Killing Your Darlings – I Think Not!

I’m opposed to the slash and burn theory of writing.

Not that a writer shouldn’t edit and trim. Not that sometimes a line or scene or character just doesn’t fit. The questions are, “Why did you write it in the first place?” and “Who says it need to be cut?”

Have you ever followed the advice to cut something and then lost interest in what you were writing? My screenwriting mentor at USC was annoyed one class with two things in my story that we were workshopping: 1) I hadn’t given one of the characters a name; and 2) I hadn’t cut a particularly bad scene. He told me, “I want you to figure out that character’s name and GET RID OF THAT SCENE.” I did both. And I lost interest in the story.

What I later realized was that there was something in that particular scene that was pointed at the heart of my story, but I hadn’t figured it out yet. By cutting that scene before I gave it time to fully germinate and grow, I cut something about the story that appealed to me. I’ve worked with writers and suggested that they cut a line or scene, and if they balk, then I tell them don’t cut it, but figure out why it’s there. Sometimes they turn that bad scene into some of the best writing in the entire story, once they figure out why they wrote it in the first place.

If your gut says, “Wait, don’t cut it.” Then don’t. Or at lease cut it in such a way that you can retrieve it and put it back in if you find your interest in the story is now waning.

Sure, sometimes there are lines that no longer work or characters that get in the way of your story or scenes that don’t seem to fit anymore, or maybe it’s too long or too wordy. I’m not talking good common sense editing, I’m talking about those lines that really touch you in some way. Why are you cutting those? Because you are convinced your story would be better or because others tell you you don’t need it?

First, how many people are telling you the same thing, or are you accepting the advice of a single or few people who don’t happen to be your audience, even if they are reading your story as a favor or part of a writing group? Sometimes someone hits the nail on the head and has good insight, lots of times someone else will tell you the exact opposite. Remember that you are writing this story, not the person critiquing you from their biases and preferences.

Second, that’s why it’s important to really understand what you are writing about and why you are writing it–to have a compass that guides your story. Then you know when something important still needs to be figured out. Knowing your theme and what you are writing about, which can change as the story evolves, is key to knowing what you should keep and what you should cut.

Third, if you develop your story in stages and put off polishing the words (and spending two hours on that single sentence) until you have developed the structure, characters, etc., you will need to cut far less from your writing that you really care about, and will be far more efficient and develop a story that needs far less slashing.

So, don’t be so quick to kill your darlings. There may be a bit of your best writing hidden in them or you may find they contain a kernel of the truth you are writing about.

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6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. laurastanfill
    Jun 01, 2011 @ 14:49:51

    I do believe in killing darlings in revisions, but as far as doing that in early drafts, I agree that it’s important to be cautious! When I cut whole story-chunks, I save them in a document for easy retrieval just in case I need them later.

    Your screenwriting story reminds me of a scene I had in my last novel that several writing-group folks suggested didn’t fit and didn’t advance the story. I stubbornly kept it in the story, pushing it from one chapter to another, hoping to make it fit. About a year later, I realized why it was there and how it related to the premise of my novel. That scene turned out to be really important and I’m glad I went with my instinct and kept it around.

    Reply

    • Nancy Ellen Dodd
      Jun 01, 2011 @ 14:59:44

      Laura, thank you for sharing. This is a very good example of following your gut instincts in your writing. I think too many of us have listened to others for too long instead of training and listenting to our own instincts.

      Reply

  2. inkydancestudios
    Jun 01, 2011 @ 15:43:06

    You made me sit up and listen–now I have some difficult thinking to do.

    I’m way beyond the initial revisions, but I’ve tweaked my protagonist into someone who really wouldn’t now do what she could do earlier. I’m mourning the two action-packed chapters that need to be cut. After reading your post, now I’m thinking maybe only partially cut them with some revision. I don’t know–I’ll just have to mess around with it all.

    Anyway, thanks for the thoughts.

    Reply

  3. David O. Engelstad
    Jun 04, 2011 @ 12:56:00

    In a workshop on revision, Maureen McHugh (SF/Fantasy writer) once used the phrase, “If three people tell you you’re drunk, you should probably sit down. You might not have been drinking, but *something’s* wrong!”

    Readers may have found a problem in the story, but they may not have hit the right spot. In addition to your advice that the author needs to determine why the “darling” is in the story in the first place, the author also needs to determine what might be causing readers to balk at a particular scene. The real issue might lie somewhere else in the story.

    Reply

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