Kill Your Darlings

badge-and-gun-wallpapers_13449_1280x960There are several bits of wisdom, aphorisms, if you will, about writing that have been bandied about, often referenced in Creative Writing classes across the country, even the world. Among these, one of the hardest to swallow is “kill your darlings.” Most attribute the quote to Faulkner, but others credit Twain. Either way, the wisdom remains sound.

The idea is simple: just because you love something you’ve written, doesn’t mean everyone else will. In fact, oft times, it has the opposite effect. This is not to say that you must murder every passage of writing you’ve penned for which you feel affection. More precisely, what we need to do is eliminate ruthlessly anything that doesn’t further or add to the story.

Each scene should do at least one of the following things:

1) Introduce tension or conflict: The primary element of fiction is conflict (or tension—that is, the feeling that something horrible might happen). Without tension or conflict, we have no scene. Or rather, the scene drags. That is to say, we’re boring our reader. Each scene should contribute in some way to the primary tension or conflict. If not, it’s not furthering our story, and must be done away with. This is why long passages of flowery description generally only work when bookended by tension. The passage then prolongs the conflict, and thereby increases the tension. However, long descriptions with no tension=boring, generally speaking, and must be cut, no matter how much you love it.

2) Introduce or develop characters: In a longer work, characters need to be developed (though tension and conflict should still be present while accomplishing this). However, the level of conflict and tension can be less here, especially in scenes where one character meets the other, and we get to see their initial impression of the newcomer. This works best when that impression is later proved wrong, or must be amended (see, that creates tension).

3) Resolve tension or conflict: Tension and conflict must both be resolved (or established that they will not be resolved, which is, in itself, a type of resolution). In a work with multiple tensions and conflicts (the quest stories, adventure plots, saving the world, even some romances), all must be resolved in some way. The resolution of these should be present in a scene.

If your scene is not doing one of the above, it should be eliminated, no matter how beautiful the writing.

Killing your darlings does not mean that you must murder them and bury the bodies. In many cases, you might be able to breathe new life into the passages you love most. Try some of these strategies:

1) Save it for a different story: It may not earn it’s place in your novel, but maybe it can be reworked into a different setting, one with a different conflict and/or tension.

2) Work it in somewhere else: Maybe the scene would work better after the conflict/tension has already been established. It may work as a lull, a calm-before-the-storm type of moment.

3) Turn it into it’s own work: Perhaps the tension you’ve established in your scene never fully develops. Perhaps you’ve started a thread of tension that you’d planned to orchestrate with the larger story, but it never happened. Why not take it and turn it into its own story, where its tension is the central thread that binds a larger work.

The most common “darling” traps new writers fall into are these:

1) Long passages of flowery, unnecessary descriptions. While they are very pretty, they can be very slow, and often do little to further story.

2) Long monologs/dialogs that do not contribute. While dialog often feels like the “easiest” part of writing (because it goes so quickly), it’s, more often than not, the weakest element of our writing. With dialog, less is always more, no  matter how clever of a turn of phrase you’ve come up with.

3) Authorial intrusions on the nature of life etc. As a beginning writer and an English Teacher, I felt the need to write with symbolism, with heavy thematic ideas running through my stories. What they translated into were passages screaming, “Aren’t I a genius! Revere me!” Which makes for terrible writing. Anytime we as writers call attention to ourselves, to our philosophies, we fail to present the story in a respectable, true way. We end up manipulating characters and situations to fit our own desires, which is a great disservices to the story that wants to be told.

Hope this helps. As always, I’d love to hear your feedback. Good writing!

9 thoughts on “Kill Your Darlings”

  • Thank you so much for this post. There are far too many published writers that fail to do this, and it angers me to no end. The Twilight series is extremely guilty of all the above mistakes. Apparently the concept is lost on that idio– I mean author.
    There are several passages in my novel that have been written many, many times. All too often I look at what I’ve previously written and ended up changing it to add more conflict or character development. There are some that foreshadow things to come, but do little else to move along the story. Those are my worst enemy. (Yes, a writer’s true nemesis is his or her own work. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying to your face.) I’ve been getting better at “killing my darlings”, but the road to professional writing is an arduous one, and it’s filled with many dangers. Your own darlings are one of those dangers. But you must kill them. Don’t completely massacre them and litter the road with their bloated corpses, but forge them, temper them, and make them into newer, more powerful versions.

  • Some of my writings are great to me but do not go over well with others, some of these stories can be edited, but some should just be left in the notebook, no matter how precious it is to the writer.

  • Some of the pieces that people write aren’t as great as think. You can have an idea that you think is incredible, but not everyone will have the same opinion. Gansky, I know you struggled with this throughout college. Your professor completely shot you down on the work you thought was amazing. I guess that why people have editor’s.

  • Sometimes with ideas that I have had for one story that didnt quite work to well, I took them and tried to manipulate them into a completely different scene or story. That does not always work for me but I still like the ideas that I have and try to use them in some way

  • I’ve never really thought about it like that- I often have issues trying to “kill” certain parts of my stories because of how well-written I think they are. But then I read a book such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and find myself hating the entire book because of all of the well-written but unnecessary descriptions.

  • Everyone has different tastes so obviously not everyone is going to like everything. Sometimes it is the best thing to just scrap whatever the piece is, but other times when a writer is passionate enough they should keep their story. The great part of writing is everything can ultimately be rewritten.

  • When I write most of my things are not good, then I go back and they rewrite the mistakes and it sounds better. Sometimes it’s good to have someone look over your writing to make changes to the things that you might have done wrong.

  • That idea never even came to me! I remember one time writting a small little thing and it ended with me killing off the main character I had one of my friends read it and I got smacked on the back of the head. Maybe I just did a horrible job or they didnt want them to die but after an hour of an ice pack later I thought it was horrible to do and havent done it since but this just brought new light to the table

  • Yes you must not only stick to what is pleasing in your eyes, but you must try to morph what you write into someything that many eyse will be able to read and undertsand, while in the end of it all it is still your writng.

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