It’s funny how many times I’ve had to correct inexperienced writers when they talk about the piece of writing advice that says, “kill your darlings.”
Sometimes, they think “kill your darlings” means that a writer should create a darling and beloved character, and then kill that character.
What’s funnier still is that, even though I know this isn’t what it means, I very often do kill my favorite characters. Toren dies (SPOILER ALERT: she doesn’t stay dead. That’s hardly a big spoiler, since that’s not a ghost telling Noa the story at the beginning of Toren the Teller’s Tale. ADDITIONAL SPOILER ALERT: this isn’t The Sixth Sense). I kill off Josh and Ashley in the first chapter of Ride of Your Life, and Tracy and Mack have already been dead for thirty years before the book begins. And Gilbert is already dying at the start of Why My Love Life Sucks, although that’s just so he can become a vampire and Amber’s platonic BFF, literally forever. All things considered, he probably wishes I had actually killed him, but what kind of story would that have been? I’ll tell you what kind: it would have been a very short story.
No, what “kill your darlings” means is that you should get rid of the sentences, turns of phrase or even scenes that are so exquisitely precious that they stick out in your manuscript like diamonds in a cat’s litter box. Diamonds don’t belong there, and neither do those literary darlings. They make the rest of your manuscript look bad. You can either elevate your entire manuscript to that level, or you can do the much more logical thing and “kill your darlings.” Erase them. Cut them out. Edit them out of existence.
Of course, they are darlings, which makes them hard to kill. “But I love them so much!” you might say.
True, true. But aside from being exquisite, what do they add to the story? Do they move the plot along? Do they reveal something about a main character that isn’t revealed any other way? If the answer to both is “no,” kill them. Kill those useless darlings now.
“But . . . But . . .”
Look, I hear you.
Me, I’m a ruthless editor. You should see one of my mid-editing copies of Why My Love Life Sucks. I took out lots of scene and temporarily left them in the notes section so I could reconsider using them. My daughter loves this draft. She calls it the one “with the deleted scenes.” And some of those deleted scenes are pretty good. Some of them include pretty funny lines. But they didn’t fit. They were useless darlings, and they had to be killed. So I killed them. For the sake of the story as a whole, they didn’t make it into the final draft. And I’m glad they didn’t. I liked those darlings, but I love the story more. And that’s the thing—you have to love your story more.
Okay, so here’s a compromise for anyone who’s having a hard time killing their darlings: cut and paste them into the notes. That way you can read your story with and without them. You can see if they do anything for your story, or if they’re just pretty diamonds that serve no function and don’t belong. And if you see they really don’t, but you still don’t have the heart to kill them, just take them out. I don’t mean with a gun or on a date. I mean put them aside. Make another document and put all your darlings there. Maybe one day you’ll write something where they actually move the story along. Maybe you won’t. Either way, your current story will be better without them.
Darlings only work when they serve the story. Otherwise . . . If you want readers to love the story, you have to put the story first.