It’s one of the most popular and well-known bits of advice for writers.
Kill your darlings.
If you’ve been writing for a while, you’ve heard it. If you’re new to writing, you’re hearing it now and you’ll hear it again. But who said it, what does it mean, and how do you do it?
Who said it first?
Many people credit the phrase to Stephen King, who said:
Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.
It’s great advice, and he’s right; it will break your heart to do it. He really empathizes with his fellow authors, knowing how we are and how much it will hurt. But he didn’t start the phrase. King was actually quoting William Faulkner, who said:
In writing, you must kill all your darlings.
It’s fewer words and more imperative than King’s version. Faulkner says we must kill our darlings. It’s not something we can choose to do, but something we have to do. Personally, I like the original, said by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in 1916.
“Murder your darlings.” How direct. How brutal. How accurate. He encourages us to write, and with all our hearts. But before passing on our words to the outside world, we must take out that which we do not need. We must not just remove but murder our darlings.
Murder is such a strong word. It’s not just killing, structured and unattached. It’s emotional and thought through. It’s with anger, tears, love, hate…with passion. It’s because we care that we must take out our darlings. For ourselves, for our prose, for the work as a whole, and yes, for our readers. One of the biggest so-called ‘rules’ of writing is to write for yourself first and foremost. And I couldn’t agree more. Your story is your story. But if you want to share that story, you need to look at it the way a reader would. Which means there will be parts that must be revisited and revised. You must murder your darlings.
What does it mean?
A lot of people assume that killing your darlings means killing off your characters. But it’s so much more than that. Think of your favorite lines from stories you’ve read.
“I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring
“After all this time?” “Always.”
– Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
“If the world is ending, a woman will want to fix her hair. If the world’s ending, a woman will take the time to tell a man something he’s done wrong.”
– Lord of Chaos, Wheel of Time, book 6
“I will hate the man you choose because he is not me, and love him if he makes you smile.”
– The Eye of the World, Wheel of Time, book 1
These quotes, these phrases, sentences, paragraphs, even chapters that we love so dear…these are darlings. But these are just what we see. What we don’t see are all the ones that the author held close to their heart—that they cherished and were proud of and wanted to show off—but that, inevitably, had to die.
When you write, especially on a first draft, often times you add in things that you don’t need. Unnecessary characters who serve no purpose other than to give your party an even number. An overly-descriptive metaphor that gives too much credit to the way the protagonist’s love interest flipped her hair. For me, that even meant an entire chapter dedicated to my main character having a very normal female hormonal breakdown fulfilled by stuffing her face with wine and pie. I love that chapter because it’s so relatable and shows the softer, more vulnerable side of my character. But it literally does nothing else for the story.
I don’t need that. The reader doesn’t need that.
You don’t have to write out how your main character makes a turkey sandwich just before her brother comes over with the news of their father’s arrest. Instead, just start with the brother coming over.
“But I wrote the making of the sandwich so well!” you argue. “And turkey sandwiches are my favorite, and I want that little Easter egg in the story,” you say. You’re being defensive, my friend. Because we’ve just discovered a darling. And it calls to be murdered.
What you write makes perfect sense to you, as the author, because it all fits together nicely in your head. But when we’re prepping our stories for the world, it doesn’t matter how well we understand them. What matters is whether or not the readers will know what we mean, if it makes sense, and if it stays on topic.
And it’s hard. It hurts to have a beta-reader tell me, “I didn’t quite understand this part. I can’t put my finger on it, but this entire paragraph just lost me.” Especially when I love it and I feel like I could never describe it better than I already did. But murder I must, and with a smile and a heavy heart, I rewrite. That is what it means to kill a darling.
How can I do this to my precious?
There are a few methods I know of, and each one works for different people. Try them out until you find the one that works best for you.
Method One: Track Changes
The quickest way is to use Track Changes in Microsoft Word. Just turn it on and delete to your heart’s discontent. When you add in the new stuff, if you decide you don’t like it, just reject changes and it’s like nothing ever happened.
Method Two: Cut and Paste
This is my favorite method. Copy the offending segment and paste it into a fresh document. I named my document “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” But hey, to each his own. The point is, your precious darlings will always be safe and sound in that other document. On cold nights when you don’t think you’re good enough, you can reread them and remind yourself that you wrote those gems. They might not be in your book now, but maybe they’ll fit in another story. Maybe you can reuse them. Don’t give up on what you love.
Method Three: You Will Be Deleted!
Just delete it. Highlight it and imagine you are a Cyberman, and that bit was inferior and incompatible. Or better yet (and with more emotion), imagine the world is about to end unless you hit that delete key before the final countdown ends. Three…two…one… Delete! You’ll mourn the loss for a moment, then you’ll breathe. You’ll feel a small pinch of anxiety as you forget exactly how you worded it, and then you’ll rewrite. It’ll be better than before, and you’ll wonder why you had such a hard time deleting that old thing in the first place. (And, of course, you’ll end with a pang of guilt because you know it really was amazing to begin with, and you didn’t mean to insult it. Take a moment of silence to remember our deleted darlings.)
A Tip On the Rewrite
Don’t rewrite it based on the bit you removed. It didn’t work, which is why you had to remove it. Instead, go back a few paragraphs. Reread what came before it, then rewrite. That way, your mind will already be in the flow of things, so to speak, and you’ll be more likely to get it right this time.
Here’s one of my deleted darlings from my upcoming novel, Light & Shadow.
It felt like hours had gone by as the two women sat there, stuffing their faces and filling their hearts. They talked about everything and nothing at all. Illera talked about Kalo and how sweet he was, Lux talked about the gardens and how vast and beautiful they were, and the two girls finally reconnected in their friendship to the way they used to be before Lux’s memory loss.
Share one of your deleted darlings in the comments! Let it see the light of day one last time. 😉