With one flurry of keyboard strokes in On Writing, Stephen King set down what has become an ironclad rule for a generation of writers:
Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.
It’s an intriguing turn of phrase that actually started with Arthur Quiller-Couch in 1914:
If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.
Before you can do that, though, you need to know a few things.
What Are Literary Darlings?
In a simple sense, literary darlings are any parts of a literary work that you adore or find to be especially striking. Virtually every work of art you take in is bound to have at least one “darling” in your eyes. Some examples are:
- Your favorite line in a novel.
- Your favorite character in a novel.
- Your favorite scene from a movie.
- A poignant lyric from a song.
- A scene in a movie or play that sticks with you long after the performance is over.
These are all darlings, and they are all literary darlings to some extent.
But when we turn our eyes toward our own work, literary darlings takes on a different connotation. Unlike the books and movies of others, your book hasn’t been published yet — not when you’re still writing and proofreading. It hasn’t had the benefit of editors and large audiences to help determine what’s good and what’s not.
Yet, when you read your work, and even when you write your work, you’re still going to have darlings.
You have characters that you love and turns of phrase that thrill your tummy and story arcs that make you warm and smiley all over.
This is where the danger lies.
Because these darlings have not been vetted by others — your editor or your audience — they may not be the sterling literary examples you think they are.
Worse, your darlings may not do anything to move your story along. Some of them may not fit into your plot or theme at all.
These are the darlings that King and Quiller-Couch had in mind when they told you to break out your slashing knife.
What Does It Mean to Kill Your Darlings?
In this context, it’s a little easier to understand what it means to “kill your darlings.”
Basically, the advice would have you gut your story of anything that doesn’t serve a specific purpose in the plot, with special attention paid to your “darlings.” This extra consideration for your favorites makes sense for a couple of reasons.
First, you’ve probably gone a little crazy with your darlings since you love them so much. Cutting them — where appropriate — will likely do more to lean out your work than nixing their non-darling counterparts.
And, precisely because they’re your darlings, you’re likely to gloss over them during the editing process. You love them, after all, so they must be perfect, right?
Once you find a darling who needs “killing,” then you simply get rid of it. If you’ve already determined that it doesn’t do much for your story, it shouldn’t be hard to jettison since little or nothing else depends on it
How to Identify Your Darlings
It sounds good and logical to get rid of anything that doesn’t help your story, darling or not. But just how do you go about identifying those killable darlings?
It’s a tricky proposition because, as you know, you love your darlings. Your blinders are thick where your loved ones are concerned, so you’re going to have trouble picking them out.
That said, it’s not an impossible task, but you’ll need help. Here are some tips to consider:
- Get more eyes on your story. The more people who read your story, the more constructive criticism you’ll get. When someone tells you he doesn’t like something about your work, take it seriously and investigate. It might be a “darling.”
- Write from an outline. Not all writers like to plan their novels beforehand, but an outline can serve as a roadmap. Frequent review of that plan will show you when extraneous elements creep into the picture.
- Write from character sketches. Similar to an outline, a set of character sketches can remind you of your vision for your novel and its characters. This, too, can help you head off squirrely writing.
- Write a plot summary and read it often. Even if you don’t outline, you should keep a plot summary close at hand as you work through your book. If you stray too far from your plan, you may be venturing into “darling” territory.
- Get even more eyes on your story. More eyes, more feedback. Same as above.
- Make a list of your favorites. As your story develops, build a list of your favorite characters, chapters, and passages. Review these elements occasionally with the perspective that your darlings are more likely than other parts of your work to take on a life of their own at the expense of story continuity and flow.
6 Ways to Kill Your Darlings
Once you’ve identified your runaway darlings, the only thing left to do is to kill them. If you decide to do it, be ruthless about it. You’ve put in all the work to find them, so no need to half-ass their demise.
Here are some ways you can commit the “crime.”
Delete a Character
If your book is still a work in progress and your superfluous character doesn’t exist anywhere else, just rip him out of the storyline. You’ll have to redo any places where he has connections to other characters, but those should be relatively few since this is an unneeded character we’re discussing.
Kill a Character
If the character is a holdover from another book or story, you can either cut him from the new book or actually kill him in the new book. The latter option is drastic but can help improve continuity across books. If a character just disappears from book to book, readers might be jarred. A swift and early death in Book 2, though, provides explanation and frees you from Mr. Irrelevant.
Delete a Chapter
If a chapter — or most of a chapter — doesn’t fit the rest of your book, nix it and clean up any straggling ends.
Delete a Scene
Similarly, don’t be afraid to delete entire scenes from chapters if they don’t take your story anywhere.
Backstory is fun to write, but it usually does a lot of “telling” instead of “showing.” Most writing advice condemns that practice on its own, but if the “telling” is also unnecessary to your plot, it’s a double whammy. Drop it.
Every book needs to establish its standard for detail. Some, like The Jungle, go into such in-depth explanation of every nook and cranny that readers feel overwhelmed by the Chicago meat-packing factories of the early 20th century. The Great Gatsby, on the other hand, is more about the story and only hints at certain attributes of its agonists. When you find a parcel of description that far outstrips the rest of your book, deflate it or cut it entirely.
Do You Really HAVE to Kill Your Darlings?
Of course, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do when it comes to your writing.
It’s your writing, after all.
And just because you identify a darling doesn’t mean you’ve identified a killable darling. Some of the elements you love most about your writing will also resonate with others and keep your story moving along. These are the types of darlings you want to keep and emulate, and they’re the type that helps you establish your author’s voice.
But when you find darlings that don’t make your story better or that don’t do anything at all for your story, you should at least consider killing them.
And, really, you have nothing to lose. Take a tip from Ruthanne Reid and save those snipped paragraphs and slashed characters somewhere — another document, an email message to yourself, a dictated note.
That way, you can resurrect your darlings into a more appropriate setting later on while still rescuing your current work.
What could be better than that?
Do you kill your darlings? Tell me about it in the Comments section below.