“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
No aspiring writer who’s trying to master the craft hasn’t come across this advice. It’s iconic for good reason, yet possibly one of the hardest concepts to act on.
In the process of writing and editing my first book, killing my darlings has plagued me the most. But I devised my own little workaround that has minimized my resistance to this advice.
History of Killing Your Darlings
The phrase “kill your darlings” has been attributed to many popular writers over the years, from Stephen King to William Faulkner, Oscar Wilde, and Anton Chekov.
However, it was actually Arthur Quiller-Couch, while lecturing at Cambridge from 1913–14, who first coined it. In his lecture titled “On Style” he said,
“If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it — whole-heartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”
The reason this practice has been misattributed to so many writers is that it’s great advice. And the fact that bigger writers than Quiller-Couch have made the phrase renowned is a wonderful thing.
But often, great advice can be the hardest to take.
Killing Your Darlings is Heartbreaking
To kill your darlings is to cut any part of your writing that doesn’t further your story.
A scene that doesn’t further your plot. A side-story that doesn't tie into your writings’ overall theme. An entire character who just isn’t working with your protagonist. Fluffy dialogue, excessive scene description, character monologues.
Your darlings are everywhere and they tend to be the bits you love the most.
A lot of my darlings existed before the plot of my book was even fully realized. They were the catalysts for everything else. Killing them feels like killing the heart of the story I’m trying to tell.
But in reality, the story flows better without them and they have to go.
They Need Not Die a Complete Death
Buuut… to tell you the truth, I never really kill my darlings. At least, not completely.
Listen, if I’ve melted my brain trying to execute a brutally emotional scene between my main character and his dead father, I’m not going to throw that away just because,
“It’s a bit of a mood-killer just before the climax, tbh.” — my lovely editor Katie.
Yeah, okay. She’s probably right (almost always is, really).
But I love that scene. It made me ugly cry. I rewrote it eight times, to get it just right.
It might not be imperative to the plot but it gives great insight into who my character is and what made him that way — which is imperative to the plot.
But it wasn’t working in its current position in my grand timeline, so cut cut cut.
And into my “Darlings” file because I never really get rid of anything my editor tells me to (sorry, Katie).
The “Darlings” File
Unless I write something that even I can see is pure garbage, everything gets saved.
I’m more likely to take my editor’s recommendations seriously if I know I have the option to change my mind at a later date. I save scenes, I save sentences, I save obscure ideas that I don’t know how to work in smoothly.
Some of them, I save with the full intention of finding a way to fit them into my story (with minimal editor complaint). Others may be things I’m prepared to lose but not willing to give up entirely.
I keep my darlings alive, even if the only person to ever read them again is me. By doing this, I’m able to ruthlessly edit my work without breaking my own heart in the process.
- Killing your darlings is one of the most iconic cornerstones of writing advice, for good reason.
- Despite this, it’s heartbreaking to follow through on.
- Minimize your anguish by creating a “Darlings” file. Save your darlings rather than vanquishing them from the world. Having them still, even if only for your own perusal, can be a comfort during the editing process.