For those of us who've been in the writing biz a while, there is a quote by Stephen King we've all seen a thousand times (and if you're new to writing, fear not: you'll see this quote a thousand times, too).
“[K]ill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
Given that Stephen King writes horror, this might be a little misleading without context.
This will help: Stephen King was actually quoting William Faulkner, who said:
“In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”
― William Faulkner
Well, at least now we know we're talking about writing not homicide.
What Are “Darlings” in Writing?
Quick: what's a favorite line from a book you've read?
In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.
Anything could pop to mind.
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
It'll be something you probably have memorized, or know well enough that you recognize even partial references. Something that gets your heart racing, your neurons sparking, your lips smiling.
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
—One Hundred Years of Solitude
Just those words bring an entire world back to your memory.
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
These favorite phrases please us. Our hearts surge when we read them.
It was a nice day. All the days had been nice. There had been rather more than seven of them so far, and rain hadn’t been invented yet.
We love the way these lines are worded, and we love the way they feel. The word “darling” has to do with endearment and affection; it's applied to something beloved to you. It's love with a smile, fond and warm.
The tricky thing is that our own writing has “darlings,” too, and when we love them that fondly, we lose all sense of objectivity.
What Is a “Darling” and Why Are They Dangerous?
Darlings, in writing, are those words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and even chapters that we are often most proud of. We love them, to the point that we almost don't care if those bits are clear to readers or not. We love them, and we want to keep them.
The problem begins when they don't serve the reader.
Faulkner was right. King was right. The purpose of writing isn't just for the writer; it's for the reader, too, and so when we disregard the reader's needs for the sake of our own, we do the reader a great disservice.
So how do you find these darlings?
Good news: it's easier than you think.
How to Find the Darlings in Your Writing
Note: this advice builds on the foundation that you already have something of a writing community, even if it's just a couple of people who beta-read for you. If you don't, there's no better time to find one; we are not meant to write in a vacuum.
Critique is never personal. When sane and healthy writers critique one another, they do it to help. The goal is to show what did and did not work; it's not a statement of personal worth. However, when our written darlings are critiqued, we as writers tend to feel like we've been stabbed.
If someone says a phrase/paragraph/chapter/sentence didn't work for them, and in response you want to cry/scream/shout/throw something, it's a good bet they tripped over one of your darlings.
This is hard. The thing a reader trips over usually makes perfect sense to us; it's that “writer-brain” problem again. And of course, I'm not talking about the kind of phrase one person doesn't understand and twenty people do; I'm talking about the one twenty people don't understand and only you, the writer, grasp.
Yes. Those phrases/sentences/chapters/etc. have to go. They do.
It isn't a death sentence. You'll find it a lot easier to handle your darlings if you follow the next simple steps.
What do Do About Your Darlings
Here is where I'm going to depart slightly from the quote that inspired this post in the first place: rather than “killing” your darlings (i.e., straight-up deleting them), I want you to copy them into a separate spare file and put them aside.
Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
He's onto something here.
In my experience, the best results I've had with passages readers don't get is when I remove them from the original work, but not simply in a slash-and-burn technique.
First, I save them in a separate file. Seriously. It's not hard:
- Open your story file.
- Cut the section that's giving your readers trouble.
- Paste it into a spare file.
- Save that file—and close it.
Nobody is going to make you throw them away completely. Just knowing your beloved phrases don't have to disappear completely takes a lot of pressure off.
See, you may still get to use those darlings—just not where you thought you could. Keep them, by all means, and leave the funerary wear in the closet. Just take your darlings out of the story in question.
Next Step After Your Darlings are “Dead”
So now what? You removed the offending section, and now there's a hole in your manuscript.
The answer is probably predictable: time for hard work.
One: Re-read the section that came before the bit you cut (this is really important).
Two: Once you've done that, without hesitating, write a new version of the removed scene.
The reason you want to do it this way is because the flow of the story will be in your head. If you're coming off the bit you wrote that worked, the words for the next section will flow like a river in a deep channel. It really only works best if you read what came before and then move into writing the missing bits, as if those bits weren't missing at all, and you're just continuing down the road.
Don't be afraid. Write it fresh, and see what happens. I bet you sixteen oranges it comes out better.
Trust Your Readers—And Yourself
Your job as a writer is to remove roadblocks so your readers keep reading.
I know this is a seriously hard piece of advice. It's so often the bits we feel are brilliant that need to go, or at least be re-worded.
Here's the thing: you wrote that brilliant bit.
It was not a fluke. You wrote it because you have those words inside you.
That means you can do it again, even better.
Don't be afraid. Trust your readers, and trust yourself. Kill (read: copy and paste) your darlings, without the fear that you'll never write anything as brilliant again.
You will do it again, and your writing will only improve.
Are You Ready to Kill Your Darlings? Let's talk about it in the comments section.
Today, choose a passage that's given your beta-readers trouble. First, copy the troublesome bit and put it in a separate file; second, delete it from your original manuscript. Third, re-read the bit that came before your deleted portion. Then, and only then, it's time for the next step: rewrite it fresh, without stopping.
If you like, you can use a timer for fifteen minutes. However, this one doesn't necessarily need to be timed. It just needs to be done.
In the practice box below, share your new passage, and if you're brave, explain what you changed. Don't forget to comment on three other replies!
Best-Selling author Ruthanne Reid has led a convention panel on world-building, taught courses on plot and character development, and was keynote speaker for The Write Practice 2021 Spring Retreat.
Author of two series with five books and fifty short stories, Ruthanne has lived in her head since childhood, when she wrote her first story about a pony princess and a genocidal snake-kingdom, using up her mom’s red typewriter ribbon.
When she isn’t reading, writing, or reading about writing, Ruthanne enjoys old cartoons with her husband and two cats, and dreams of living on an island beach far, far away.
P.S. Red is still her favorite color.