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What does it mean to “Kill Your Darlings”?

We all know those moments in editing, or writing, when it feels like the story is struggling. The plot’s sluggish, wheezing to a halt. Your prose feels uninspired. Your characters are making decisions that don’t entirely make sense. Your protagonist’s motivations are pin-balling around so fast she’s liable to get a concussion. Something isn’t working, and you can’t figure out what.

A common piece of writing advice (attributed to a number of literary giants) is to “kill your darlings.” This is provocative advice, but what exactly does it mean?

Kill Your Darlings, to me, means identifying the parts of your story you are not looking at objectively. That chapter you keep saying has to end with a certain beat. That line of dialogue you keep rewriting the scene to make sure you include. Does the character have to ask this question right now? When did you decide this? Why can everything else in this scene be rewritten, but this bit was scribed in indelible ink?

When writing, and especially when editing, you’ve got to be willing to let your story change and grow organically. So, if you’re stuck in a scene, or if some element of your plot just isn’t working, ask yourself—is there something here, a moment, a story beat, a line of dialogue, a fact of backstory or worldbuilding, that I am fiercely protecting for no clear reason? Did I make some decision weeks, months, years ago, about this story that I have never reexamined? Is there something within this writing that I have never put through the same dispassionate red pen wringer as everything else?

That’s probably your darling. That’s the blind spot that’s been wheezing and guttering without your realizing. And maybe it’s time to take it off life support.

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2 Comments

  • Reply eseals18

    This is such good advice, but so DIFFICULT to carry out! I mean, that’s the point, I guess. You don’t want to give up that piece that really feels important to you. But yeah, sometimes it can’t make the cut. I’m struggling with this right now with a character’s backstory. It seems so relevant and essential to me, but I’ve been reading through my chapters without those sections and it flows really well without it.

    January 16, 2017 at 12:12 pm
    • Reply happywriter

      It’s so hard to know what works and what doesn’t! If your character’s backstory informs their decisions throughout the novel, relates to the character’s false belief/yearning, or impacts the climax, maybe it should be kept — but sometimes information like that is only important for us as the writer to know and doesn’t really affect the story. In that case, if the story really does work well without the scenes, you might consider killing that particular darling. It’s always such a rough decision, though!!

      March 14, 2017 at 10:43 am

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