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How and why you should kill your darlings

You’ve probably heard it before. Kill your darlings. Murder them, as some say. Inflict violence on those that you care most about. Do bad things to the ones you love.

What on earth is going on? Are writers destined to be violent people? Isn’t writing a peaceful solitary process?

Of course, this isn’t a literal statement. We’re talking about your writing here, after all.

In writing, you must kill all your darlings.

William Faulkner

Writers (and fans of writers) have a penchant for drama, as expected. We’d prefer to talk about the writing process in an exciting way, especially when compared to the reality in which we sit in a chair and pore over half-empty pages for hours at a time.

So what’s meant by killing your darlings, and why would you ever do such a thing?

Photo by Matt Artz on Unsplash

Your troublesome darlings

Sometimes the things we love the most are the things that get us in the most trouble. This may apply to objects that we treasure to a fault, or it may apply to relationships that we hold on to long after the time that they’ve helped us grow.

For us, as writers, our darlings are the story fragments for which we hold a self-indulgent place in our hearts.

Maybe you’ve got a character who doesn’t really fit the story but they still bring a dose of flavour or distinct backstory. Perhaps there’s an event that doesn’t really fit with the plot–a side quest, if you will–that still makes you smile.

Whatever form your darlings happen to take, you probably know that they’re in there, and you probably know that they’re troublesome.

Why darlings are trouble

Darlings can force us to make irrational decisions about a story. Instead of elevating our view of a story to a position from which we can evaluate how things are working, darlings keep us tethered to their level. We can’t imagine a world without them, and we get too caught up in what we loved about them when they first strolled into our lives.

That character who’s a lovable (and non-contributing) buffoon? Are they adding anything to the story? Note that this isn’t a question about whether or not they’re entertaining; that character could probably hold their own as a protagonist in a short story of their own. However, are they adding anything to this story?

What about that side-quest that your characters go on? It’s a lovely little step away from the plot, and perhaps lightens the mood. Maybe you can find some other justification, surely. However, is it possible that the side-quest is in the story not because it needs to be but because it’s a darling?

Darlings are distractions. Not just for you, but also for your reader.

Search and destroy, darlings

It’s never going to be easy to kill a darling, but it can be the best thing you do for your story.

Think of your story elements, and ask yourself which pieces you’re harboring the strongest feelings for. Then, ask yourself if those pieces are really contributing to the story in their own meaningful way. If you find a piece that you love dearly but isn’t helping to progress the story, you might have uncovered a darling. And what should we do with darlings?

Aw, don’t make me say it again. 😭