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Killing your darlings

Guest post by Ian McHugh

I think a lot of people come at this notion the wrong way – that, in writing, you must kill your darlings. A friend in my writers’ group was talking one day about his long-term novel project in these terms – that he needed to kill this exasperating, enervating darling of his and move on to other things. The rest of us stared at him, aghast. “No!” I cried. “You never kill a story! You just lock it in a trunk like Boxing Helena, then go back and open the lid every few months to see if it’s still alive and willing to be compliant now. Or, if not, whether you can harvest its body parts for something else.”

At the opposite extreme, there are apparently writers who take this as an instruction to violently attack their own prose to eliminate any literary flourishes and who conflate it with the contemporary fashion of expunging all adverbs, adjectives and said bookisms from the English language. (“Every adjective is a parasite sucking the life from a sentence,” is how I’ve heard one proponent of that fad express it.)

There was an article in Overland last year railing against this prose-level darling killing. (Now that you’ll never get my Boxing Helena analogy out of your head, you may be unsurprised to learn that the Overland article’s suggestion of the “novelist as Vladimir Putin” appeals to me: I can enact evil schemes that a Bond villain would be proud of? Ride around with my shirt off and people will tell me I’m sexy? Polar bears will let me win at wrestling? Awesome! But I digress.)

While I agree with that article’s author that some writers need to have a Bex and a little lie down, I think by fighting on the same ground he, too, is missing the forest for the trees – or, rather, missing the story for the words. For the record, I agree that the thrust of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s original injunction applies at a prose level: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – wholeheartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” Whenever you’re really pleased with the cleverness of a particular turn of phrase or the soaring beauty of a sentence: beware! You’re probably, firstly, not as clever as you think you are and, moreover, there’s a very good chance that the clever bit doesn’t fit the tone or style of the prose around it and that your moment of self-perceived genius actually disrupts the flow of your story.

And that’s the real game: story is what matters. At a story level is where you need to be most wary of your darlings – the scenes, the passages of description, the snappy dialogue, even characters that you love too much. Those are the elements of your story that you need to force yourself to examine most ruthlessly, and those are the elements that it’s hardest for you to see if your story doesn’t need them.

An example: I had a scene in the early drafts of my novel that involved a Wild West-style confrontation in a saloon with a group of ruffians, a hero moment for my future revolutionary leader and which was followed later by the discovery of the sorcerously-murdered bodies of the ruffians, which then started the authorities closing in on the rebels. It was cool, it was awesome. The problem was, it clunked. The first part relied entirely on coincidence, the second part required the rebel conspirators to be egregiously stupid. Over several drafts, I chopped and changed and tried to force my story into all kinds of contortions to excise the coincidence and the stupidity. And then one day, I laid my story out (again!) against an act structure and realised that: (1) these scenes weren’t among the key plot points and (2) weren’t at all necessary to traverse said plot points. This particular darling had to go.

It’s not always the case that you have to kill your darlings. Sometimes you get to keep them, and they can be a glorious high note that raises the story around them. But you do have to look seriously and dispassionately at whether they deserve to live. The story is everything. Anything that isn’t serving the story, no matter how much you love it, has to go.

2 Thoughts on “Killing your darlings

  1. The other side of the coin is having a piece in your work that you love, that you’re proud of. It’s your baby. But it doesn’t actually add to the story or fit with directions the overall story has taken. In that case, it can be time to kill that baby.

  2. Angus on June 5, 2014 at 2:05 am said:

    Nice article, Ian.
    Very even-handed and well-written.
    Killing darlings always seemed like good advice, but I always wondered how far to take this. Massacres of darlings, and their children, and their children’s children (as some seem to advocate), without first stopping to wonder if the whole story just needed to be shelved and reassessed dispassionately later on, always seemed a bit extreme (at times).

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