7 Writing Rules: #2 Kill Your Darlings

The idea that we have to kill our darlings — or edit things into chum — is mostly sound. Cut the fluff. Stephen King said “Take out the bad parts.” It’s removing the things that don’t serve any real purpose in the furthering of the novel, and this last part is important.

Think of the impact The Shining would have had if Stephen King thought that descriptions of the Overlook were extraneous, or that describing the isolation once was enough, or mentioning only in passing that Jack Torrance was an alcoholic. Imagine Jaws if Peter Benchley told us that the shark was larger than a canoe and left it at that, or just described it as a sea creature of some sort. If the recently departed William Peter Blatty hadn’t mentioned the slew of tests they put Regan through in The Exorcist, if he had just jumped right to everyone believing the mother, so much of the creeping impact, so much of the build that makes that such a successful novel, would have dissipated. Those are examples of things that moved the plot along, necessary descriptions without which the novel would lose coherence.

“Kill your darlings” is another way of saying that you have to edit your writing to within an inch of its life and remove the stuff that doesn’t need to be there. The cautionary tale is to not take the heart out of your story at the same time.

Perhaps we can imagine Harry Potter without mentioning the names of the spells or the ingredients of the potions or the shops on Diagon Alley or the lessons or the materials the various wands contain. Would the plot be there? Largely, yes. However, all puns intended, would the magic be there? No. Not in the immersive form it is now.

I think it’s something that comes with time, objectivity, a good editor, and a careful moderating of sentimentality. It’s hard. I’ve turned this on myself several times, but there’s a happy medium. Writing a long novel shouldn’t make you feel ashamed, shouldn’t make you feel like you haven’t done a good job, or that if you were a really good writer you could have squished 400 pages into in a three page pamphlet with a small glossary. That’s not a novel; there is no journey; it’s a series of bald statements. However, cutting it down, getting rid of the fluff with those aforementioned tools in your belt, and keeping the magic…that’s the tightrope every writer walks, and it’s never easy.

~ by Darren Endymion on January 16, 2017.

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