me to let go.

    I once killed off an entire book because the group had managed to convince me it was going nowhere. It has since been pulled out of the virtual filing cabinet, reworked into first person, taken on a life of its own, and is now becoming a pretty darn good story.

    • I guess I’m lucky because I don’t have hard time cutting chapters, scenes, words, etc. I guess when I was much younger, I was resistant to it, but now I feel like if it improves the story, so be it. I can always save it for some future project. However, I do have a hard time letting go of big ideas and concepts or my overall vision for a project. If the story and vision aren’t jiving, then I have a big problem with that and it frustrates me to no end.

  4. MelodyJ says:

    I haven’t killed off any characters. There is a story set around WWI. I need the solider in the family to live to deal with the aftermath. Then there’s the flu epidemic that happens after. I need the little brother, the baby of the family to live because he has to be in WWII. So, everyone is alive but dealing with survivor’s guilt.

    In a story set in modern times I cut out the characters totally. I realized that I already have other characters. that would get into those situations. So, those scenes and stories belong to them now.

    One of the traps we can fall into is falling in love with our research or the world we create. We can put some much of what we learned in a story that the reader gets lost in a maze of info dump. We have to ask ourselves is this important to the story.

    • I really think it depends on whether the story calls for death or not and whether death (or lack thereof) is believable. If every other family is losing people to an epidemic except the family of main characters, that could be a problem. Maybe you could add a character for this purpose…Characters can also witness death or come close to death without succumbing to it. Of course, the main character who has to grow up and fulfill the main objective of the story cannot be killed off early on, so I get what you’re saying. Again, it just depends on the story. I wish you the best of luck with it (it definitely sounds interesting).

  5. Jordan says:

    Killing of your darlings is always tough to do; that’s why they’re called “darlings.”

    As you were saying in the post about whether this saying is meant to be literal of more broad, I always took this to be much more broad than just the death of a character. It is a metaphor, saying the only thing sacred in the writing process is your reader, not a particular sentence, not a scene, not a chapter, not even a character. If it does not enhance the story for the reader then it is not necessary to the story.

    As far as violence is concerned, I think you hit it on the head when you said “everybody dies eventually.” This element of universality is what is key. Violence and death, in my opinion, are most effective when they are a subject to which the reader can relate. The experiences of a character can be explored and through that exploration, the reader himself can explore his own experience. Since few people have experienced gratuitous violence (and those who have rarely want to talk let alone read and dwell upon it), it rarely is effective with the reader.

    Great post. Looking forward to reading some more.

    • I think gratuitous violence appeals to people who like action-driven stories, especially in films where things are constantly exploding. I like a good action movie as long as the action (and/or violence) makes sense in the context of the story. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      • Jordan says:

        Good point. I would say, however, that I doubt many people who find themselves frequenting films where things are constantly exploding read a lot of books. That and movies are a bit different than books, I think.

        • I think so too, but there are some exceptions. I have seen books that are the equivalent of those types of movies. I have to assume they share the same audience. Granted, there aren’t many of them.

  6. Abraham says:

    Hi Melissa,

    I deeply resonate with this. You see, every time I had to kill those babies–words, sentences, paragraph, scenes, and even an entire short story–it felt as if a part of me have been amputated. But the truth is, killing can’t be enough, especially when we do all the editing ourselves.

    Can you imagine that even the work I once called my best became a terrible piece of writing to me after I’d learned more? When I discovered that, I didn’t dare publish stories I had written at that time. It will be more terrible to put them out.

    So, as it goes, I’ve learned to NOT only kill the darlings, but to silence them altogether. It doesn’t mean I won’t publish anything anymore, but that I’ve recognized that some stories are just learning materials. Simple.

    Great job you did here, Melissa. Keep ’em coming.

    Abraham.

    • Yes, I know the feeling of looking at old pieces of writing and feeling like they weren’t very good, because I’d learned so much since I’d written then. I think all writers experience that. It’s an important part of the journey!

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