Kill Your Darlings - The Real Meaning and Value of This Concept for Writers

By | 12:53 PM
"In writing, you must kill your darlings." - William Faulkner
2008-01-26 (Editing a paper) - 20
Source: Nic's events on Flickr
This kernel of wisdom imparted by an accomplished author is often misunderstood. How writers should correctly grasp this valuable concept and implement it in their work will be covered in this article. Faulkner's homicidal-sounding choice of words grabs immediate attention. It is obvious that he is telling authors that they need to kill things that they love and the words chosen indeed represent the gut-wrenching feeling authors experience when executing such a task. The wording may seem harsh, and for writers it is honestly a very personal and often difficult rule to follow. In order to correctly embrace the concept it is important to open your eyes to the actual meaning intended. If the written work in question is a novel, an essay, a dissertation, an article, or even a letter, killing your darlings ultimately benefits readers. It is my hope to demystify this commonly misinterpreted and wrongfully applied writing concept.

It may seem that this saying is specifically telling an author to kill off beloved characters. This is often the meaning drawn, however, that is not quite correct. Even the popular horror-fiction author Stephen King has reiterated this advice to writers with:  "Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler's heart, kill your darlings." Although King's characters often die, which is typical in horror more than in other genres, the point being made is not pertaining to characters, but actually entire segments of writing in a work. Occasionally there may be characters that will be cut from the story if without the darling segment they end up completely irrelevant; this would be a collateral damage situation in which the author must lose the character in the process of cutting out their darlings.

Here is one more quotation that actually predates Faulkner's by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch that I give here as a prelude to fully explaining the Kill Your Darlings concept: "Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it - whole-heartedly - and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings." His advice admonishes against being so attached to a piece that it is sent to be published on impulse based on only the writer's high opinion of how great it is. This impulse can be something that lasts for not mere seconds but actually over long periods of time. The idea is that there is an emotional connection making it dear for the author, but this does not translate for the readers by default.

Here is the lesson writers are to take from "kill (or murder) your darlings:" the point is to remove - effectively kill - the things in your written body of work that do not serve the readers well. This could be an entire piece of a story that has survived many revisions and editing passes. Something that is, in the writer's heart, held dear - a true darling - but is completely unnecessary and disposable. It can be difficult for an author to take an objective look at the writing that resulted from intense labor on their behalf. It is hard to accept that others see bits of the overall story as bad and not the precious elements that the writer liked enough to ultimately decide to include. All the parts of the whole must be scrutinized, not based on the author's personal attachment, but instead to consider the impressions of an editor and/or an objective reader prior to publishing. 

Sometimes a writer can come to a more detached state where they can be able to identify a darling piece that only exists on their whim alone, if they allow a considerable length of time to pass between writing and editing. This is a concept very similar to one applied in visual arts. For instance, many painters say that they do not reveal a work to the public, or perhaps even consider it finished until they have stashed it away for a few months and come back to it without any newly perceived misgivings.

Exclude darling elements that:
  • Obscure the subject or theme of the story
  • Stand alone and do not serve the content's purpose
  • Read like prose instead of actual storyline
  • Are redundant beyond purposeful emphasis

Remember that this advice is not telling you to cut all and anything you like or enjoy from your work; if you did that the result would be soul-less and likely unpleasant for all who read it. Sometimes you can salvage the darlings by making them more relevant to the aim of the story. Or, if they seem to be part of a completely separate story, take them out of the current story and use them in a new one at a later point. Make sure that all elements come together and add value to the overall story. No one wants to feel like they just took a trip outside the story while reading the story - an exasperating experience that can turn readers off. It is easy to fall in love with our own ideas and certain phrasing of words, so as a final act before publishing it is best to seek outside opinion. After all, in order to Kill Your Darlings they must first be identified.

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