As writers, you have may already heard of the phrase ‘kill your darlings,’ and you may even already be well-versed with its meaning.
However, some writers may not have come across this piece of advice, and it is one that has been handed out to writers for many, many generations so I’ll catch up those who don’t know. William Faulkner, an American writer and Nobel Prize laureate from Oxford, Mississippi, originated the phrase ‘in writing you must kill all your darlings.’
What does “Kill Your Darlings” Mean?
In writing, to killing one’s darlings means getting rid of the things you love the most. That line in your book that you think makes it seem unique and powerful and strange, that scene that you feel really expresses the essence of what your work is about, the accent that you have given your main character that you believe really helps your readers see into their soul…
Yes, those are your darlings.
So why do we have to get rid of them?
Don’t go too overboard with “killing your darlings”. Do it wisely and sparingly. If you were to hit ‘delete’ on all the best bits of your book, the chances are you’ll end up with gaping holes in your story and, actually, some of the best bits should almost certainly stay.
However, you do need to let go of aspects your writing you are holding onto selfishly. In other words, those aspects of your work that are more about you and less about the story. Those words, side plots, characters or turns of phrase that you personally love but, actually, if you are being truthful, don’t really advance your story in any way.
You might, for example, have thought of a killer line that just perfectly sums up an emotion or scene, it might have come to you in the middle of the night and you might have written it down with such excitement you couldn’t wait to get it into your story the next day.
However, when you tried there just wasn’t a place for it, you wanted to make it fit, but it didn’t. It couldn’t work.
Don’t force something no matter how much you love it. If it is not meant to be in your current story simply save it for the next one, and then let it go. It takes real maturity for you as an author to let them go.
Kill off Loveable Characters
The same goes for characters who are not going anywhere, ones who don’t belong, or ones who you love fiercely and are so proud of creating. However, these have no part to play in your story.
You find yourself giving them too much attention and neglecting your other characters or bending the plot to fit their way of thinking and point of view.
Killing off characters that you know your reader will love can be a dramatic and useful strategy too. This device is used by Agatha Christie, who often kills off well-liked characters in her novels, because the reader doesn’t expect it. It is surprising and heart-breaking, it makes us invest even more in the story. I did this in the beginning of Soldiers Don’t Cry with characters that the readers loved from When God Turned His Head. They didn’t belong in Soldiers, and their demise furthered the plots of later books in the series as well. It was a win-win for everyone in The Locket Saga except, of course, those characters.
Place Story before Ego
Can you do it? Of course, you can. It creates personal growth for you as a writer. It takes effort and self-discipline to kill your darlings. But remember, you are not writing your book for you. In fact, it has very little to do with you at all.
Anything that distracts or takes away from your story needs to be shut down. Your aim is to keep your readers immersed and engaged in the world you have created, so don’t let anything divert you or them from this goal.
The sooner you become a ruthless writer and identify and kill your darlings, the easier and more painless it will become.
You don’t have to get rid of them completely. Just take them out and put them somewhere else, in a notebook or a file of ideas – then you never know when one of them might just flourish back to life. Pat yourself on the back for unselfishly putting the story before your ego.
Get Your Copy of The Comprehensive Novel Editing Checklist
If you have a first draft that you would love to publish this year, be sure to pick up a copy of my novel editing checklist and if you haven’t already, sign up to make sure that you never miss a post of this editing series.