Sometimes you write a line so beautiful, so fantastic, so enlightening, that you feel you must share it with the world. So you squint and you furrow and you find a way to shimmy the line into a story you’re working on, because it’s just so amazing. Then you stand back and read it over and realize that it totally does not fit into your story at all.
You’ve got yourself a darling. And it needs to die.
The term “kill your darlings” is most commonly attributed to William Faulkner, though I believe it was paraphrased from Sir Arthur Quiller Couch who said, “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it–wholeheartedly–and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” Stephen King paraphrased further when he said “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings,” in his writer’s memoir/manifesto, On Writing. In that same sentiment, Kurt Vonnegut tells us to “have the guts to cut.” Basically, these phrases all suggest one very important thing: we must have the courage and the know-how to get rid of words, sentences, scenes, settings, or characters that simply don’t work, even if you feel very attached to them.
Some common darlings that need to be offed include:
Narration (in place of dramatization): You’ve probably heard the term “show, don’t tell,” another common writing bit. This means if you have a narrator telling the story passively, instead of allowing the reader to see the action unfolding, you better extinguish the narration fast and replace it with dramatization: dialogue, scene, and action.
Flowery writing a.k.a. “purple prose”: Over-the-top description, big long words no one ever uses, overly explanatory passages–if your reader has to wade through a meadow to get to the point, kill kill kill.
Plot devices: Anything used just to get the main character from point A to point B in an unnatural way serves as a plot device. Readers can smell plot devices from a mile away, and they want them dead.
Verb/Adverb combos: “Cried happily.” ” Shouted angrily.” “Sobbed softly.”–what do these things have in common? They’re all verb/adverb combos and they weaken your writing. Let the verb stand alone, and show the emotion instead of telling us that it exists.
“Hi,” he said.
“Hello,” she said. “How are you?”
“I’m fine,” he said. “How are you?”
“Oh, I’m fine too, thanks for asking.”
“No problem. It was my pleasure.”
“No, the pleasure is all mine.”
“Hey, aren’t you bored with these incredibly dull introductions?”
“Yes, the author should have killed these boring lines of dialogue. I want to gouge my eyes out.”
“I, too, want to gouge my eyes out.”
“How funny. Do you have a gouge? I’ll gouge yours if you gouge mine.”
“You have yourself a deal.”
“Lovely. Let’s get to it.”
Yeah, don’t waste your reader’s time with unnecessary dialogue, or unnecessary prose for that reason.” Every line of prose or dialogue should advance the story in some way. If it doesn’t, kill it.
Song lyrics: Oh, don’t do this. Look, everyone is tempted to include song lyrics into a story at some point, but don’t do it. 90% of the time you’re the only person familiar with the lyrics and everyone else is just going to skip over them anyway.
When I read the reflections my students write after completing their final revisions, I often see explanations like “I didn’t change much because I was happy with my story the way it was.”
I’m always a bit perplexed by this because it almost always comes from people for whom I gave a lot of constructive criticism and suggestions for improvement. If your teacher tells you to change things, and gives you an assignment in which you are specifically supposed to change said things, you would think you’d take it upon yourself to make the changes, right? Right. But that’s not always the case.
I’m also frequently told by students that the word limits I put on their work stifles their creativity. Truthfully, I don’t love setting word counts and if we had more than four weeks to work with I might not set them at all, but at Full Sail I use them for a variety of reasons, namely because I believe it forces students to be selective with their word choice and because it forces them to kill their darlings.
The best way to identify what needs to be cut in your writing is to leave it alone for a few days (or a few weeks) and go back to see what’s working and what isn’t. Sometimes I go back to read my older work that I thought was brilliant at the time of the writing, and am downright embarrassed by it. Give yourself a little distance (in Full Sail time you can really only give yourself a few days) and you’ll be surprised by what you can suddenly live without.
Stephen King suggests that after writing a first draft we should cut by at least 10% in the second draft. I think this is a good starting point. Often, it’s as simple as cutting repetitive phrasing, clunky dialogue, or killing off a scene or character that’s just not adding anything to the story. If you can’t be objective, ask a friend or a teacher to read your work and tell you what they could do without.
Don’t be afraid. Be brave and yield the knife (or, you know, the red pen).