Thursday, September 1, 2011

What Does "Kill Your Darlings" Mean?

We've heard it time and again - "Kill Your Darlings!" It sounds like such a psychotic phrase. Kill my darlings? As in my babies? These sweet little things I'd give my life for?

No, no, NO! Not your human darlings. Sheesh.

So what darlings are we talking about? Your writing darlings. (Which can sometimes feel like our human babies, I know, but they're not really. Human, I mean. You know that, right?) I've discovered over the years that this phrase has several different meanings.

Killing the Darlings Everyone Loves
I think the first time I ever heard "Kill Your Darlings" was a quote from Agatha Christie and I totally thought she meant your best characters must die. I mean, she's a murder mystery writer, so it makes sense, right? I don't know if this is what she meant, but since hearing it several years ago, I've noticed how the really good, gut-wrenching stories kill off at least one character we fall in love with. Or, if you're J.K. Rowling, you kill off at least 20% of the cast, breaking our hearts.

By doing so, though, Rowling deepened our emotional investment. She made us love, she made us lose and she made us hurt. She's merciless! But in a good way because these losses strengthened our love, empathy, support and even hate - the same feelings as the characters - making us part of the story. If we can kill one of our darling characters in our books and make the reader feel it, we pull them deeper into our world, giving that immersion experience they seek from books.

Killing the Darlings the Writer Loves
These are the darlings the experts teach us to kill - the parts of our book we love so much but do nothing for the story. Whether it's a paragraph with exceptionally beautiful writing - our best ever! - or a lovely scene depicted brilliantly, we love these babies so much, we can't bear the thought of hitting the delete button. But if they do nothing for the story, we must bring ourselves to kill them. If that's a little too drastic for you faint-of-heart, you can just cut it and paste it into a standby document. Then you know it's there, in safe keeping, to visit whenever you wish. Just don't put it back!

Killing the Darlings Who Don't Belong
This third meaning just made itself clear to me while revising Genesis. I have a character who I - and my betas - absolutely adore, but he has to go. At least, his POV does. He plays an important role in the story, but his part of the narration just isn't necessary, bogging down and detracting from the true story of Genesis. As much as we all love his part of the tale, I've had to take it out. From this book, anyway. I think he'll have his own story - at least a short one - soon.

This meaning isn't just about POV, though. We often have multiple supporting characters in our first drafts that only lead to confusion in the reader, who's trying to keep track of all these names when half of them never return. Combine them. Get rid of some. No matter how much you love them, they're not helping your story. This goes for subplots, too, that relate in no way to the main plot and only clutter the story. If you love those side characters so much that you want to give them their own plot line, then do it - in a different book.

We writers pour our hearts and souls into our stories. We have lots of darlings. Can you think of other darlings we must kill to improve our stories? Do you have any you've had to kill that hurt more than others? Do you keep your little darlings in a back-up file and go back and read them because they make you happy? Or is that just me?


  1. killed him. I know you had to, but I really do love him. He must have a short story so everyone can meet him too.

    Oh, and thought I was one of your favorite Cs :-p

  2. i save everything i delete. who knows when i might need it? plus, it's easier to delete knowing that it hasn't gone to writer's purgatory. but, there are some darlings i killed in one of my drafts and i'm putting some of them back because i want them there. the beauty of being an indie author and not having to keep some editor happy. grin.

  3. Great post! Killing off characters is necessary for some stories. Depending on the storyline and genre, it can make the story more realistic and better as a whole.

    Also, I’m a new follower—wonderful blog! Stop by my blog and follow me too? :)

  4. Michelle, "writer's purgatory" - hahaha! Yes, that's one reason I have a "cuts" file. It's just not so painful when you know it's not really gone.

  5. Chrissi, I'm sorry. I know how much you love him, but it's best for the greater good. Hmm...where have we heard that one???

  6. Hi, Rachel! Welcome and thank you for following! Checking out your blog now. :)

  7. More than kill them, when I revise my stoiry I ask myself if that part fits with the story and why is there. If I can't answer, or I answer 'no', I erase it. I also get rid of boring parts. I hope that boring part should not be keept.
    Also darlings are boring for ewerybody but author.

  8. Hi! Been given this advice as a way of getting rid of my writer' block. Hasn't worked yet! But I've tried to see through the negative meaning, as in a way it's bullshit, for example, if you're writing poetry. Then I thought of it more cynically and thought of all my bad habits which get in the way of a writing routine as darlings, in a sense my obsessions, and then the mist started to dissipate somewhat. I wouldn't call anyone or anything I really love darling, so it began to make sense. Surely writing or any creative pursuit can't be achieved if we adhered to this rule, for otherwise we would be churning out soulless stuff (which some manage to do, anyway).

  9. This origin of “murder your darlings” is quite a fun bit of history. It’s quite an old expression!

    In Chapter XII of his 1916 book, On the Art of Writing, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch discusses his thoughts on writing style. He comes to this point:

    Style, for example, is not—can never be—extraneous Ornament. You remember, may be, the Persian lover whom I quoted to you out of Newman: how to convey his passion he sought a professional letter-writer and purchased a vocabulary charged with ornament, wherewith to attract the fair one as with a basket of jewels. Well, in this extraneous, professional, purchased ornamentation, you have something which Style is not: and 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.’

    More here:

  10. Hello Kristie,
    Your post may be dated but the information herein, kill the darlings, is timeless. I am a serious writer going on five years and still perfecting my craft with the help of a couple critique groups. I find the "general reader" friend or family to be most kind and like what I may put out there for them to peruse. The critiquers are the ones I need though, to tell me when to de-clutter, or make a conversation less stiff. I post shorts on my faith-based blog from time to time and let the little darlings find their haven, sanctuary, respite, exile thereon.
    In English that means
    grafted in and on the journey. Thanks.
    I heard of your blog through a writing acquaintance who calls herself Theresa2.
    Kindest Regards,

  11. So...where does this leave James Joyce?


My fave 3 Cs - coffee, chocolate and COMMENTS!