When I was writing one of the short horror stories that appeared here last Halloween, I was reminded of a very famous writerly saying – “kill your darlings”. So, I thought that I’d explain what it meant – in case you’re puzzled by it.
All the expression basically means is that you have to look at your story, comic etc… as a whole and trim out any parts, no matter how much you like them, that either slow it down or don’t fit in with the rest of the story.
It means that, for the good of your story, you have to edit everything ruthlessly – especially your favourite parts of the story (these are the proverbial “darlings” that you have to kill).
The main reason for this is that it can be very easy to get caught up in the “cool” or “fun” parts of your story. If you aren’t careful, you can waste hundreds of words on inventive, but needless, metaphors and similes without even realising it.
Likewise, you might want to show your characters just hanging out because it seems like a cool idea – but, if it doesn’t do anything to advance the plot, it has to go!
Plus, if you’re written a really cool part of the story, but you find that it either conflicts with the rest of the story (or can only be included with the addition of lots of convoluted connecting narration), then it probably has to go too.
Remembering that you have to “kill your darlings” is a way to remind yourself to look at the story as a whole. It’s a way to remind yourself that even a really cool sentence can often damage the pacing or the style of your story. It’s a way to remind yourself that every scene should be relevant and streamlined.
And, yes, it can be difficult to do, but it will improve your story.
For example, the short story I linked to earlier originally had a totally different introduction.
A couple of sentences from it survived into the final story, but – despite spending a while writing it – I realised that having 300-400 words of plot-irrelevant introductory dialogue and descriptions (in a location that wasn’t even a major location in the story) would ruin the pacing of the story. So, it had to go.
Still, I kept a copy of it for posterity. Yes, the dialogue includes a bit more characterisation and slightly more humour. Yes, in a longer story, it might have been an interesting scene to include in the middle of the story. But for the very first 300-400 words of a 1000-1100 word story, it was just impossibly slow and stagnant. See for yourself:
“Festivals Are Grim” By C. A. Brown – Deleted Scene (unfinished):
‘Three things are certain in life. Death, taxes and rain at festivals.‘ Gemma grinned at me, as she reached into the chest pocket of her oh-so-retro neon green and bleeding-eye pink cagoule.
The rain rattled on the roof of the tent like tommygun fire in an old movie. Through the gap in the entrance, there was nothing but white static and blurry people. Over the noise, Gemma’s phone quietly plinked into life.
‘Shit! No wi-fi. Have you got any?‘ She muttered.
I reached into my bag and pulled out my battered old phone. ‘Only if you’ve got a modem.‘ Gemma rolled her eyes and looked out at the rain again. We’d expected rain, but this was really taking the piss. Even Glastonbury didn’t get this much rain!
Tapping her phone uselessly, Gemma said ‘Is there anyone good on? Or should we just spend the day here, bored out of our fricking skulls?‘
‘Got any green?‘
‘I’m out. Shared the last of it with that cute emo guy last night. Yes, I know, emo! It’s ironic though – I mean, the guy is totally into good music. He just looks like an emo because, well…‘ Gemma smiled.
‘It’s hot?‘ I sighed. Gemma chuckled. She was probably right.
‘Anyway, how the hell are we going to see the setlist without any wi-fi? You’d think that they’d put in an extra server or whatever.‘
‘They gave out a brochure.‘ I said, scrambling through my bag. Once I’d found the brochure, I smoothed it out and we examined the setlist. The main stage was an absolute no-go area. It was all daytime filler- bands that no-one had really heard of. The headliners wouldn’t be on for hours. The alt stage seemed a bit better – at least the bands actually had vaguely cool-sounding names.
‘The alt stage?‘ Gemma rolled her eyes.
‘It’s in a giant tent. The main stage isn’t. This rain isn’t going to stop any time soon and we’ve almost run out of booze here.‘ I shrugged.
Gemma looked at the half-empty water bottle of vodka in the corner, before turning her phone off and dropping it into her cagoule pocket. I put my jacket on and we stepped out into the rain.
The alt tent wasn’t too far away
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂