How to Kill Your Darlings

After “Show, don’t tell!”, “Read a lot and write a lot”, and “Never fight a land war in Asia”, the most common bit of writing advice may well be “Kill your darlings.” This means that sometimes there will be things in your writing that you really really really love, passages that sing to you every time you read them, passages which make you think that maybe you’re actually good enough for this writing business after all…but which you must remove from your book or story because the story itself is better without it.

That’s what it means: Kill your darlings. If the book is improved by killing something you see as a darling, then you have to smother it in its sleep. Poison its coffee. Push it off the bridge. You get the idea.

Sometimes when writers kill their darlings, the darlings resurface in another way – perhaps as a short story, or the idea gets recycled, or so on. Years ago, fantasy author Stephen R. Donaldson issued an anthology of short stories, but it also included a fallen darling of his: a chapter from his book The Illearth War, which he ended up cutting for sound reasons but which he also didn’t want to see gone forever. So darlings don’t have to stay dead.

But how do you know when it’s time to kill a darling?

Well, here’s the thing, for me: All darlings are suspect, and some of them are impostors. So the task isn’t to kill darlings, it’s to kill the things that are not darlings, so that the things that are can shine in all their darling glory. Your darlings are awesome. You don’t want to kill your darlings! You have to lure the non-darlings out into the open, and then you have to strangle them and toss them overboard. No mercy for the non-darlings, folks!

This requires a pretty hard-nosed and blunt approach to one’s own story. You have to see story errors for what they are, and ruthlessly eliminate them. Killing darlings is painful, but killing false darlings? Dragging the impostors outside by their hair and pushing them into a deep pit? That feels great! But since false darlings almost always look like real darlings, what’s a writer to do?

Well, sooner or later, every false darling will start to stand out like a sore thumb. If you have doubts about a certain thing in your story – a character, a subplot, a scene, whatever – then that’s a red flag that the thing you’re looking at is a false darling.

There’s an entire plotline in the first draft of Forgotten Stars III that will never see the light of day, because I recognized it for what it was – a false darling – very soon after I finished writing the first draft. It might have even been within a day or two of writing the words “The End”, and I wrote in my editing notes to delete it. And delete it I have.

Another problem with false darlings isn’t even that they’re disguised as real darlings, it’s that we’re trying desperately not to see them as false darlings, because we’re invested for whatever reason in their survival. These ones are the hardest. That plotline in Forgotten Stars III that I deleted? I tried valiantly to convince myself that it could stay, that it wasn’t too damaging, that I could make it work with some good editing…but eventually I had to come to terms with the fact that the thing had to go.

False darlings don’t want to go. They want to stay. They want to live off the energy of your story. They want to suck down that good energy and live on, ruining things for all time. And if you let them, they will. So kill them.

“But what if I kill an actual darling?” You’ll probably realize it. What can be removed, can be put back. A story isn’t like a game of Jenga…and if you have to put it back, maybe it’ll be even better. I’ve edited out actual darlings only to have to re-insert them before, and when I do, I usually just rewrite tham, and they come out better. So don’t worry about this.

Truthfully, I have yet to find a false darling that I feel bad about excising, and neither should you. And if you’re worried about a “wasted idea”? Don’t! If the idea is that good, it’ll work itself in someplace else. And if not, well…you’ll forget about it eventually, anyway.

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