On Killing Darlings

Most writers have been given this advice at some time — if not by a creative writing teacher, then they’ve read it in a book or online. “Kill your darlings”. It’s ubiquitous, maybe because it’s snappy and easy to remember.

But less easy, it seems, to interpret. Some seem to think it means, “Don’t be afraid to hurt your characters.” This would never have occurred to me as a meaning, since I’ve been being horrible to my characters since approximately the age of eight, but I can see where they’re coming from. Some authors do seem to struggle with actually making their characters suffer, or killing anybody off — I’m just not one of them 😈 Others think it means, “Cut out anything even slightly self-indulgent, because what do you mean you’re enjoying your book?” These people usually think it’s bad advice, and they’re probably right.

The way “Kill your darlings” was explained to me, though I can’t remember by whom, is more along the lines of, “Don’t hold onto a scene/line/character once it’s no longer useful, just because you like it.” If a scene isn’t working and the only reason it’s still in the book is because you’re attached to it… that’s a darling, and it needs to be killed.

I’m a pretty ruthless editor of my own work, possibly because my method of editing is to start a new document and write the whole book again from the beginning. This horrifies some people, and it’s a ridiculously labour-intensive way of doing things, but it means I’m not afraid to yeet material. After all, it’s always still there in the previous version, and why would I want to type it out again unless I needed to?

A couple of years ago, when I was being mentored by Rory Power to revise my YA thriller with Author Mentor Match, I took an even more drastic approach. I basically burned the whole thing down and started again, reworking my plot, combining characters, and generally ending up with a new book… albeit one that had important elements in common with the previous one.

One thing I’ve found remarkable about that book is how, even after 7 years and countless reworkings, it still feels like the same book that I wrote in 2014. The vibes are still there, even if basically no scenes have survived. I’ve killed a lot of darlings — scenes that were in the book for 5+ years, lines I loved, jokes that made me snigger — because I made other changes that meant those moments were no longer working.

And yet.

I’ve recently been editing this book again, because it never ends, and while this rewrite hasn’t encompassed such huge changes, I still made a number of alterations that had a knock-on impact on other scenes. It was … a little bit like when you move a picture slightly in MS Word and it destroys the formatting for your entire document. You know the feeling? I moved one tiny thing and suddenly it all went wrong. Oops.

Screenshot of a Facebook message. Sender's name appears to be "perpetually concerned". Message reads "where is the plot equivalent of going 'image > wrap > tight'" and has received a thumbs up and a laugh reaction.

Most of these, I’ve managed to straighten out. There are a couple of problem chapters that I need to go back to, one of which is proving particularly intransigent. Now, I love that chapter. I’ve always loved the chapter — it survived from a much earlier draft, even though its current context is very different, and there are some lines in it that date back years. But it wasn’t working, and I found myself thinking, “Is my love of this chapter getting in the way?”

Maybe, I thought, this was a darling that needed to be cut. Could I delete it? Would that solve anything? Was I holding onto something that had long since ceased to fulfill its intended to function, and which needed to be retired?

After three seconds of thought it became apparent that it would not, in fact, solve anything. Yes, I loved the scene, but independent of my feelings about the prose, it was providing pivotal moments for at least two characters, and underpinning a major plot point. Taking it out would cause a collapse in the middle of the book. The scene still served a purpose, so deleting it wasn’t the solution.

Nope, that one I was actually going to have to fix the old-fashioned way. By rewriting it again. (That’s tomorrow’s job.)

A screencap of a green chat bubble reading:
"me: how much do i REALLY need this scene
like three plot points: bitch don't even think about it"
The bubble is timestamped Mon 2:54 pm, and has been laugh-reacted once.
My writing friends enjoy laughing at my pain.

But there was one moment towards the end where a scene just wasn’t working. No matter what I did, I couldn’t make the new events join up with what I wanted to have happen immediately afterwards. There was this line, you see, the final sentence of the chapter, and I loved it. It was a great end to the chapter. Intensely emotional. Fabulous imagery. Really hammered home the fact that this is a low point for the protagonist. And yet…

I must have spent hours trying to figure out how to fix the scene. I tried to write it on paper. I wrote it, deleted it, abandoned it entirely and went to Lidl, hoping the walk would shake it loose. I messaged two of my beta readers to bounce ideas. Dove into research in the hope that figuring out logistics would shake the answers loose instead.

And then I came back to it and realised the problem wasn’t the scene. It was that line.

I couldn’t fix the scene and keep the line in. I mean, I could write a version of the chapter that still had that line, but it wouldn’t work; it would wrench the mood back in a different direction, and complicate the transition to the next chapter. Was it a great, poetic line full of angst that I was incredibly proud of? Yes. Was it working where it was? Absolutely not.

And when I looked at it again, knowing this, I realised… it actually hadn’t been working before, either. It hadn’t been as out-of-place as it was now, which is why it had been allowed to stay, but it introduced a significant inconsistency in the character’s mood throughout the scene — she went from angry and murderous one second, to despairing and helpless the next, with no moment of transition. If I hadn’t loved it so much, I probably would have noticed that sooner, and resolved that issue, but my lack of objectivity was getting in the way.

So I killed my darling. I cut the line. I finished the scene, I rewrote the opening of the next chapter to reflect the changes, and it solved the problem. It’s a stronger scene, the emotional arc is more consistent, and while something is lost, it’s something I’m not sure had ever really belonged there in the first place. The scene still isn’t perfect, and I definitely want to go over it again to make sure we still get the full emotional effect, but it’s a lot better than it would have been had I tried to shoehorn in that sentence I loved.

Because sometimes, it turns out, the old clichés of writing advice are right. Sometimes, you have to kill your darlings.

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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