Hint: It’s not about your characters.
Brandi Spencer (formerly B. C. Marine), Secretary-Treasurer Authors 4 Authors Publishing
Writing is a complex art. There are more writing techniques than there are genres and forms of fiction, and a search for books on how to write will net you thousands of results. It’s a bit overwhelming, especially if you’re new and determined to write “correctly.” So writing advice gets cut down into little quotes and snippets and passed around on social media. The intention is good, but like a game of Telephone, by the time it makes a few rounds, the message is often warped into something the originator never intended. In this ongoing monthly series, we’re going to take a look at popular writing advice and examine what it was meant to be.
The Cheerful Massacre
This phrase has been passed around by writers for over a century. Writers today gleefully tweet about all the darlings they’ve killed. If you don’t know the context, it makes sense. There can be something cathartic in killing off characters, giving them a heartfelt deathbed speech, drawing out an antagonist’s anguish, or pulling the rug out from under readers with an unexpected offing. I’ve recently been working on a death scene myself, and although I wouldn’t call it fun, it definitely evoked strong feelings. I get it, I do.
So you might be surprised to hear that if you’re happy about killing your darlings, what you’re doing has nothing to do with the original advice.
But I Loved Them!
No matter how precious a character is to you, their death is not killing a darling. In fact, if you spend a long time lingering over their heroic sacrifice and drawn-out funeral, that could be a darling itself.
Then what is a darling?
Behold My Beautiful Genius
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. – Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, On the Art of Writing, 1916
Your darlings are the turn of phrase that you just know is so clever, the scene that was deeply inspired, the poem you had to tuck into your fantasy for flavor, the chapter spent with your favorite side character. They’re the self-indulgement moments that don’t contribute enough to your story to justify their existence. In terms of characters, killing a darling doesn’t mean putting their death on the page; it means something much harsher: erasing them from the manuscript.
It Hurts Too Much
Good. If it doesn’t feel like a gut punch to cut something from your manuscript, it wasn’t really a darling. That’s why you’re usually the worst person to find your darlings. It wouldn’t occur to you to cut them, because they’re precious to you. This is where alpha and beta readers, critique partners, and editors come in. They can’t point out the parts you’re blind to that just don’t work.
There’s one darling of mine that I’ll never forget having to kill. The scene was a sunrise walk around a picturesque lake, and after some sass, my main characters repaired an emotional rift between them. My alpha reader told me right away that the scene didn’t work. I was heartbroken. The dialogue was so fun, and the descriptions so lovingly crafted that I had to salvage it! But it couldn’t be saved, because it actively damaged my plot. The characters weren’t ready for that point in their relationship yet. As much as it hurt to cut it, my story was stronger without it.
Rob Your Darlings’ Graves
Sir Quiller-Couch wrote his writing advice over a century ago. At the time, they didn’t have the handy inventions of computers, word-processors, and back-up cloud storage. With a few keystrokes, you can cut that darling passage and paste it into a new document. A graveyard document can be handy later. Profiles for beloved characters can be saved for other stories.
That scene I had to cut? I picked its bones like a vulture, pulling out bits here and there to feed other parts of my manuscript. Not everything can be recycled—most can’t, really—but knowing they’re not truly gone makes those darlings a little easier to kill.
Not every darling has to be killed purely for the crime of being loved. Doing that would rob your work of its soul. It’s okay to take some pride in your work as long as it doesn’t conflict with strengthening your story.
You also don’t want to excise parts that are truly essential. Be honest with yourself. Will cutting the darling in question fundamentally change your story or introduce a plothole? For example, removing a tearful reunion at the end of a love story could turn it from a romance to women’s fiction or romantic tragedy. Or a character may bring much-needed levity to a story that would otherwise wallow in its own melodrama.
How About a Muzzle?
Sometimes, instead of killing a darling, you can muzzle it. Say that need comic relief character is too comical in comparison to the rest of the manuscript and causing emotional whiplash, but erasing them would leave the work too bleak. You might just need to ground them a little more. It can sometimes feel close to killing them if you change enough about them, but it’s a slightly easier change.
Have you ever heard writing advice that seemed odd? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook! Keep an eye out for next month’s Misused Writing Advice: Show, Don’t Tell.And join us next week for an interview with author Lisa Borne Graves for her upcoming paranormal romance The Immortal Transcripts: Quiver.
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