In a rather violent declaration, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch once advised, “Murder your darlings.” While I have a general distaste for murder, manslaughter, and massacre, good ‘ole Sir Arthur does have a bloody point. It’s a point echoed by everyone from William Faulkner to Agatha Christie to Ernest Hemingway all the way to Stephen King: you’ve got to write without playing favorites, even if that means killing those that you’re fond of.
But it’s so tough.
I get it. After you’ve spent weeks, months, or even years plotting out characters, ideas, scenes, or backstories, the last thing you’ll want to do is delete them like they never even happened. It becomes even more complicated if you get emotionally invested in these characters and root for them.
This is why it takes guts to be an author. It takes an incredible amount of self-control to write a story that you don’t control. It takes bravery to allow the characters to play out exactly as they need to.
What happens if you don’t kill your darlings?
Similar to an overbearing mother who can’t let her children make their own mistakes, a writer who withholds bad things from happening to his characters stunts their development and deflates the story.
To create a taut manuscript, you’ve got to cut the fat.
Let’s take a look at five ways to seek out and destroy the parts that may be weighing down your story.
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Darling #1: Extra characters
Do you have a character without a purpose? The character may be interesting with a unique point of view, but if that character doesn’t add to the story, it’s cluttering the scene.
Here are the two ways a character can impact a story:
- He reveals something about the protagonist, and/or
- She moves the story forward (as a catalyst)
Audit each character by this criteria. Those that don’t make the cut have to be eliminated.
Don’t introduce a new character for the purpose of exposition.
First of all, there’s nothing more contrived than trotting out a character to explain what’s happening to the reader.
Secondly, it’s a waste of resources. You’ve already created a cast of characters that you can now use to explain something necessary to the story.
Combine weaker, or one-liner, characters together into one hulk of a character. You don’t need a bunch of people parroting the same things. This creates chaos and unnecessary noise. Instead, you need one strong character for each point of view.
Darling #2: Dialogue
Don’t get cute with dialogue.
You’re not writing a screenplay, you’re writing a book. Don’t write dialogue just because you think that the characters need to speak to each other. While your book may mimic real life, it doesn’t need to include all of the mundane parts of it.
Hello, goodbye, and any small talk in between can really drag your story. Besides, it’s generally implied.
Another thing to kill (or at least moderate) is specialized phrasing. Writing phonetically to show accents and local dialects, or overusing regional catchphrases, is a big no-no—unless you’re writing a sitcom in the 1980s.
Just be very careful here. Specialized phrasing can be distracting and slow down the reader.
Darling #3: Everything your protagonist loves
You know what time it is? It’s time to wreck your protagonist’s day... or life.
Tell me if this has ever happened to you: you have the perfect story in your mind, you’ve plotted an amazing, flower-lined path for your characters to take, and then you realize that the thing your protagonist loves the most will run off of that path and subsequently trip and fall into the volcano of doom.
While your story may not include an actual volcano, it will probably have a protagonist that loses something you desperately want him to keep.
It’s heartbreaking. You’re heartbroken. You want to fix it for the protagonist, because the protagonist is your spirit animal. But don’t.
This is where the magic happens.
When you’ve written a character well enough that you hurt for him, so will your audience.
Killing the things your protagonist cares about can create a stronger emotional attachment to the character. It can help your readers root for even the least sympathetic characters. It can also add gravitas to your book, by injecting reality and pain.
Don’t give your characters an easy life or an easy way out of their predicament. Make them struggle. It humanizes the character.
Darling #4: Scenes
Get rid of scenes that don’t work.
As a writer, you enjoy almost a god-like ability to build worlds from scratch.
Some writers get really intense with world building and create languages, highly detailed geography, and convoluted genealogies. *ahem* Tolkien *ahem*
While it can be wonderful and epic, more often, it’s confusing and overwhelming.
Just like with extra characters, only keep the scenes that develop your characters and move the story forward.
Darling #5: Backstory
Backstory is crucial for weaving a realistic and relatable story.
But, including every little thing about the character is lazy writing.
Stay with me for a second. When you meet a person, you don’t know every single thing about him or her after meeting once, or even one hundred times. It shouldn’t be any different with the characters in your story.
It can be hard to hold back. You may be so pleased with your thorough backstory that you want to blurt it out to your readers. You want them to understand everything about your character just like you do.
That’s a big mistake. Your reader can’t handle all of those details at once.
Instead of dumping huge amounts of backstory, cut away extraneous bits. Backstory should only peek out every now and then, but most of the time, it should stay inside of your writer’s brain.
Use what you know to inform the character’s actions, but don’t weigh your story down with obvious backstory.
But what if you love the character too much to kill them off?
Sometimes you just can’t off a character, but you know that they can’t fit into your story as is. Instead of agonizing over it, here’s your solution:
Politely copy and paste the character, the scene, or the dialogue into another file to be referred to at a later time. Now, it’s not gone forever-- it’s safe on your hard drive.
Authors often struggle with being "too close" to their manuscript, especially their characters. Identify the gratuitous bits that slow your story down or take it on an unnatural path, and get rid of them.
If they won’t die, you have your next story.