What It Means To Kill Your Darlings

By on June 14, 2016

As writers, you have may already heard of the phrase ‘to kill your darlings,’ and you may already be well-versed with its meaning.

However, some writers may not have come across this piece of advice,  and it is one that has been handed out to writers for many, many generations.

The phrase was originally spoken by William Faulkner, an American writer and Nobel Prize laureate from Oxford, Mississippi, who said ‘in writing you must kill all your darlings.’

But what did he mean exactly? And, perhaps more importantly, is it possible to do it?

In writing, to killing one's darlings means getting rid of the things you love the most. That line in your book that you think makes it seem unique and powerful and strange, that scene that you feel really expresses the essence of what your work is about, the accent that you have given your main character that you believe really helps your readers see into their soul…

Yes, those are your darlings.

So why do we have to get rid of them?

In reality killing your darlings has to be done wisely and somewhat sparingly. If you simply decide to hit ‘delete’ on all the best bits of your book the chances are you’ll end up with gaping holes in your story and, actually, some of the best bits should almost certainly stay.

What Faulkner meant was you need to let go of the bits of your writing you are holding onto selfishly. Those words, side plots, characters or turns of phrase that you personally love but, actually, if you are being truthful, don’t really advance your story in any way.

You might, for example, have thought of a killer line that just perfectly sums up an emotion or scene, it might have come to you in the middle of the night and you might have written it down with such excitement you couldn’t wait to get it into your story the next day...

However, when you tried there just wasn’t a place for it, you wanted to make it fit, but it didn’t. It couldn’t work.

Don’t force something no matter how much you love it. If it is not meant to be in your current story simply save it for the next one, and then let it go.

However, your writing ‘darlings’ are not the only ones that can be useful to kill off.

Killing off characters that you know your reader will love can be a dramatic and useful strategy too. This device is used by some of the greatest murder-mystery writers of all time such as Agatha Christie, who often kills off well-liked characters in her novels. Why? Because the reader doesn’t expect it. It is surprising and heart-breaking, it makes us invest even more in the story.

The same goes for characters who are not going anywhere, ones who don’t belong, or ones who you love fiercely and are so proud of creating, yet come to realise have no part to play in your story.

You find yourself giving them too much attention and neglecting your other characters, or bending the plot so it fits more around their way of thinking, their point of view.

These are the darlings you must kill, or at least nip in the bud before they take over and potentially destroy your entire story.

It takes effort and self-discipline to kill your darlings. But remember, you are not writing your book for you. In fact, it has very little to do with you at all.

If something is distracting and taking away from your story you need to shut it down. Your aim is to keep your readers immersed and engaged in the world you have created, don’t let anything divert you or them from this goal.

The sooner you learn to be ruthless as a writer, to identify and kill your darlings, the easier and more painless it will become.

You don’t have to get rid of them completely. Just take them out and put them somewhere else, in a notebook or a file of ideas - then you never know when one of them might just flourish back to life.

Bethany Cadman -author of 'Doctor Vanilla's Sunflowers'

Bethany Cadman -author of 'Doctor Vanilla's Sunflowers'

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