Kill Your Darlings
There 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!