Monday, February 29, 2016

Writing Advice Examined: Should You "Kill Your Darlings"?


by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series and the Ellie Sweet books. You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.


Among the most confusing writing advice I've ever received is one I hear repeated all the time: Kill your darlings.



Who this phrase originates with is something of a debate, but it's become one of those bits of advice writers throw around. I used to ignore it because it confused me. My "darlings" were often the best parts of my novel—exchanges of dialogue that I thought were particularly clever, characters who felt like real people to me. The idea that somehow removing those things would improve my story seemed preposterous.

I didn't really understand what the phrase "kill your darlings" meant until I was working on edits for The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet.

The first time I wrote that book, Ellie wasn't a writer. Considering this the whole premise of the final product is that Ellie is a teen writer, that's a very strange thing to think about. Here's the premise:
When ousted by her lifelong friends, teen writer Ellie Sweet takes to story writing as self-therapy. She casts herself as Lady Gabrielle, a favorite in the medieval Italian court, her ex-friends as her catty rivals, and makes a pesky rake of the boy who thinks he’s too good for her in real life. But when Ellie achieves the impossible and her “coping mechanism” becomes a published novel, she faces the consequences of using her pen as her sword.

In the original draft—the one where Ellie wasn't a writerthe book ended with Ellie's father being transferred halfway across the country and she moved without telling anyone. I loved this ending.

When I rewrote the book with Ellie being a writer, the climax of the story instead had to do with the book Ellie had written. I wove those plot points in with the plot line of the Sweet family relocating...and this left me with a really big mess.

I knew the ending was a mess, but I didn't know why. I printed out the last quarter of the book so I could see what the ending would look like if I rearranged some scenes, and finally I put my finger on the problem: My book had two conclusions. They were competing with each other and as a result, the story was losing.

I had to cut one. And I saw very clearly that Ellie-the-teen-writer didn't need to pack up and move to Kansas like the original Ellie had needed to.

But I loved that ending! I especially loved some of the scenes I had written for book two, The Unlikely Debut of Ellie Sweet. Ellie met some great people in Kansas. I wanted her to meet those people!

For the first time, I understood the purpose behind killing my darlings. Loving a bit of writing or an aspect of your story isn't by itself a sufficient reason to keep it. If it's not serving the story, it needs to go.

I like how Stephen King puts this idea in his classic writing book, On Writing. In a discussion about having written a description that's good but goes on for too long, Stephen King says:
"In many cases when a reader puts a story aside because it 'got boring,' the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling ... certainly I couldn't keep [the description] on the grounds that it's good; it should be good, if I'm being paid to do it. What I'm not being paid to do is be self-indulgent."
I wanted to keep my original ending to The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet because it mirrored something that had happened in my childhood and it had been fun to write and think about. And, frankly, because I had already written it plus 25,000 words of book two, and I hated having to pitch all of that.

But those are lousy, self-indulgent reasons.

So I killed my darlings, and Ellie stayed in California. Because of that she wound up learning lessons she never would have if I'd allowed her such an easy escape, and I'm proud of the way the book turned out.

Have you come upon a time in writing when you've had to let go of somethinga character, a plot point, a bit of descriptionthat you loved but that didn't serve the story?

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30 comments:

  1. I've recently had to cut one of my favorite scenes because I realized that I really just wanted to have a cool scene with fire lol

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  2. My book has drastically changed since it's conception, and I've seen myself cutting out tons of characters and scenes and other events, even though I loved them so much. Some just seemed like filler, and didn't really add anything much to the plot, and so they had to go.

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  3. I found that my story was riddled with very random useless scenes. But I loved these scenes because they brought out my characters. When is it OK to keep random scenes and when is it not? Do you have any suggestions?

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    1. If you want to keep them, you have to find a way to make them matter and push the plot forward. I think that's the only way to prevent them from feeling like random filler.

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  4. I had a character that wasn't important, but rather than removing him from the story I killed him off early on which actually made a motivation for a character that was pretty unmotivated before.
    I also had to remove a scene because it was so pointless that it literally didn't affect anything in the story.

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  5. Truly great advice, if subjective :).

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  6. One of the things I'll do when cutting a particularly darling scene/line/character, is just copy them into another file that I save separately. That way I don't feel like I've just killed them, LOL. Doesn't work with things like endings, but occasionally you can pull them out and rework them into a different story later. Or at least steal the really good parts. ;-)

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    1. When I wrote this, I was thinking of your anonymous POV that you finally had to give up :-/

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  7. This is such a good explanation of that concept! I've definitely had to kill some darlings...the worst, I think, was having to cut several scenes I loved but didn't fit in with a revised plot. So, similar to what happened with you and Ellie Sweet.

    And by the way, book two was really powerful. It could've been a very different second book had she moved, and nothing's to say it wouldn't have been a fun one. But having her stay and face the consequences of her actions really impacted me when I first read it, because it applied so well to things I was walking through in life at the time. That's what real life is like, after all--you don't get to walk away from difficult situations. You have to face them. And that is exactly what I needed to be reminded of. :)

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    1. Thank you for sharing that, Amanda! That was the theme that I stumbled into as I wrote that book, and it's such a tender, personal one for me that I've wondered if I was trying to avoid it by having Ellie move!

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  8. I was about to comment something similar to Roseanna. :) I give my darling scenes/lines a proper funeral, but it softens the blow and makes me think I'm not really axe-ing them, I'll just repurpose them later! I've not yet done it, but hey first time for everything. ;)

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  9. I haven't had to do this yet, but I suspect that by the time I finish my epic fantasy story I shall have to...

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    1. I imagine that if any genre came with extra darlings in need of a killing, epic fantasy would be it!

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  10. I had to kill one major plot element in my WIP...the original concept was centered on shapeshifters, but over time, as the magic system changed, that entire piece started to make less and less sense for the story until finally it had to go. (I usually end up reusing scene ideas that got nixed or characters and plot points from drafts I ended up not finishing, though, so I guess I'm not really killing my darlings, just putting them away for future use.)

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  11. Wonderful article! I think you made an excellent point: that it's okay to keep your darlings if they serve a purpose in the plot or keep the reader interested.

    Ellie | On the Other Side of Reality

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  13. Thank you for explaining this!! It finally makes sense haha.

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  14. This explanation is on point. For a long time, I ignored this rule as well because I thought it was basically: "if you like any part of your writing, you're doing something wrong and have to throw it out." So...I'm not supposed to like my writing?! I love how you clarify, saying that loving a certain aspect of your story is not reason enough to keep it. Y'all are the best.

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    1. I'm glad I could help clarify. It befuddled me for a long time too!

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  15. Very true. Sometimes, no matter how much it hurts, you just HAVE to do it for the sake of the story. For example, the story I'm writing now originally had a very different plot. It was bigger than I could handle, and vague at best. I realized fairly early that it just wasn't working, so I salvaged my favorite characters and started again with a totally different plot that I liked better AND thought I'd be able to write. And it's going well so far, I'm happy to say! :)

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    1. Good for you, Rosie! I'm impressed that you were able to identify the problem like that.

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