Three Reasons To Kill Your Darlings

Written by A Guest Author

By Ben Graff

As writers, we have a natural tendency to like and feel protective toward our work. What appears to flow on the page when it is finally read by others, is actually the result of many desk hours, false starts and significant re-drafting. Still, perhaps for all the care we already take, there are particular reasons to pay further heed to William Faulkner’s advice for writers, to “kill your darlings.” At the very least, a willingness to look critically at the elements of our writing we are most taken with, can be highly beneficial.

Less is often more

While working on my new book, I was particularly proud of a scene in which my main character buys some supplies in a grocery store. I put a lot of time into describing the place in great detail, from the half stocked shelves through to the water leak stained ceiling tiles. Poetry, I thought. Mood setting. It took a friend asking me “What’s all this with the shop?” to realise that for this particular story, four pages of such description was simply too much. What I had convinced myself was marvelous writing was actually just a distraction. More than that, the superfluous passage served to slow the story down and to take the plot off point. Far from enhancing the book, the pages actually detracted from what I was trying to do.

There are no hard and fast answers as to what is or is not going to be right for any particular story. However, for all writers, testing your lyrical descriptive passages for pace and relevance can be very useful, prior to fully embracing such writing as a “darling.”

It is not about what you like, it is about what the book needs

At some point in our writing careers, we are probably going to write about something we know and love. Yet sometimes, we end up with “darlings” that are unlikely to be loved by anyone else. I am passionate about chess and in my new novel, the protagonist has convinced himself (rightly or wrongly) that he is the greatest chess player on the planet. What an excuse to write about some famous games of chess in some detail! I really enjoyed doing that. I was very attached to the resulting chapters. It took a long time for me to realize that in places the passages I was so fond of read like something out of a textbook and would be of only limited interest to the mainstream reader. Cue a significant re-write to center on the inner life of my main character, rather than the intricacies of a game most people do not play.

Perhaps you love flying kites, baking cakes, climbing mountains or fixing the engines of old motorcars. Undoubtedly there is a way to bring any of these things to life in your writing, and a little bit of specialist knowledge can go a long way. Just be careful to describe your “darling” in a way that will also draw in other suitors (readers).

If it does not fit, it does not help

For me, this time, it was a character I had conceived who made me laugh every time I thought about her. She had some great lines. The more I wrote her into my book, the more she felt like one of the family. Yet the truth was, she did not fit at all. It took a long time for me to realize that her relationship with my protagonist was implausible. That my attempts to paper over this were convoluted and akin to piling ever more weight onto shaky foundations. Cutting her was painful, but the book was much better for it.

It is not just the wrong sort of characters that writers get overly attached to in their writing. It might be that dramatic opening scene that we so enjoyed writing, but somehow is tonally incompatible with all that follows. Perhaps it is a character’s accent or a joke that makes us laugh when we re-read it, more than it does anyone else. Writing a book is like putting together a jigsaw. The pieces need to fit. One that doesn’t, however shiny, is best put to one side for another venture.

Conclusion

In any walk of life, letting go of the things you like is always going to be difficult. The point is not to kill your “darlings” for the sake of it. If something works and fits well, why on earth would you touch it? However, as writers, we all have an unconscious bias toward certain ideas we inevitably become increasingly vested in during the course of our writing. It is only by standing back and looking at what we have written as a reader might, that what works and what doesn’t becomes clear. As in all relationships, moving past the idealization phase and acting on what we really see is the way to discover the real “darlings” that were there all along.


Bio: Ben Graff is the author of Find Another Place and is currently writing his second novel, The Greenbecker Gambit. He is a freelance writer for a number of publications. You can see his LinkedIn page here.

 

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