Don’t Kill Your Darlings—Give Them a Fair Trial!

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I’ve never been a big fan of the writing admonition to Kill your darlings. It’s been a virtual axiom among writers for decades. Yet it seems to me about as useful as Destroy your delight and as cold-hearted as Drown your puppies.

I mean, if something is your darling, should your first instinct be to end its life? Sounds positively psychopathic.

Isn’t a darling at least owed a fair trial?

The phrase itself has its origin in a lecture on style delivered by the English writer Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch back in 1914. He said:

To begin with, let me plead that you have been told of one or two things which Style is not; which have little or nothing to do with Style, though sometimes vulgarly mistaken for it. Style, for example, is not—can never be—extraneous Ornament … [I]f you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’

At least Sir Arthur was honest enough to call it murder! But murder requires malice aforethought, and that is a terrible way to think about a darling.

Darlingicide should be outlawed, not encouraged!

Stephen King strikes the right balance. In his book On Writing King says the whole idea behind “kill your darlings” is to make sure your style is “reasonably reader-friendly.”

Which means sometimes a darling stays, sometimes it goes, and sometimes you give it a skillful edit.

It’s mostly a matter of ear, what it sounds like. It’s that thing called voice, which is (as I’ve defined it) a synergy of author, character, and craft. You can develop an instinct for the right sound. The more you practice, the better you get.

Begin by being aware of three areas where darlings tend to present themselves:

  1. Metaphors, Similes and Turns of Phrase

I love writing that creates striking word pictures. That’s why I dig Raymond Chandler over most of his contemporaries. I mean, come on, you have to love things like this:

I lit a cigarette. It tasted like a plumber’s handkerchief. (Farewell, My Lovely)

It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window. (Farewell, My Lovely) 

From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away. (The High Window) 

Obviously, finding just the right touch for this is crucial. I use metaphors and similes in my Mike Romeo series, because it’s true to his character. But my wife (and first editor) is usually right when she says, “This is too much” or “I have no idea what this is supposed to mean.”

Then I don’t kill the darling. But I do show her the door. Much more civilized.

  1. Dialogue

There’s a fine line between memorable dialogue and dialogue that seems to be straining too hard to be memorable.

In Revision and Self-Editing I suggest “one gem per act” as a rule of thumb. A line that really shines. One that you work and re-work.

In my workshops I’ll use an example from the movie The Godfather. It’s in the scene where Michael comes to Las Vegas to tell Moe Green that the Corleone family is taking over. Moe Green is furious. He shouts, “Do you know who I am? I’m Moe Green! I made my bones when you were in high school!”

Actually, no, he doesn’t say that. That wouldn’t be all that memorable. Here’s the actual line: “Do you know who I am? I’m Moe Green! I made my bones when you were going out with cheerleaders!”

Ah…

Perhaps this line went through a few iterations. Anything more added to it would have killed the effect. It would have been too darling.

Make sure your dialogue is true to the character who speaks it and true to the moment.

  1. Emotional Beats

Some time ago I read a scene from a manuscript by a young writer. It involved two women who are natural adversaries. The dialogue was pretty good between these two, but unfortunately it was slowed down considerably by line after line of emotional beats. Here’s an example of what I mean (I’m making this up):

“I don’t know what you mean,” Audrey said.

Sally felt the pull on her heart. Did Audrey really not know? How could she not?

“Do I have to spell it out for you?” Sally said. Her hands trembled as she waited for Audrey to answer.

“Maybe you’re talking about Frank,” Audrey said.

Frank’s name on Audrey’s lips made Sally stiffen. If only Frank were really there! But she mustn’t let Audrey see any longing in her eyes.

“I think we should leave Frank out of this,” Sally said.

Audrey smirked. Oh, how Sally hated that smirk. Since they were kids, that smirk had always driven Sally crazy.

You get the idea. While writing with emotion is part of the art of the storyteller, choosing how and when is the essence of that art. Instead of allowing us to flow with the inherent conflict in the dialogue, we’re given way too much interior life here. That dilutes the overall effect. This scene ought to look more like this:

“I don’t know what you mean,” Audrey said.

“Do I have to spell it out for you?” Sally said.

“Maybe you’re talking about Frank.”

“I think we should leave Frank out of this.”

Audrey smirked. Oh, how Sally hated that smirk.

There are times when you do want to emphasize what’s going on inside a character. Times when you want to “go big” for dramatic effect. And you should. I have a suggestion for you: overwrite those emotional moments the first time around. Go for it. Come back the next day and edit it a bit. When you go over your first draft, edit some more. Get feedback from a crit partner or trusted friend on those pages.

Keep what works and trim the rest. You’ll eventually feel the right balance.

It pleases me greatly to write darlings. So I don’t immediately plot their demise. I let them sit, I look at them again, I have my wife render an opinion, and then I decide if they must go. They get a fair trial. And sometimes they are set free!

Case dismissed.

So how do you treat your darlings?

12+

25 thoughts on “Don’t Kill Your Darlings—Give Them a Fair Trial!

  1. As I struggle with how to describe people by their physical characteristics (which Chandler does well, of course, as in the first pages of _Fairwell My Lovely_), what I’m learning from him is the impact of non-literal, metaphorical description, as in the “woman from thirty feet.” It’s not always necessary to say what a person actually looks like. The metaphor gives some sense of that, but more importantly, the emotional impact of the person’s appearance/behavior on the character who’s observing.

    You’re right, of course, about “kill your darlings.” Quiller-Couch was referring to _extraneous_ decoration. Without thinking about what it really means, as you do here, it becomes a cleaver where an boning knife would be appropriate–much as “show don’t tell” does.

  2. “Darlngicide” ~ methinks your legal training showeth, Counselor ~ 🙂

    This is good advice for whatever writing in which one engages, not just fiction – bosses don’t like (or, perhaps appreciate), “darlings”, and sometimes in poetry or song, straining to keep (or support) a ” darling” can murder the whole thing~ or at least cause it great bodily harm.

    • I never actually defended someone on the charge of darlingicide. I’d have to think long and hard about taking such a case. Juries are naturally sympathetic to darlings.

  3. I’ve always hated these sort of sayings. They become one of those things where you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. A writer shouldn’t be afraid to write, they should definitely write the best they can, and go back and polish. Screw these old sayings, they’re, well, hackneyed.

    • This phrase just never resonated with me, Lorelei. OTHO, an old saying may hold years of wisdom, so can be given the benefit of doubt. But not absolute authority. There are times when you may want to do something off the well-trodden path …. but it’s best to know the path first!

  4. Agreed! We have to suspect any rule that claims to be absolute, and as you say, some darlings work.

    I try to stick to Elmore Leonard’s more balanced admonition: If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.

  5. Well, the rule didn’t say, “Kill ALL your darlings.” 🙂
    And my editor catches the ones I miss. I think when we try so hard to make something sound brilliant, we hate to part with it, even if it’s “writerly” and a part readers will skip. For me, the best writing happens when I’m not worrying about the words. That comes later.

  6. Thanks. I never knew where that admonition came from. Quite frankly, when you read those 2 sentences, they don’t even make sense–it doesn’t sound like an admonition about style or voice, it just sounds like an admonition not to write well.

    It, like several other rules, should be a guide, not entrenched law. There is great wisdom in your advice of letting ‘er rip when you first write, then review it after. No point in killing the relationship before it has a chance to begin.

  7. Jim, when I talk about “rules” I usually include the advice of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, but I always felt it wasn’t quite right. Now I see that some darlings should be quietly cut, while others deserve to stay–they deserve a fair trial. Those Raymond Chandler quotes are perfect. I’m going to incorporate some of this information into that lecture (with proper attribution, of course). Thanks for sharing.

  8. Jim, thanks for the explanation and advice on darlings. I always thought they (darlings) were purple prose. I like the advice of “go for it” on the rough draft, then editing and checking with critique partners later. It would seem that we should always be looking for ways to be creative and to grab the reader. If we’re afraid to at least interview the darling, we might miss the next Miss America.

    And congratulations to all The Kill Zone contributors on your blog hitting Writers Digest’s top 101 blogs.

  9. Very good advice. The ‘darlings’ deserve a fair shake… as do the writers of the darlings.

  10. I have to say I’m amazed that every Sunday you can think of something new and clearly explain a technique to be a better writer. Thanks.

    I’m on my 7th book in a series and felt the need to kill a peripheral darling. This way I could be true to “kill your darlings” since he’s a recurring character, but with only minor roles outside of book 2. So I’m getting rid of a darling, trying to measure up to the admonition about killing your darlings, but not really wanting to change the core characters of the series. I’m glad you addressed this topic as now I can keep my main characters safe in future books, LOL. These characters are loosely based on a series of friends and I didn’t want bad mojo to arise from killing them in a story line. Whew.

  11. Sound advice, Mr. Bell. I read your book “Revision and Self-Editing for Publication”, and what you say here matches your pulling-back rule of writing a scene as dramatically as possible to get yourself into the mood, then pulling back just enough so it’s balanced. Like your example of cutting off a lawyer’s tie in anger, but instead just throwing it in his face. I have killed darlings before, some with more reluctance than others. Maybe I’ll try this court-case rule for later scenes I write and see how things turn out. My inner editor is the prosecution, but not the absolute law. Also, I feel pretty confident about how I do emotion beats, but your example was still pretty helpful.

  12. I have an issue that’s not a darling. It thinks it’s a darling and every morning it shows up demanding to be fed. I try to ignore it and find it purring at my feet. I think it opens my files at night and types itself into the story. I CAN’T possibly be guilty of something that obnoxious. So, I wait until it’s sleeping and hack it out of my manuscript. My goal is to outsmart my darlings. Like kudzu.

    Terri

  13. I always enjoy your advice, Mr. Bell. I’m thinking perhaps the darlings could be given comfortable lodging in a notebook and perhaps used in another manuscript. one day. 🙂 — Suzanne

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