8 Things to Cut When You Kill Your Darlings
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When discussing revisions, it doesn't take long for the phrase "kill your darlings" to appear.
The phrase has been attributed to many authors over the years, but in every case, its sentiment remains the same: as you edit, you must be willing to remove any element that does not serve your story, even those you love. As I've often said here at Well-Storied, everything in your novel must serve a purpose.
Think you may be holding onto a few darlings in your own manuscript? Not sure what those elements might be? Let's discuss everything you need to know about killing your darlings today, writers!
Why must every element serve a purpose?
Killing your darlings can be tough, which is why it's so important to first understand why cutting them from your story is necessary. We've established that every element in your novel must serve a purpose, but why is that the case?
Stories are like tapestries carefully woven by their makers; each and every thread in that tapestry serves a purpose. Sometimes, that purpose is structural and sometimes it is aesthetic, but in either case, the purpose exists. Without such purpose, the tapestry might gape or fall apart at the touch, or the design on its surface might be unclear.
When you write and revise without bearing in mind the purpose each element serves, you'll likely craft a story that lacks in structure, design, or both — making for a weaker, and thus less impactful, story overall. If you want to craft the very best version of your novel, killing your darlings is a must.
Where do writers often hang on to darlings?
Knowing the purpose behind killing your darlings, it's now time to turn your eyes toward rooting out your own. If an element in your story does not strengthen the plot, deepen your characters' development, build upon your themes, or lend context to your story world, it's time to cut it from your manuscript.
Similarly, you may also find darlings camping out in your writing style. An overuse of certain words or phrases, excessive metaphors or flowery language, a verb tense or tone that simply isn't working for your manuscript — it's all too easy to allow old habits and ill choices to rule our prose.
With both story and writing style in mind, let's take a look at eight common darlings writers often cling to for far too long:
#1: Weak Characters.
Strong characters serve an established role in your story. That role may not be as traditional as some tropes (e.g. hero, villain, sidekick, mentor) nor may such characters appear often, but cutting them from your story would greatly impact the plot and/or weaken your world-building.
If your current draft harbors characters that could be removed with little consequence, it's likely time to give them purpose or let them go.
#2: Extraneous Plot Lines.
It's a common misconception that complex plots are inherently better written. It may seem fun to send your secondary characters off on their own adventures or give readers a taste of the antagonist's side of the story, but if those subplots don't feed back into the main storyline, they'll only weigh your story down.
If you're holding onto a few storylines that have no true place in your manuscript, try writing them as their own short stories or novellas instead. Related works can serve as useful book marketing tools and can even evolve into their own separate novels.
#3: Pointless Prose.
Many writers, often myself included, make the mistake of over-writing in an effort to help readers visualize their stories. Our prose need not be sparse, of course, but good writers make the most of each word and give their readers room to imagine the story as they see fit.
If you think you may be over-writing, interrogate each line in a small section of your manuscript. Can you edit one sentence to use five fewer words? Do readers absolutely need to know that your character raised their brow? What purpose does that pretty line of purple prose serve?
#4: Excessive Backstory.
Raise your hand if you know every tiny detail about your characters' lives. I know I've often developed my characters in far more depth than was necessary concerning the story at hand. This isn't inherently a mistake, but including all of that information in my novel would have been.
When it comes to overdeveloping our characters on the page, excessive backstory is the most common culprit. Remember, you're telling your characters' present stories, not their pasts. If a bit of backstory doesn't in some way serve your characters' journeys, it's time to say goodbye.
I'm personally a big fan of prologues when properly executed. But in most cases, they simply aren't necessary, especially when you consider what they most commonly contain: backstory. But even if a prologue serves a purpose, working them into the main body of the manuscript is often the better choice.
I understand how difficult cutting your prologue can be. I once wrote four different drafts of a prologue for my novel, one reaching an insane 5,000 words, before I finally had the courage to kill my darling. And at the end of the day, my manuscript was far better for it.
#5: Unnecessary Scenes.
It's all too easy to indulge our whims as writers. We may grow attached to certain scenes we've conjured because of their humor or their charm, but much like weak characters, if those scenes could be cut with little effect on the plot, it's likely time to let them go. Simple as that.
#6: objectified love interests.
I originally wrote this element as "pointless romances," but when I considered the romantic relationships that could easily have been cut from books I've read, a clear pattern emerged. Specifically, in the shape of love interests who are treated as rewards for the main characters' achievements.
There's nothing wrong with building flirtatious chemistry or even a full-blown romance into your novel, regardless of the genre you're writing. But if you've included a love interest solely for your protagonist to both win the day and the girl, it's time to whip out your editing shears and start cutting.
#7: Your First Chapter.
Good first chapters carry a lot of weight. They must introduce the protagonist, establish their everyday reality, set the mood, and sew the seeds of impending conflict, character development, and theme. That's certainly no easy task to write!
But in an effort to simplify the work, many writers begin their stories too early, using valuable story real estate to instead convey drawn-out exposition. If you think your own first chapter may be set too far from the inciting incident, it's time to go back to the story structure drawing board.
#8: Heavy-handed Themes.
The most powerful thematic statements are subtle. They encourage readers to reconsider their worldview and come to new conclusions simply by sharing characters' experiences with those themes. Heavy-handed preaching, on the other hand, will almost assuredly drive readers away.
There's nothing wrong with wanting to share a certain message with your readers. But to do so, let go of your heavy-handed dialogue and exposition, and trust in readers' ability to read between the lines.
The Key to Killing Your Darlings
Cutting unnecessary elements from your manuscript can be incredibly difficult, yet we've established just how vital it is to do so if you want to craft the very best version of your book. Still, it's easy to get defensive. "Shouldn't I always write for myself first and foremost? Why should I cut the elements I love?"
It's important to note that there is no right way to write a book. And yes, you should absolutely write what you love. Killing your darlings is not about carving the soul from your novel to create commercial potential. It's about learning to prioritize story over self, improving our craft to become better writers.
Still, if you fear you may regret killing your darlings, don't remove them from the one and only copy of your manuscript. Create a second document, make use of Scrivener snapshots, or paste your cut work into a special file instead.
Then, try working with your manuscript for a few weeks. If you find you simply cannot grow to love the new version, it's time to give your darlings new life. In many cases, you can even work to strengthen your darlings by giving them purpose they hadn't previously had, making for the best of both worlds. Now let's get to work, writers!