Variations on the well-worn phrase “kill your darlings” have been handed down in writing workshops and guides for decades. Precisely who first coined the term is a matter of some debate, with it being attributed variously to Oscar Wilde, Chekov, G.K. Chesterton, William Faulkner and Allen Ginsberg. It has also been popularised by Stephen King, who wrote: “kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
But who said what exactly and when isn’t what’s important. What matters is the advice behind it is as good as it ever has been: because it’s true.
“Killing your darlings” offers three main benefits to your work. It can:
1) Enhance your characters and plot, cutting the bits (and people) who don’t quite fit – making your story more compelling
2) Improve the overall quality of your writing, meaning that your reader doesn’t have to drudge through laborious or self-indulgent prose to get at what you’re trying to say
3) Refine your self-discipline, so that you don’t keep wondering why the 3000 page manuscript you keep submitting to agents gets rejected all the time
What to kill…we mean, cut
Killing your darlings is one of the easiest ways to improve your novel. It’s a crucial part of the editing process. Here’s a short list of what you should be getting rid of.
Weak Characters. Those without strong personalities or purpose. Do they enhance your plot or affect your protagonists or antagonists? If not – you better get-a-murdering.
Unnecessary Plot Lines. Will your novel still work just as well even if you don’t have that sub-plot with the casino and the bank heist organised by some minor characters? If yes – then, you guessed it, it’s murdering time.
Note for an example of an unnecessary plot line – see Star Wars Episode VIII: The last Jedi
Pointless Metaphors and Similes. Sometimes we feel like going even further and just saying – cut all these out.
Backstory. If it isn’t plot – cut it out.
Unnecessary Scenes. As with extra plot lines; if the scene doesn’t cut the mustard, get your killing game on.
Bad sex scenes. We have an entire web-page dedicated to this topic. Too many authors (and agents and publishers) seem to think it necessary to include sex scenes so that people will read their book. But if you’ve just stuck a sex scene in there like a bad lover, or if your execution and technique is poor, it’s time to get killing again.
Fluff. If it doesn’t serve a purpose, your novel is nothing more than fanfare. Don’t hide behind unnecessary elements that will put your readers off.
Are you killing yet?
If the above hasn’t got you thinking about what might need to be cut from the work you’re currently writing, perhaps some sage advice on the power of the delete key from some of the finest writers will convince you to start murdering your beautiful little darlings.
Anne Carson – “Edit ferociously and with joy, it is very fun to delete stuff.”
Arthur Quiller-Couch – “If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings”.
Ernest Hemingway – “Revision takes time, a pleasing long process. Some of these essays took more than eighty drafts, some as few as thirty… Because of multiple drafts I have been accused of self-discipline. Really I am self-indulgent, I cherish revising so much”.
Zadie Smith – “When you finish your novel, if money is not a desperate priority, if you do not need to sell it at once or be published that very second — put it in a drawer. For as long as you can manage. A year or more is ideal — but even three months will do. Step away from the vehicle. The secret to editing your work is simple: you need to become its reader instead of its writer. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat backstage with a line of novelists at some festival, all of us with red pens in hand, frantically editing our published novels into fit form so that we might go onstage and read from them. It’s an unfortunate thing, but it turns out that the perfect state of mind to edit your own novel is two years after it’s published, ten minutes before you go onstage at a literary festival. At that moment every redundant phrase, each show-off, pointless metaphor, all the pieces of deadwood, stupidity, vanity and tedium are distressingly obvious to you. Two years earlier, when the proofs came, you looked at the same page and couldn’t see a comma out of place.”
Truman Capote – “I’m all for the scissors. I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.”
Kurt Vonnegut – “Your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.”
Helen Dunmore – “Reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite. If it still doesn’t work, throw it away. It’s a nice feeling, and you don’t want to be cluttered with the corpses of poems and stories which have everything in them except the life they need.”