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  • Writer's pictureSL Eastwood

Learn To Kill Your Darlings

Updated: May 11

This isn’t Sophie’s Choice, guys, it’s time to get realistic about some of our ideas…

As a writer you've undoubtedly have heard the phrase – Kill Your Darlings – at one time or another. A phrase often attributed to William Faulkner, although it's thought to be originally paraphrased from Arthur Quiller-Couch.

The meaning is quite simply...

To cut parts that aren’t serving your story – plot points, scenes, characters, dialogue, etc. – even when you love them.

The first time I learned of this idea was from Stephen King in his memoir On Writing, which if you haven’t read you definitely should.

Part writing thesis, part memoir, I’d say the book isn’t especially heavy on the writing tips, but demonstrates how King’s grit, tenacity, supportive wife, and hard work were instrumental in his success. It’s no nonsense and very motivating.

Despite this being an idea that's been floating around the zeitgeist for a long time, I was reminded of it recently when a friend of mine had an incident with another creative who clearly hadn’t gotten the memo.

The story begins when my friend was invited to work as a writer for a man who was in the process of opening his own boutique studio.

This fellow had a great resume, having worked for huge studios, before branching out on his own. Everything seemed wonderful, until she began trying to write with him.

Unfortunately, despite his excellent bona fides, the guy didn’t have all that much experience in writing, having come from another related branch of the industry.

He had ideas, lots of them, and he trusted my friend enough that she was a skilled writer able to help him shape his debut feature, based on a story of his devising.

That’s when things stopped being so rosy. While the story had potential, the guy had no real understanding of structure or narrative beats.

He was adamant about certain plot points being in certain places, even when they didn’t make narrative sense, or would overload a particular act.

No matter how many times my friend tried to explain this to him, or tried to work around it, they could never come to an agreement. He just couldn’t kill his darlings.

Eventually, my friend had to call it quits with this client, hearing on the grapevine that he’d had similar issues with other writers he’d tried to employ.

Now, many of us might think that this was a silly situation that could have been easily resolved, but the problem is that it’s actually a lot more common than we realise.

I feel really bad for this client, and my friend, because I can see both sides of the situation.

When writing, sometimes you really can’t see the wood for the trees, or you become so wrapped up in a particular thing, that you can’t bear to part with it.

This is why it is so important to find objective people who can help us see through our own nonsense. We’re all guilty this.

All of us are guilty

Recently, in one of my weekly meetings with my critique group, our new member pointed out some darlings that I had left quite massively unsmothered in my script.

Lucky for me, these darlings could be resolved with a minor rewrite, however, I was blinded to their existence because they’re the product of having an end goal and not considering the route to that goal.

This is the crux of unkillable darlings, when we writers are married to a particular outcome, even when it isn’t plausible within the world we have created.

Sometimes it’s a plot point that just doesn’t make sense, beautiful language that doesn’t relate to anything else in the piece, or a charming character who has no purpose.

Forcing ourselves to make these edits can be upsetting, but ultimately necessary, since our inability to release these darlings to the netherworld can keep us stuck. For example, I have a novel I’ve been trying to write for over a decade.

I pick it up, I can’t unravel it, I put it down. 

I love this story, which is why I keep going back to it, but the narrative just doesn’t work for some reason. A few years ago I thought I’d cracked it, only for the whole thing to come to a staggering halt again.

I suspect it’s because there’s a darling I just can’t kill.

Unfortunately, this darling is my core narrative and killing it will cause the whole book to unravel. This world, these characters, will all come crashing down around me.

However, sometimes darlings aren’t as devastating as this. Much like the darlings my writing associate pointed out to me, sometimes they just need to be rethought in order to make things work.

If you do find yourself struggling with a darling you can’t kill, try finding a way to work around it.

However, if this doesn’t work… you can borrow my guillotine.


Thank you for reading. Make sure to leave a comment and share this with other writers.

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