“Kill Your Darlings.” That advice is as common as “Start With Action” or “Show Don’t Tell.” And, like the other two, it’s rarely defined at the time it's given.
When I first heard this piece of advice, I was aghast! Kill??? Seems kind of harsh. And permanent. Plus, I still didn’t have a clear idea of what I was supposed to be bludgeoning to death. So I set out to learn, and found some different definitions.
1) The turn of a phrase that is considered beautiful prose, but is really eye candy. It adds nothing to the story, and exists for the sole purpose of saying “ooo, pretty!”
Okay, I can see valid reasons for cutting phrases like this. I think they have no purpose other than plumping up a writer’s ego. I believe that truly good writing is invisible. I.E. the writing is so good that the reader doesn’t even notice that beautifully worded phrase or scene, because it adds to the story so much that he’s immersed in the story and characters.
2) Whole paragraphs, chunks, or chapters that don’t add to the story. They may take the main character somewhere irrelevant, or a conversation may happen that doesn’t move the story forward, etc.
I’m all for getting rid of these, too, because Less Is More. The less your characters prattle on, the more impact they have when they do speak. The less your scenes meander, the more sense their actions make when you reach the end. These things make happy readers who will want to find more of your books after they’ve finished with this one.
3) Find the pieces of the story that you are most attached to, and delete them.
Whoa! I don’t understand this one at all. What if my favorite piece is a heart-rending scene where the main character makes an incredibly difficult choice, without which there would be no story? Or what if my favorite piece is a subtle action that reflects the main character's subconscious, which adds depth and richness? I can’t just up and delete those. It would harm my story, not make it stronger. I suppose this advice is good for writers prone to eye-candy-phrases, but there’s already a rule of thumb for them. So where did this one come from, and who thought it would be useful? If someone else sees the usefulness, please explain because I sure don’t get it.
I think a better suggestion would be to learn to look at your work objectively, then remove what doesn’t add to the story. I’ve talked about objectivity before, and I just can’t stress enough how important it is. If you can’t get an objective view of your work, then how can you work on improving it? How do you know that your changes are making it better? Or worse? You don’t. You’re working blind, which is a dangerous thing. Incidentally, if you know you’re incapable of looking at your work objectively, there are other ways. Find a few trusted critique partners who will always tell you the truth, and who you know you can listen to. Eventually, you’ll be able to hear their voices in your head as you’re reading over your work, and then you’re on your way to getting your own objective view.
But I digress. We were talking about killing darlings.
After everything I’d learned, I still had a major issue with the word “kill.” That’s just too permanent for my taste. What if that little darling could be modified, then used in a different project? If I kill it, then I can’t reuse it. So I created my own little “clipboard” file. Anything I remove from my stories goes here, no matter what it is, and it stays there for all eternity.
I’ll go back and reread them (and sometimes I'm ashamed that those words came from me), but I always get something out of it. It might me a reminder that I’m learning more and making progress. It might be an “a-ha!” moment where I discovered I was heading in the right direction, but was executing the idea all wrong. I still have all these files for every story I’ve ever written, and I can’t bring myself to get rid of them. Call me nostalgic, but knowing that they’re still there makes the story richer and deeper in my head. If only because I know how hard I worked to make them the best I could.
What do you all do? Do you kill your Darlings, keep them in a file, or keep them in your story?