We’ve all heard the phrase “kill your darlings.” But for newer writers, and, really, experienced writers as well, killing your darlings is easier said than done. To kill one’s darlings means removing any unnecessary subplots, characters, scenes, sentences, and any other writing that does not contribute to the overall story, whether novel or short fiction, however much you might love them. The quote is attributed to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, author of On the Art of Writing, though many other writers are also attributed the quote. I believe Quiller-Couch used the word “murder” rather than “kill.” It’s brutal stuff, killing your darlings, but it’s necessary stuff. It’s often what separates something that gets published from something that doesn’t. In short, killing your darlings is a must if you want to improve your writing.
I think I heard the term while getting my bachelor's degree in English Literature, nearly 30 years ago. I’d taken creative writing courses, and, while I was learning and honing my craft, I had a lot of darlings walking around. As our method of criticism was based on the workshop method, it was clear I wasn’t the only one prone to the darling disease. It’s easy to catch. In fact, as writers, I think it’s something we’re born with rather than acquire, or at least create based on imitating writers we admire. Not that they do it, only that we fail to close the loops of the “genius” we’ve put down on paper in our rush to produce literary greatness.
As writers, we write a lot of crap. We overwrite. We include a lot (a lot) of adjectives, adverbs, cliches, plotlines that go nowhere, characters who, while perhaps fascinating, do nothing for the story. We write compelling scenes that don’t advance the plot or tell us anything about our characters but are so awesome we loathe having to cut them from our work. But that’s the difference between amateurs and the pros: the pros do what must be done, drawing their swords without hesitation to slice away their extraneous literary growths, while the amateurs make excuses for why they must remain. Believe me, I get it. My darlings push me around like the new kid in junior high. But I’ve learned if I’m to survive, if I’m to achieve my goals, I must be merciless. It’s for this reason that my sword has remained sharpened, at the ready, seeking to murder what it will.
In grad school, as I was pursuing my MFA in Creative Writing in fiction, I had been working on my thesis, a novel about a WWII B-24 Liberator pilot, for ten years. The novel had started out as a story cycle (a collection of connected short stories) that I’d begun during my free time working at a university while pursuing my MBA. Working for the university provided me with a lot of free time, and in that time I wrote.
In the evenings, I watched movies and documentaries about WWII, primarily about the European theatre. I read a zillion books, both fiction and nonfiction, about the war, about bomber pilots, about pretty much anything and everything I could get my hands on. I watched biographies of Hitler, Roosevelt, memorized important dates, learned about the injustices perpetrated against Japanese Americans, African Americans, German Americans, and others. I even interviewed an actual Liberator pilot, who happened to live a couple of miles away from me. It was a lot. But it gave me a full picture of what WWII had caused, not only abroad but right here in the United States. It made me appreciate the “Greatest Generation,” but it also opened my eyes to what people do to other people in times of war.
Prior to beginning my MFA program, I had workshopped my collection with a group of writers in Taos, New Mexico, who have now become close friends. They read the story cycle and provided their feedback. Overwhelmingly, they recommended I rewrite the stories into a novel. It would be a lot of work, but deep down I knew they were right. So, that’s what I did. I sucked it up and tore that cycle apart and turned it into a novel. Then I packed it into my bag and headed off to school.
In grad school, my thesis adviser and others read the novel. They liked it, but something was off. The novel followed my protagonist from a small, fictional town in Colorado, where he grew up poor and, in many ways, was abused, physically as well as psychologically. To escape the abuse, I had my hero head off to join the army, where he eventually became a bomber pilot. In the end, half of my novel was his life in Colorado, the other half took place exclusively in different parts of Europe, the primary setting being France. I LOVED both parts of the novel, but the war stuff excited me a lot. I had put so much energy into learning everything I could. I pictured my main character as an Audie Murphy type, a hero amongst heroes. He’d taken out Nazi installations around Europe, killed Nazi soldiers, members of the SS, the Schutzstaffel, in hand-to-hand combat, and just been an all around badass. This all after being the lone survivor after his Lib went down in a barrage of flak. Look out! James Jones. Move aside, Vonnegut. I’m coming for you.
And then my thesis adviser said something that left me without words: “What if you got rid of the WWII stuff?” Come again, I thought. Got rid of the WWII stuff? I must have misheard you. But I hadn’t misheard him. He thought the first half of the novel was the cleaner story. That it should continue into the second half of the book, where I could resolve the conflict and issues I’d brought up and that my hero was struggling with, rather than propel him into war where “new” issues arose, and that took the novel somewhere else. At first, I was shocked at the recommendation. But I’ve spent so much time researching the war, I reasoned. And I like it so much. “You don’t have to throw it all away,” he said. “Just . . . well, think about it.”
I didn’t have to think about it. Now, I don’t take all advice provided to me by fellow writers, or, in this case, my adviser. But I respected his opinion, and so I thought what the hell, let’s see what happens. At home, between working full-time, taking care of my kids, my dog, the duties around my house, I killed my darling, the war half of my novel. I killed the trainings my hero had gone through. Murdered all of the characters he met and eventually flew missions with. I killed the one innocent, youthful romance he’d had as the war ended and he was getting ready to go home. And then I got to work writing, from scratch, a new second half of my novel. It was painful, but I wasn’t going to let my ego and the hundreds, if not thousand plus hours of research I’d done, blind me to the possibilities I had before me. Let’s do this, I thought. Let’s see what happens.
As I wrote, I knew my adviser was right. Things started tightening up for my hero. The issues that he’d had as a child were now being addressed, the comeuppance and rebellion against those who’d abused him was strengthening the man my hero had become. The war was still there, but it was all off the page. Like Hemingway’s iceberg, it informed who my character was, but the reader didn’t have to experience it—it was in how my hero walked and talked, how he acted, the confidence he now had to confront the things that had tortured him as a youth. In short, killing my darlings worked. It strengthened the book, and it strengthened my understanding of what writers must do in order to come up with the best sentences and paragraphs, chapters and books, that they can. I no longer fear killing my darlings. I know that, in the end, there are myriad ways to get to the finish line, and one of the most important ones to remember is that not everything is going to make it. Not the dramatic scene where your hero and their enemy fight to the death. Not the character who’s description you wrote is so perfect you feel like you can almost touch them. Not the war where you thought yeah, this is where my hero becomes the man he needs to be to survive the traumatic events of his childhood.
Don’t be afraid to kill your darlings. Don’t sabotage your story for the sake of one scene, one character, one plotline. Not if it doesn’t add, in some way, to the overall story or novel. Give yourself the freedom to pursue alternative avenues, because sometimes those avenues are the right ones for your book. And always ask yourself this: Does this scene/character/plotline/whatever need to be here? Does it add value to the story I’m telling? If not, pull out your sword, sharpen it so it can split a hair, and get to work. Your writing deserves nothing less. So , remember: Killing Your Darlings is a Must if You Want to Improve Your Writing.
Cully Perlman is a Substantive Editor and a novelist. He charges .03/word. If you’d like to discuss your novel with him, contact him at Cully@novelmasterclass.com