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.
Killing 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 inauthentic.
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 reason, 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, 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 must come first. In an essay, the thesis must 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.