One of the most often repeated — and most misunderstood — pieces of writing advice is “you have to kill your darlings.” In other words, don’t get too close to anything in your book, and if you love something too much, it may be something you’re writing just for you, so it has to go.
But this is terrible advice if you take it that way. If you have to get rid of anything you love, then you’d be left not liking your work, and it implies that you can’t trust your own judgment.
I think this is actually a misinterpretation of the advice. A better way to think about it would be that you have to be willing to kill your darlings. In other words, you have to get rid of anything that doesn’t serve your story, no matter how much you love it.
What are some darlings you may have to kill?
A big one is description. Not that description is bad, but it does tend to make it to “darling” status because description feels like real writing. We hear in writing workshops about using all the senses, and it’s easy to wax poetic and create something that feels award-worthy. In the satirical novel Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, the author puts asterisks by the particularly good passages of description, spoofing this tendency. The problem is when that description doesn’t fit the viewpoint character or the situation. You may have written a beautiful description of the sunset that vividly brings the image to life, but if your viewpoint character is a jaded warrior who’s been fighting or walking all day and you’re not trying to show that he has the heart of a poet or artist, then he’s probably not going to think of the sunset in eloquent, poetic terms. Or if your character is on the run for her life, she’s not going to pause and admire the beautiful sunset. It may be lovely writing and you may be proud of it, but it has to go.
Then there’s “your research is showing.” You’ve spent hours researching exactly the undergarments your character might wear and how she would put them on, so of course you want to write a scene showing your character getting dressed so you can show all your research. But all the story really needs is to mention that she got dressed. Or, really, you can assume she got dressed if no one faints when she shows up for breakfast.
Another darling that may have to go is the germ of the idea. There’s something that sparked the idea for your story or that was in what you first imagined when you started thinking about the story, but as the story develops, you may no longer need that thing in your story. I ran into this with my book Rebel Mechanics. There was a scene I had in my head before I even got the idea for this book, and I realized that this book would be a good place to put that scene. My editor wanted me to cut a big part of this scene. After I stomped around the house, griping to myself about how I couldn’t cut it because that was the whole point of the scene and it was the thing that inspired the whole book, I realized that I didn’t actually need that part of the scene, and the story worked better without it. I was clinging to it as the spark for the story, but it was a darling that had to die. I often find that scenes I dream up before I start writing don’t end up fitting in the story that I write. I may try to cram them in, but they don’t serve the story. I tend to imagine scenes of the characters hanging out and talking, and then I try to put those scenes in the book, but it turns out they don’t need to be there, even if thinking about them was a good way for me to find those characters’ voices and get to know them.
Jokes are often darlings that need to go. Something you find amusing might not work for anyone else, or it might not be truly appropriate for the story. I often find that they don’t even work for me when I’m doing the second draft.
I seldom delete any of the darlings I kill. I have a “cuts” file for each book and copy them into that file. Sometimes I get to use them elsewhere. They may be right for a different character (like the description that doesn’t fit the viewpoint character) or a different book in the series. I sometimes put cut pieces on my website. That’s a great place for those sitting around and talking scenes.
Instead of looking for darlings that you should kill, instead look for things that don’t serve your story, and then overcome your resistance to letting them go.
Here’s the video version of this post: