“Kill your darlings” is a piece of writing advice that has been attributed to many big-name authors, including Allen Ginsberg, William Faulkner, Oscar Wilde, Chekhov and even Stephen King. In fact, it seems that Cornish novelist Arthur Quiller-Couch might have been the first to say it, but what does this oft-quoted adage mean, and should writers really do it?
What it means
When you write, you’re probably going to write paragraphs, chapters, perhaps even whole characters or subplots that you fall in love with, but that don’t really advance your story as a whole. All those writers who have said “Kill your darlings” are telling you to cut them. Those brilliant parts that don’t do any real work need to go, no matter how big a wrench it is, because ultimately everything in your story should contribute to your story. If it doesn’t, it’s out.
Should you do it?
This might seem like harsh advice – it is – but it’s for the best. If something isn’t serving your story then it probably doesn’t belong there. Have you ever read a book in which the author indulged his passion for describing the trees and landscape in tedious detail (Tolkien), or broke away from the story to write an essay about the evils of modern architecture (Victor Hugo)? The writer might feel strongly about the subject, but do you, the reader, care?
“Kill your darlings” is a reminder to be objective. It’s not about deleting something just because it’s beautiful or politically motivated or whatever. It’s asking you to consider whether you’re keeping it in just because you like it and for literally no other reason.
So should you do it? The answer depends on why you’re writing. If you’re writing purely for yourself and your own satisfaction, by all means keep in every darling you come up with. But if you want others to enjoy your work, if you want to keep your readers engaged, strengthen your writing and discipline yourself as an editor, you’re going to have to think about what works as a whole and not let yourself get caught up in self-indulgence.
How to do it
Once you’ve taken a deep breath and decided that it’s time to do some killing, you’re going to wonder where to start. Of course, every writer will have different darlings in different projects, but here are a few common ones to look out for.
- Kickass side characters: They’re cool, they’re sassy, they always know the right thing to say… but they don’t do anything. Maybe you’re going for a Greek chorus vibe, or maybe they’re just so much extraneous detail. Yes, you love them, but if you could take them out without the story changing at all, they probably don’t deserve to be there. (Don’t be too heartbroken, though: if they’re that great, maybe they could be the star of their own story?)
- Prologues: Prologues are complicated things. I have confusing feelings about them (maybe I’ll write a blog post about it sometime!) But in many cases they are unnecessary. It might be exciting to start the story from some completely different angle – laser battle in space! doomed romance starring your protagonist’s great-grandmother! futuristic world from the perspective of a grasshopper! – but, again, if it isn’t advancing your story or introducing a main character then it needs to go. A prologue has work to do as well; it can’t just be a flashy hook that has no relevance to the main story.
- Exposition chapters: It took you a long time to get to know your world/protagonist/plotline and you’re excited to describe it, so you do, all at once. It’s most common to do this right at the beginning – Chapter 1: A History of the World – so your reader is faced with a whole chapter of intricate backstory before anything actually happens. Yes, all the details work together very cleverly, but nobody will see that if they stop reading. Instead, get into the action and the people, show the world instead of straight-up describing it. Don’t dump all your exposition in one place; sprinkle it around instead.
- Purple prose: God, nobody has ever written such a beautiful description of a forest. You can almost see the ants scurrying through the undergrowth, hear the gusting wind, taste the dew on the leaves. Admittedly you abandoned your characters six pages back to write this description, but that doesn’t really matter, right? Not so. Beautiful prose has it’s place, but it must all be in service to the story.
Look, I’m not saying you have to strip your story back to its barest bones. I’m not saying there isn’t room for a little self-indulgence here and there. But when you’re writing – especially something long – you have to keep one eye on the whole and not get sidetracked too often. Killing your darlings is hard – of course it is – but remember that ultimately the story is your darling, and it’s the most important of all of them, so you might have to make some sacrifices for it to be the best that it can be.
Have you ever had to kill a darling? What was it like? Let me know with a comment down below!
Further reading: ‘8 Things to Cut When You Kill Your Darlings‘ on Well Storied