Writing: Killing Your Darlings

Writing: Killing Your Darlings

By Jon Simmonds Contributing Features Editor, of http://jumpingfromcliffs.com

Blogprofilepicture_zps1dda66aaIt seems barely a day goes past without someone somewhere posting about the “rules” of writing. Now, I’m not entirely sure that I agree with this; I feel there are far too many so-called rules imposed upon one of the most creative pursuits imaginable.

Creativity doesn’t follow rules – creativity bends, warps and downright breaks rules. Look at James JoyceFlann O’BrienDalíPicassoMan Ray,John Lydon… you can add plenty of your own favourites to that list.

Or, as Thomas Edison so beautifully put it:

There are no rules here, we are trying to accomplish something

Of course, some rules should be followed, but only because they work. I prefer to consider these principles, not rules. A couple of examples which will be familiar to all writers:

  • Active voice is more dynamic than passive and drives a more immersive story;
  • Showing will deliver a more lasting impression than telling every time;
  • Adverbs will slow down your plot and bog down your readers;

However, there are others which simply beg to be broken in the name of trying something new. One of these, for me, is the advice to “kill your darlings” – that is, no matter how much you love a particular phrase, situation or scene, if it doesn’t fit the story, you have to get rid of it.

Really? Says who?

Unless it’s a major glaring departure from the rest of the book, I reckon you can work it in. OK, so I have a hard time imagining blue-skinned beings from the planet Morgos landing on the deck of the Pequod with laser harpoons – although it would, admittedly improve the tale no end (you can read my thoughts on Moby Dick elsewhere in this blog.)

Otherwise, if you create something of which you are justifiably proud, should you really allow perceived wisdom to stifle that creative impulse and shut it away in a box labelled Conformity?

One of the key purposes of any art form is to bring innovation to light. By adhering too strictly to what should actually be flexible guidelines, writers – particularly new writers – run the risk of inhibiting themselves and diminishing their work. When we start out on the writing journey, we find ourselves suddenly (Elmore Leonard says never to use “suddenly”, but sorry Elmore, been and gone and done it) in the midst of a wilderness with no signposts. So we turn to age-old wisdom and advice. This has to be framed somehow, so is given the label “Rules of Writing.” Before you know it, off we go down the path previously trodden by everyone else and end up creating something which… well… has been done before.

I have one particular phrase in my novel which I love. I’m very proud of it and I believe it encapsulates a feeling we’ve all had at one time or another in our lives. I have never seen it expressed in the way I’ve put it (apologies if that sounds arrogant by the way.)


It didn’t fit within any of the versions of the scene I had written. I knew it was the right place, the right time and the right phrase. But it stuck out like a sore thumb nonetheless. “Kill your darlings,” my inner editor yelled over and over again, “get rid of it!”

So I did. And I missed it. And the scene missed it, And the book missed it.

That’s the point at which I tore up the rule book and decided that rules are indeed there to be broken. It would have been far easier just to lose the phrase and move on. Instead, I stuck to my guns, re-worked a whole chunk of the scene and lowered the prominence of that phrase, so it blended seamlessly.

And do you know what? It works. The scene is stronger, more natural and imbued with greater significance.

So before you succumb to the safer option of following the rules regardless, I say try throwing them out of the window, but make sure they land within easy reach just in case you need them again in future.

Am I wrong? Have you fallen foul of rule-breaking in your own work? Or do you find a little occasional bending a liberating experience?

5 Responses

  1. Great post and good advice. I leave all my darlings in until my editor, or someone else whose opinion I respect, gives me a compelling reason to take them out. And, interestingly enough, I usually have a sense of which ones they’ll go after.

    1. A second (or even third) opinion is always invaluable in weeding out the passages which you already suspected should go. A question for you though: what do you do if you disagree with your editor’s opinion? Do you stick to your guns or bow to their judgement?

      1. I’m in the process of editing my first book and will self publish. So far the only “darlings” I’ve had to kill were those I suspected needed to go, so no conflict as of now. However, there are a few things I would not remove even if suggested. Now, I realize sticking to one’s guns is easier when self publishing. I’m not sure how much pushing and pulling there would be when working under contact with a traditional publisher. Still, there are things that have been part of the manuscript since the first draft, so I think I’d push pretty hard to keep them in.

  2. I’m a notorious rule-breaker and self-taught fiction writer. So perhaps my misunderstanding of “kill your darlings” isn’t strange. My interpretation–and I occasionally follow it–is that if you love a character so much you can’t let go: Kill him or her. Certainly, a messiah must die. As for killing my favorite scene? I try to compromise. If I’m stretching, and I only do this when something subtle is nonetheless very important to me, I try to nail it in a minimum of words.

    A personal rule, which few to no one would dispute in my writing, is this: Nothing “ineffable.” If I can’t name it and lightly toss into the mix, I let it go, figuring if it really matters to me, it will return.
    Usually, it does. Often I find a way to show something similar but more concrete. Rarely, do I find a way to use what I love the most until years later–if I remember it.

    1. An interesting new take on killing your darlings there Kathleen and one I’ll be trying – I’ve never yet bumped off a main character, but I’m sorely tempted now. And I love your summation of the concept in your second example: “if it really matters, it will return.” Beautifully put.

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