Writing Advice

When to ‘Kill Your Darlings’

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” – Stephen King.

I think with the misconception about the term ‘kill your darlings’, I must first explain what it actually means. This is not a popularised writer’s saying telling you to kill your characters. (In fact, I could go on to say how you should never kill your characters just for the sake of it.) In fact, the well known saying means something far less literal but much more heartbreaking. So, what does it actually mean?

Those amazing articulate passages you’ve written? Those quotes you want to keep. The scenes where some of your favourite character interactions take place. The words that you can’t stop thinking about. Those are your darlings. Now kill them.

Sometimes, no matter how beautiful they are, those pieces of writing might not contribute anything to your story. The only scenes that should stay in your story are the ones that further the plot or add much needed character development. If your scenes don’t serve a purpose, no matter how much you love them, they have to go. You have to be brave, you have to kill your darlings.

Of course that doesn’t mean cut every single piece you fall in love with, out of your novel. After all if you love them, surely your readers will too? It means that you can’t just rely on a scene being important, just because you like it.

I’m currently on draft three of my Skythief novel. As I’ve turned round to my third draft, the plot and the characters have shifted drastically from their initially form, so are all the scenes still relevant. Two of my scenes had good feedback from my beta reader and were both my favourite: a pickpocketing scene and a prison scene. I have since been forced to ask myself, are those scenes still relevant or do I have to kill my darlings? The pickpocketing scene served as an introduction for my main character, Evey, but now that she has a new opening it is no longer relevant. The pickpocketing scene serves as nothing more than some backstory for Evey and her introduction. With her introduction belonging in another scene – that is a more action focused opening – the backstory it provides can instead be given in the form of a sentence. I had to kill my darling.

The prison scene became irrelevant. Originally Evey was arrested and sent to the prison, when that changed (mostly because it made no sense) I kept thinking of new ways to get her into the prison. I was so attached to the prison – a location in the story that took up a third of my first draft – that I desperately thought of a way to hold on to my darling. What if she escaped for a different reason? What if she got herself arrested on purpose? What if she was going in to break someone out?  What if she wanted to steal something there? What if she was just visiting the prison?  What if, what if, what if. Each theory growing more implausible than the next.

Eventually I realised I had to be brave and I had to kill my darling.

There may be scenes in your novel that after draft 2, 3, 4, 5 etc. no longer hold any meaning. They contribute nothing to the plot. They don’t add character development. They’re completely unnecessary. But you hold on to them, maybe even from your first draft. Because after having it in your project so long you’ve grown attached, because the prose is written excellently, because you just can’t bear to part with this little tidbit. Unfortunately sometimes we have to let it go and these are the times you have to kill your darlings.

In the editing process we need to be fearless, we need to be cruel, we need to be brutal. Ask yourself if each scene is important, if it’s relevant and if your story or characters need it to continue on their journey. If not, sadly, it may be time to say goodbye.

– Nadia.

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