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Do You Really Have to Kill Your Darlings?

One of the first mantras you learn in fiction writing is “Kill Your Darlings.” You work hard to create a world, characters, a story, a draft… but if you want to have a successful novel in the end (or screenplay, poem, song, etc.) you need to be willing to hack and slash some of those hard-won elements to pieces.

Of course, editing is an extremely vital part of the writing process - for me it’s like, at least 80-90% of the writing process - but do we really need to kill all our darlings?

My answer is… not really. But of course, there are some caveats that go with that. I like to think of a “darling” as something in the project I’m a little too attached to. A storyline, a character, a subplot, sometimes even just a description or paragraph where I’m really fond of the phrasing. Sometimes, yep, the darling needs to go. Sometimes cutting a particular darling is genuinely a dealbreaker - and should be. So, how do we tell the difference?

SEPARATE “DARLINGS” INTO WHAT I’LL CALL “TOXIC DARLINGS” AND “SOULMATE DARLINGS.”

Soulmate Darlings are pieces of the work that you find to be inextricable from the work as a whole. Cutting or changing these would alter major themes or messages in the work. The easiest way to identify these is that they really are dealbreakers. Things you would say “no” to an agent contract or a book deal if they asked you to axe it. In other words, they’re a Big Deal.

Toxic Darlings are what most (like, literally 99%) of all “Darlings” are. These are bits of prose, characters, or scenes that don’t really NEED to be in the story, but that we latch onto for one reason or another. A character that has the funniest lines but serves no other purpose, or a subplot that was super vital like, three drafts ago, but now kind of goes nowhere. Paragraphs of worldbuilding details that are super fascinating to you… and super unnecessary for the reader.

Basically, if you find yourself rearranging heaven and earth in your manuscript to keep one particularly catchy line of dialogue, or you find yourself grasping at straws trying to come up with a subplot to keep a side character on the page… you’re probably looking at a Toxic Darling that needs to be cut.

TIPS FOR CUTTING TOXIC DARLINGS:

  • DON’T JUST CUT - CUT & PASTE!

I have a whole document filled with abandoned darlings. Cutting and pasting makes it so much easier to cut because you don’t feel like those efforts were wasted. And, you know what, sometimes I go shopping there for a character or a description or a fight sequence or something. You never know, you may end up using some of those odds and ends someday! The darling may live on after all! Just somewhere it actually belongs.

  • ERR ON THE SIDE OF CUTTING.

Especially if you’re actually cutting and pasting, what’s the harm? If you have any doubts about whether a piece belongs in the manuscript, axe it. If an agent/editor/beta reader/you ultimately decide the piece needs to be there, you can always knit it back in later. I’m gonna bet you won’t need to, though.

  • ENLIST FRESH EYES.

You’re not always going to be able to see what needs to be cut. After all, they’re your DARLINGS and you LOVE THEM. But a beta reader or critique partner doesn’t have those same biases. When they tell you something’s not working, don’t take it personally - they’re probably right.

What are your thoughts on killing your darlings? Do you think I’m too harsh? Chat it out in the comments or on Twitter @mj_kuhn.

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