What It Really Means to Kill Your Darlings
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It may be the release of the burden you didn’t know you were carrying.
When we write, we work under the assumption that we’re releasing something the world has been waiting for. Something they need for their very survival, even. The world needs us! And those people deserve to get our best.
The problem lies in the definition of “best.”
The advice so many quote from Stephen King’s On Writing about killing your darlings “even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart” has actually been said in one way or another by writers of all eras, from Oscar Wilde to G.K. Chesterton and everyone between. It’s repeated because it’s good advice that’s stood the test of time.
What Is a Darling, Anyway?
A new writer might think a darling is a character. We call people “darling,” after all, and we tend to view people with affection. But a darling can be anything.
I worked with an author years ago who had a character in their MS with no clear role other than to be the MC’s girlfriend and to cry. My dislike for her became so intense that the moment I saw her name in the chapter, I’d roll my eyes and dread that portion of the edit. Why is she even in this book? Shouldn’t her purpose have shown itself already?
You as the author may know everything from backstory to the character’s death in Book Three. And your reader doesn't need to know one hundred percent of those details to enjoy the story as it's written, but they do need to know why the character exists in the first place.
Maybe your thing is describing the minutiae about each person’s looks or clothing, or the placement of every bit of shrubbery around the house, or the fine grain on the woodwork in the library.
If the reader can build a true-to-scale replica of any town, person, or household in your book, then you’ve given too many details and left nothing for them to imagine.
Most authors have a favorite word or phrase. Maybe it’s something that makes their writing unique or memorable, but in most instances, certain words are just used way too often. Sometimes it’s the dreaded adverb—Does everyone in this book do everything GENTLY?—and sometimes it’s just an author’s pet word. Please don’t get me started on “mournfully” and how often I’ve seen it used.
The title of a book is supposed to represent what’s inside the book, right? We can get clever about it, or we can be straightforward, but if the book’s title isn’t representative of what’s inside, the reader is going to be disappointed.
If a writer has a title in mind before the very first word is typed, it may be difficult for them to think of their book as anything else. This can make it nearly impossible for them to believe a title change is necessary for success, marketing appeal, or clarity.
I’ve had only two instances where I’ve suggested to a writer that the ending of a book should be changed, and each time, I’ve cringed when delivering the recommendation. One was only a final line, and the other was the entire end of the book—the Happily Ever After part. In both cases, the authors had already had their own misgivings with the things I’d mentioned, and were not surprised at my thoughts. Each of them was a good darling-giver-upper, if I may be so bold as to create the clunkiest word combo ever.
How to Find Darlings
The good news is that you don’t have to find them all yourself. The very definition of “darlings” implies that you’re blind to them anyway. So get out there and ask other people to read your draft.
This is one of my favorite Neil Gaiman quotes, and it’s applicable to this situation:
“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
Critique partners are terrific for this.
An ideal critique partner is someone who writes at least as well as you do if not better. Their advice is invaluable, even when it may not be as encouraging as you’d like.
Beta readers are another great resource.
If you’ve bristled when a reader’s feedback mentions that a scene or description pulled them out of their book immersion, or that they didn’t like how the plot progressed, maybe they’ve stumbled upon a particular darling of yours.
There’s no shame in using good ol’ Find & Replace.
When I’m editing, certain words jump out at me. An uncommon word phrase (real example I’ve run into: “tuck tail and run”) is going to stick out, and using it even twice will feel like too much. If I think I’ve seen something too often, I’ll do a search in Word and get a count of how often it appears. I usually end up recommending getting rid of three-fourths of them.
When Should You Kill Your Darlings?
Do they serve a purpose?
The example I used above with the character who was the MC’s girlfriend is an easy one to start with. My perspective as the copyeditor didn’t match the author’s view of this character at all.
Me: So I need to bring up a tough topic. Why is [Crying Girlfriend] in this book? I’m almost at the end of the book and all she’s done is wring her hands and cry like a damsel in distress. And I know she’s a good guy, but I have to be honest and tell you I don’t like her and I don’t think your readers will, either.
Author: No, no, she’s a strong, modern woman. She’s fierce in her devotion to the MC and willing to do what it takes for her family.
Me: How is she strong? I haven’t seen it yet. And she literally has done nothing to further the plot, to help the situation, or to inspire the others who are working to change things. If I removed her from each scene, it wouldn’t alter anything.
Author: (repeats the same argument)
Me: If she’s what you say she is, then she needs to DO something. You are the only person who sees her as multidimensional because you’ve created her. Everyone else only sees what’s on the page.
This character was the author’s darling in many ways. He couldn’t see that the way he’d written her didn’t express any of the well-rounded character he’d created in his head. In the end, Crying Girlfriend stayed, but he gave her a subplot of her own that kind of made her a teeny bit of a badass, and most importantly, purpose for being in the book.
Does your darling slow down the narrative?
If your love of description and rich scenery goes on long enough that the reader forgets where they are in the storyline, perhaps you’ve gone a bit too far. Those rolling green hills dotted with fluffy white sheep may have to wait for another time, especially if the reader comes to the end of the narrative, the action starts up again, and they experience a little mental jolt of ohh, that’s where we were.
Will your darling cause the reader to roll their eyes?
I remember reading a blog post by author Diana Gabaldon a few years ago, in which she was talking about her husband’s reaction when reading her early drafts. I don’t remember the exact conversation, but he looked over at her and said something like, “Nipples? Again? Really?” and she realized that she did indeed mentioned them often.
I worked on a series of books where all the female protagonists were lithe. If someone wasn’t lithe, she was either a bad guy, or she was “a little round, but pleasant.” As a round but pleasant person myself, I let the author know of his pattern. He was completely unaware he’d been doing it but still defended his darling. Because . . . well, because that’s how darlings work.
Does it make the reader disappointed, angry, or confused?
Let’s say every other chapter in your book switches to an omniscient narrator, commenting on the previous chapter, almost like the old radio dramas that began with, “Will our hero be able to get out of this predicament?” You think it’s extremely clever; your beta readers are all telling you it’s boring and that they skipped those chapters. You may need to listen to them, even if you think they’re not very appreciative of your inventiveness. They’re the ones you are hoping to sell to, after all.
Trust Me, It Will Be Okay
Darlings come in all shapes and sizes. They can be a scene, a title, a major plot twist, your favorite batch of go-to words or phrases, or the final line of your book.
Think about what the reader needs to hear, which is not always the same as what you need to say. You may think you’ll be pitching to an agent or a publisher, but ultimately, the audience you really want to impress is the reader. You can be yourself and still let go of what’s not working. You’ll live through it. I promise.
And besides, maybe those darlings you’ve removed will be perfect in your next book.