Killing off the Darlings

A lesson I wish I had learned a couple decades ago came from author John Ringo at LibertyCon- sometimes you have to kill off that darling story or character.  The idea puzzled me for 2 more years.  Then I had a “Eureka!” moment, and finally I understand.

What John Ringo was speaking about in that instance (around a cigar and some barbecue ribs) was how you can write up a story, you can do all the necessary world-building, but that story just does not work, for whatever reason.  So you shelve it.  You want to tell that story, you desire to share it with others, but the story is incomplete and does not meet your personal standards.  Shelve it and kill off that darling.

Another takeaway from Ringo in that session of chit-chat was how much do you cut away from a work in progress.  If you have 187,000 words, but really only need 160,000, make some judicious cuts.  Then re-read and see if you still maintain the flow and pacing of the story.  Run it past your alpha readers repeatedly.  This is what alpha readers are there to do.  As Katt Williams declared in Pimp Chronicles, Part 1: “White people, get you some colored friends, because they will tell when stuff is not appropriate!”  Same principle applies here.  My alpha reader is my wife.  She hates having to read.  And if a story doesn’t make sense, she picks up on it in a hurry.

I didn’t fully understand all that Ringo told me, or how and why it works, till I hit my own roadblock with a scene- protagonist dealing with organized crime types in a restaurant where they (the Mob boys) are selling “fire insurance.”  I liked the scene.  Love it in fact.  But it didn’t fit.  So I removed it and pressed on.  Afterwards, during editing, I realized what I had removed was an unnecessary conflict.  Stories need conflict.  It’s what drives the story forward.  There are times and places for conflict though, and what I had added was entirely pointless to the overall story.  The protagonist had already been established as a life-taking, heartbreaking bad ass.  The scene as I had written it did not help.  Cut it, shelve it, and move along.  Nowhere in there did I say “throw it in the trash and forget about it” (stomps floor with right foot twice).

Now we fast forward to this week.  I’ve got a story in the works.  A long novel that’s going to take some  time to establish the characters..  Rather than fantasy or science fiction, it’s a contemporary thriller.  And I needed something special that marked my female protagonist as particularly ruthless.  Oh hey, looky there at this scene I have that I wrote and cut out from elsewhere.  Change names, cut to shape and graft it in.  Not only does it fit, it accentuates her willingness to survive no matter what.

I’ve saved every notebook I ever filled with a scrap of a story.  Lugged them around for years, much to my wife’s dislike.  Maybe it was sentimentality.  Some of them still smell the locker room when I carried them around in my wrestling gear bag.  A couple have red dirt crushed into the pages courtesy of Helmand Province.   There’s most of 20 years of memories and changes in my life written between the lines of those pages.  But for the first time, I’m looking at them with new eyes- what can I pull from them to use?  I have 3 dozen notebooks, approximately 5000 pages, to pore over.

Perhaps “killing our darlings” is too much the wrong verbiage.  Let us say, instead, “putting them on ice.”  That’s really all we’re doing- setting them aside till we can use them again later.  In this age of incredible digital technology, why worry about where you’ll save those scenes, those stories, those parts and pieces?  Anybody take a look at how much space is available to use on cloud servers?  My goodness!

A little sorting and filing, insert tags for future referral, and you’ve got the perfect storage vessel!  Just because I have 5000 pages to read through doesn’t mean that I have to do it more than once.  I can scan those, I can make them permanent records on a hard drive and always have them handy.  Think about what it means for your own work- is something troubling you?  Pull it, store it separate, and keep moving forward.

Life is too short already, to spend time agonizing over a single scene and fretting away time that might be spent more profitably doing something fun, something which recharges the mental engine driving the stories we create.  You may not be the next JK Rowling or Stephenie Meyer.  But it doesn’t hurt to try.  If I only ever made one-tenth the money that either of those brilliant women have, I would still consider myself a successful writer, so long as I knew people were buying my books because that’s what they loved to read.

15 thoughts on “Killing off the Darlings

  1. i have a bunch of notebooks too, and scraps of printer paper, notebook paper, etc. Need to locate the notebooks in storage…

    1. Yeah there is such a thing as carrying this principal too far. What I really dislike is killing off a promising entertaining character to create conflict rather than an outgrowth of it. I recall reading the last episode of the Captain’s Share series where the protagonist’s hard won and fascinating lady love was gratuitously killed off at the end creating despair, a downbeat ending, and little else so far as I could determine.
      And the lady character did not die in the service of some greater plot development or cause. She was randomly mugged and murdered on the street which no connection to the overall story arc. Dirty pool thought I, and a clear abuse of the concept under discussion.
      Recently I read a post-apocalyptic tale that followed the travails of two people trying to keep an infant alive. At the end the so-called author had the infant die slowly in horrific pain, leaving the doughty protagonists sick with grief and despair–The End. I have a pretty strong stomach but that was just sickening.

      1. I once read a story where an amnesiac character was swept off and landed in the middle of his enemies, who took him in. They really were evil, they deserved to be his enemies, and he was slowly noticing things that might lead him to draw that conclusion — his friends found out he was alive and searched for him — and just when he had to make the choice and had met his friends, another character murdered him.

        It was the sort of thing that makes you go out and write a story to do it right.

  2. I have a little list . . . actually a good sized file . . . and the scenes are sorely missed. There’s enough words in there for two novels, but the plot would stink worse than your locker room. But there are some that will get used. And some that I might reread and shake my head. “Pity I never needed that one.”

    1. I’ve got two more novels in the Cat series. But the readers were tired, and the story arc could be ended with readers contented and the characters happy, so that was that.

      And yes, lopping several thousand words out of a book – ouch, ouch, wince – can be necessary. Doesn’t make it easier, though. Although sometimes I’ve found that characters change over the course of the story, and the scene no longer fits who the character will become.

      1. Yeah, that’s a problem with writing well ahead of polishing and publishing. Especially if you jump way ahead. Sometimes I find that I’ve changed so much in the polish stage of the series past that the future work is one big fat continuity error.

  3. I think I write very weird. I’m listening to conversations between people as they’re busy having adventure. This makes editing difficult. I can’t change what they “said”, unless I got it wrong and that character would never say that.

    But… I realized after reading this today that other people may be bored with that particular conversation. So it still “happened,” but it doesn’t necessarily have to be in the book. Any information exchanged can be eased in somewhere else. If there wasn’t anything significant exchanged, that’s a pretty good indication the scene isn’t required to make sense of the story.

    So while they still “said” it, its okay to leave it out.

    I must admit I don’t react well to the “killing your darlings” thing. Nobody dies in my books. We may not see characters but we know they’re out there. So killing people off in my stories is a non-starter, and it makes me angry besides. Like most people I’ve heard it forever. It seems to be something a person would say who has never written anything worth reading in their lives.

    So, I looked it up. Arthur Quiller-Couch said it in a lecture on excessive ornamentation in literature:

    “If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”

    When read in context the meaning is more clear.

  4. I was hearing “kill your darlings” as advice a long time ago, and it was a lot more specific than putting whole works on ice. It meant being able to cut characters, scenes, paragraphs, things that you might be particularly proud of, but didn’t work in the context of the story. It may be your best writing ever, it may make a statement you want to make, it may be a pet character, but if it slows the story down or seems superfluous, or too obviously gratuitous, it has to go.

    1. The original was that you should cut out any stylistic flourishes that were there to look pretty.

  5. Cutting files!

    Don’t just chop it out of the story, put it in another file to preserve it!

    In theory, of course, you could retrieve it or reuse it elsewhere, but it makes it less absolute than just dropping it in the bit bucket, and so smooths the way.

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