Kill Your Darlings

What does ‘kill your darlings’ mean and how can any writer be prepared to cut out the parts they love?

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Kill your darlings. It’s a phrase that’s passed around from writer to writer. If you haven’t heard it yet, you just did, and you probably will again sooner rather than later, so it’s important that you know what it means for you and your writing.

It’s often attributed to Stephen King; however he was, at the time, quoting William Faulkner.

In writing, you must kill your darlings.

William Faulkner

Faulkner was, in turn, rewording a quote from Arthur Quiller-Couch.

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.

Arthur Quiller-Couch

Prior to that, variations have been attributed to Oscar Wilde and Anton Chekhov, amongst others. Who first said it is less important than the sentiment behind it, however. What they all do not mean is to kill your characters, or plot lines, or scenes, or moments of brilliance. What they’re saying is that, in writing, you have to remove parts of the writing that you, personally, favourite but do not hold the same meaning to the reader.

Certain elements of your writing can become too fancy for the effect that you’re trying to achieve, or can detract from what should be an emotionally-charged scene because of the way that you’ve written it. Pointless or over-the-top writing – sometimes referred to as purple prose – pulls your reader out of the scenes when we should be engrossing them at every turn. What all these writers meant by ‘kill your darlings’ was that types of things need to go.

Whatever it is, you adore it. Just because we love something, doesn’t mean that it should make it into the end product. Stories aren’t just about well-written scenes with well-developed characters. There’s flow, pacing, timing, arcs, and all that other stuff that kind of happens behind the scenes. You need to be prepared to kill your darlings: just because something you’ve written is amazing, doesn’t mean it has a place. It could be the best piece of literature ever written by a human and you still may have to cut it if the pacing is off, or if it messes with the flow in a way that you don’t want.

It isn’t an easy thing to do and it’s especially hard if you struggle to step away from the writing psychologically. But it has to happen and the sooner you kill your darlings, the sooner your writing will improve. That’s not to say, however, that you have to kill all your darlings. Don’t remove everything that you like just because you like it or someone on the internet tells you to do. The one thing, in all of this, that you need to remember, is to be prepared to do it. If something doesn’t work, doesn’t fit, or whatever reason stands out in a negative way, you need to cut it, rewrite it, strip away everything that made you love it, and reshape it so it is how it should be.

You have to be ready to kill your darlings. Chances are you’re going to do it sooner or later.

David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.

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