September 4, 2017 by Nathaniel Tower
Every story I’ve ever written has had at least one great sentence (that is to say all my stories have at least one sentence I think is just fabulous). Even my worst stories contain at least one nugget of infinite wisdom that makes me say, “Damn, this is brilliant! I’m a literary god.”
But a brilliant sentence doesn’t make a bad story any better. And sometimes a brilliant passage can make a good story worse. That’s where “kill your darlings” comes into play. Regardless of who invented or popularized this little bit of writing advice, it’s one that we need to heed. But, like any bit of writing advice, it shouldn’t be taken as sacred word. There’s no such thing as a sacred word in writing. So let’s talk about it.
What Kill Your Darlings Really Means
“Kill your darlings” doesn’t mean you should go through and delete all the best stuff you’ve written. It means you shouldn’t hold onto a phrase/sentence/passage just because you love it on its own. If it doesn’t work within the context of the piece as a whole, get rid of it.
Your darlings are basically those stand-out moments in your story that make you think you’re a really damn good writer, but they have no actual impact on the complete body of work. They may be exceptionally well written or contain some incredible insight that could change the fate of all humankind. They’re also often self-indulgent and bordering on masturbatory writing. But they don’t help your story work better, and your reader probably won’t find them that impressive.
Think of it this way. Take your favorite song ever. Now let’s make a new version of that song with a couple really awesome notes randomly scattered in. Or maybe a killer guitar solo inserted in the middle of the second verse. Is the song better? Nope! Now it sucks because it has these isolated moments of self-proclaimed greatness that sound really bad and disruptive within the context of the song.
Those brilliant sentences you wrote that you desperately want to cling to have the same impact. They detract from your story. They confuse your reader. They may be great on their own in some capacity, but they aren’t serving the greater good.
Yes, it can be hard to kill your darlings. After all, you’re proud of these moments. You don’t want to delete the best sentence you’ve ever written. But guess what? They aren’t doing you any favors. So let’s talk about how to recognize them and how to get rid of them.
How to Find Your Darlings
Spotting your darlings really isn’t that hard. It’s typically a two-step process:
- When you’re re-reading your manuscript, your darlings are those moments that will make your spine tingle. You’ll probably smile when you read them. Your ego will swell. You’ll pat yourself on the back. You’ll nod like, “Oh, yeah. I wrote that shit.” In other words, you’ll respond in some type of cliche way that suggests greatness. If you had a gun to your head and were told to cut your word count in half, these are the last things you’d get rid of.
- When you get to one of these moments, here’s what you need to do next. Re-read that section of your manuscript with your solitary piece of literary brilliance removed and ask yourself the following question: Was your story any worse without it? If it isn’t, then guess what? You don’t need it in your story no matter how brilliant it might be on its own. Just delete it. Don’t keep anything in your story that isn’t necessary and doesn’t make it better.
How to Kill Your Darlings (And What to Do With Them When They’re Dead)
This part is really, really easy. Find the beginning and the end of your darling and delete everything in between. That’s it. See, I told you it was easy.
If it makes you feel better, create a separate document called “My Darlings” and paste everything you kill in it. Come back to it in a few months and read those beloved passages that made you feel like a real literary star. Are they really that good? Maybe so. And if they are, maybe you can use them in some other capacity. For example, you could make some sort of inspirational calendar with all your darlings in it. I can picture it now: Literary Darlings 2017: A Calendar of Isolated Writing Brilliance. Sounds like a best seller. Heck, maybe we can add pictures of famous writers with their shirts off.
What do you do with your darlings? Share your tips in the comments.