We’ve heard it time and again – “Kill Your Darlings!” It sounds like such a psychotic phrase. Kill my darlings? As in my babies? These sweet little things I’d give my life for?
No, no, NO! Not your human darlings. Sheesh.
So what darlings are we talking about? Your writing darlings. (Which can sometimes feel like our human babies, I know, but they’re not really. Human, I mean. You know that, right?) I’ve discovered over the years that this phrase has several different meanings.
Killing the Darlings Everyone Loves
I think the first time I ever heard “Kill Your Darlings” was a quote from Agatha Christie and I totally thought she meant your best characters must die. I mean, she’s a murder mystery writer, so it makes sense, right? I don’t know if this is what she meant, but since hearing it several years ago, I’ve noticed how the really good, gut-wrenching stories kill off at least one character we fall in love with. Or, if you’re J.K. Rowling, you kill off at least 20% of the cast, breaking our hearts.
By doing so, though, Rowling deepened our emotional investment. She made us love, she made us lose and she made us hurt. She’s merciless! But in a good way because these losses strengthened our love, empathy, support and even hate – the same feelings as the characters – making us part of the story. If we can kill one of our darling characters in our books and make the reader feel it, we pull them deeper into our world, giving that immersion experience they seek from books.
Killing the Darlings the Writer Loves
These are the darlings the experts teach us to kill – the parts of our book we love so much but do nothing for the story. Whether it’s a paragraph with exceptionally beautiful writing – our best ever! – or a lovely scene depicted brilliantly, we love these babies so much, we can’t bear the thought of hitting the delete button. But if they do nothing for the story, we must bring ourselves to kill them. If that’s a little too drastic for you faint-of-heart, you can just cut it and paste it into a standby document. Then you know it’s there, in safe keeping, to visit whenever you wish. Just don’t put it back!
Killing the Darlings Who Don’t Belong
This third meaning just made itself clear to me while revising Genesis. I have a character who I – and my betas – absolutely adore, but he has to go. At least, his POV does. He plays an important role in the story, but his part of the narration just isn’t necessary, bogging down and detracting from the true story of Genesis. As much as we all love his part of the tale, I’ve had to take it out. From this book, anyway. I think he’ll have his own story – at least a short one – soon.
This meaning isn’t just about POV, though. We often have multiple supporting characters in our first drafts that only lead to confusion in the reader, who’s trying to keep track of all these names when half of them never return. Combine them. Get rid of some. No matter how much you love them, they’re not helping your story. This goes for subplots, too, that relate in no way to the main plot and only clutter the story. If you love those side characters so much that you want to give them their own plot line, then do it – in a different book.
We writers pour our hearts and souls into our stories. We have lots of darlings. Can you think of other darlings we must kill to improve our stories? Do you have any you’ve had to kill that hurt more than others? Do you keep your little darlings in a back-up file and go back and read them because they make you happy? Or is that just me?