Does it serve the book? Killing your darlings is a mark of writing maturity

kill your darlings Roz Morris Nail Your NovelLast weekend I was teaching a workshop at Writecon Zurich and one of the issues we discussed was killing your darlings. I used the example of a very precious scene I deleted from My Memories of a Future Life. The full story, including the scene, is here, but briefly, it was inspired by a family heirloom and I was keen to include it. But at each revision round I sensed it repeated an emotional beat, tripped the reader up and made the story stall. When, finally, I swallowed my vanity and removed it, the story ran more smoothly.

I found myself using that same instinct the other day with Ever Rest, which I’m revising. I’m recutting the rough first draft in a more dynamic order, now I know the characters more deeply. I’d planned a funky new use for a scene and was pleased with the possibilities – especially as there were some good lines about the characters’ histories. So I improvised a fill-in scene to prepare the way – then realised that had already done the job. Those nice moments weren’t even needed.

I have to admit, this was annoying. If I get excited about an idea, I want to use it, not discard it. But it was surplus to requirements and would spoil the flow. Rather like the dress scene. I liked it for itself, but it didn’t serve the book.

I sighed and parked the sequence back in the rushes file. It might be useful later.

DSCF3083smlBut the dress scene is lovely!

Back to the dress scene. I’ve also used it as an illustration in my Guardian masterclass – and quite often, a funny thing happens. One of the students will argue, quite strenuously, that I should have included it. Why? Because it was nice, they reply. And no matter how I argue about the overall good of the book, they lament that I took it out.

No matter that I tell them readers can find it on my website if they’re that curious; or that I acknowledge the narrator probably had that moment around the corners of the story. That there would have been plenty of moments of the characters’ lives I didn’t show. Real life contains a lot of monotony and repetition, but a storyteller needs to select what to include and what to omit. You get more artistry from discipline, coherence and elegance than you do from sprawl.

Be strict

The reason I tell the anecdote is to illustrate the kinds of battles we might have as we edit. We have to recognise when we’re trying to include a scene, character or description simply because we like it, and instead search for a more substantial reason.

Now obviously we are not building machines. We are creating works of art and entertainment. A scene, character or description might earn its place for many reasons aside from advancing the plot – thematic resonance, comic relief, helping the reader to understand a tricky situation. And our style is an individual organism that arises from our interests, gut feeling, personality and reading tastes, so the rules for my novels won’t be the same as the rules for yours.

But mature writers have this level of awareness and discipline that helps them edit wisely. I now find I’m catching myself far more often than I used to, examining my personal feelings about a scene, and it’s saved me from stitching in a passage that I’m sure I would have quarreled with later.

Or, in the words of Stephen King: Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.’

ebookcovernyn3There’s a lot more about honing your story’s pace in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart: Nail Your Novel.

Have you struggled over a cherished passage in one of your books? Have you had feedback where you were urged to delete something, but found it difficult? What made you want to keep it? If you’ve been writing for a while, do you notice yourself becoming more aware of your reasons for keeping scenes? Let’s discuss!

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  1. #1 by Steven Baird on March 29, 2015 - 11:56 am

    Good post. I try to take the approach that nothing is sacred if it doesn’t contribute to the overall story. But, lord, it can be tough.🙂

    • #2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 29, 2015 - 5:23 pm

      ‘Nothing is sacred’ – that’s a good maxim, Steven. Even though it may be hard to live up to at times!

  2. #4 by Middlemay Farm on March 29, 2015 - 11:58 am

    I had to make the tough decision to kill one of my favorite characters in my first novel. I loved him and wished I could explore his life more but it was the only way to bring the main character to his senses. Recently a reviewer scolded me for doing it saying I should never sacrifice a good character. I wanted to believe her but couldn’t.

    Thanks for sharing your process. I love it.

    • #5 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 29, 2015 - 5:26 pm

      Hi Adrienne (a fellow Morris, I see) – and what an interesting example. Often we have to go with what feels ‘most right’, though we probably couldn’t decipher exactly why. And your reviewer’s reaction is interesting – perhaps they were processing the shock, which was the effect you wanted to have anyway. So it sounds as though you made a very good decision. Thanks for sharing this, it’s very insightful.

  3. #6 by J.R.Barker on March 29, 2015 - 2:07 pm

    There have been many times when I know I have to delete something that I think is funny or clever, but it just makes the whole scene stall.
    As for killing darlings, sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.

    • #7 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 29, 2015 - 5:27 pm

      ‘Gotta do what we’ve gotta do…’ exactly, Jo. And I’m certainly not going to argue with such stern-looking penguins.🙂

      • #8 by J.R.Barker on March 29, 2015 - 7:02 pm

        Wise move😀

  4. #9 by L. N. Holmes on March 29, 2015 - 2:32 pm

    Reblogged this on A Vase of Wildflowers and commented:
    This is an interesting article about editing.

  5. #11 by Michael W. Perry on March 29, 2015 - 5:05 pm

    You’re right. I often struggle over a passage I like but doesn’t fit into the overall story. I go back and forth, but I am only happy when I finally marshall the strength to just delete it.

    • #12 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 29, 2015 - 5:28 pm

      Hi Michael! That process you describe is usually how it works for me. I can’t tell the scene wasn’t needed until I simply take it out. Thanks for stopping by.

  6. #13 by Erin Bartels on March 29, 2015 - 8:26 pm

    I’ve been revising my WIP, which has had a number of problems simmering in the back of my head. One thing I realized I probably need to do is cut out a very cool/clever/if-I-do-say-so-myself scene that somehow spans two chapters (ugh). It was one of those things you think up and think “that’s so clever and I am amazing!” but when it comes to actually writing it you think “what the hell was I thinking?” Oh well.🙂

  7. #15 by acflory on March 29, 2015 - 8:38 pm

    -sigh- Just recently I wrote two lovely, dramatic, emotion packed scenes, that have since become orphans. No matter how I try I can’t find a new home for them. I hate it when that happens.😦

    • #16 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 29, 2015 - 10:54 pm

      This comment stream is getting a bit like a Writers Anonymous meeting. Pause for another respectful round of applause.

      • #17 by acflory on March 31, 2015 - 8:38 am

        lmao – it’s all your fault! /cheer/

  8. #18 by autumnbrody on March 29, 2015 - 9:49 pm

    I’ve found that I’ve certainly gotten better at this over time. I’ve always been someone who writes longer works and while my first book remains longer than what the industry insists is a proper length (the magic 100K), its final incarnation is much shorter and tighter than it began. Mainly because I’ve learned to let go of scenes that may be wonderful, but just drag things along.

    The sequel to it is the pinnacle of that painful lesson: the time span covered by the story is much shorter and I actually kept to the magic 100k. It’s very, very hard to let things go but as you’ve said, sometimes it takes physically hitting delete to realize that it’s not as necessary as you think.

    One thing I’ve decided is that I can always offer these wonderful scenes that need to bite the dust as extras and exclusives to fans via newsletters and Wattpad.

    • #19 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 29, 2015 - 10:56 pm

      Hi Autumn! Yes, thanks to the growth of blogs, which need feeding with material, we have somewhere to put these surplus pieces. I hadn’t thought of using Wattpad for deleted scenes, though! Does it work if you only have one or two scenes to share?

  9. #20 by autumnbrody on March 29, 2015 - 9:50 pm

    Reblogged this on A.C. Dillon and commented:
    A great article about making difficult choices as a writer — and killing scenes that may be great, but kill the packing of your story.

    It’s a lesson I know all too well!

  10. #21 by Lansi on March 30, 2015 - 8:19 am

    I had no idea what ‘kill your darlings’ really meant until I had an editor go and do it for me. After seeing an example, it was much clearer.

    • #22 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 30, 2015 - 12:37 pm

      Thanks, Lansi. Love the name of your site!

      • #23 by Lansi on March 31, 2015 - 11:34 am

        Lol! Cheers! It’s because it all seems like a zoo sometimes.

  11. #24 by MG Mason on March 30, 2015 - 3:10 pm

    Completely agree, no character is bigger than the story.

    • #25 by MG Mason on March 30, 2015 - 3:11 pm

      Argh, i hit post too early. What I was going to say is that I am too pragmatic to ever feel that a character (or a scene for that matter) is sacrosanct.

  12. #27 by Teddi Deppner on April 2, 2015 - 2:01 am

    While editing my recent release “The Author Collector”, I ran into this head-on. The story is set in the future, and I wanted to paint the picture of a time when everyone went vegan and “real meat” (along with real leather and other “barbaric” products) was out of vogue. There was a whole thread about the food my character was served by his mysterious captors.

    As an author who loved history and yearned for “days gone by”, he was both horrified and secretly thrilled to be fed uncivilized bygone foods like spaghetti and meatballs and beef stroganoff.

    But this whole issue of future foods was completely irrelevant to the primary action thread (plot A) and the internal emotional thread (plot B). As much as I wanted to include it for world-building purposes, the story was short enough that it just cluttered things up.

    My editor even reported a surprising experience: she thought I’d added some great supporting details to the main plot threads. But looking back at my previous version she realized that they’d been there all along — but had been lost in the clutter.

    • #28 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on April 3, 2015 - 10:51 pm

      Teddi, that’s such an interesting example – how the details your editor had missed became apparent when you unpicked the irrelevant material.

  13. #29 by Nessa Armelle on May 4, 2015 - 1:57 pm

    Thanks so much for this! I was struggling so hard with a certain character in my novel. Deep down, I knew I had only put him in the story to die, which is a terrible way to handle things, but at the same time I really REALLY wanted to keep him in the story. The plot didn’t flow right with him, and finally I ave in and changed it, removing him entirely. I am SOOO much happier now, and I think my book is too. Thanks Roz🙂

    • #30 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 4, 2015 - 2:13 pm

      Nessa, you’ve got the perfect example there – your reluctance, your repeated attempts to preserve the character, and then the relief when you finally did the deed. Thanks for stopping by!

  14. #31 by storysnags on May 6, 2015 - 5:38 am

    Great article! New writers like me have to keep this in mind when we edit.

    What caught my attention is having to get rid of something because the idea behind the scene (or paragraphs, or sentence) is repeated elsewhere.
    I think that’s the easiest darling to kill. You have to show one idea and you have different options. You just pick the one you like the most, or mix them. However, I think it’s also the hardest darling to spot, in my opinion. Or it is for me, so far.

    Now, about killing your darlings.

    I’m really new at writing, and the little editing I’ve done so far seems to indicate two possibilities:

    1. I produce “no darlings” because I’m too new. (Everything is bad and I’m aware of it so cutting it doesn’t bother me.)
    2. I’m a psychopath when it comes to editing: I have no qualms about killing.

    What I suspect is, I’ll find out what my darlings are once I get the story reviewed by a writing buddy.

    • #32 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 6, 2015 - 6:57 am

      No darlings yet? Aha, it’s like first love, there will be something you desperately want to preserve while your reader buddies are holding their noses. Thanks for stopping by, and enjoy your writing journey.

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