Writing Advice

How to Kill Your Darlings with Impunity

Let’s look at another classic writing rule, shall we? Kill your darlings isn’t as complicated as some of them, like show, don’t tell, but I still think it’s worth going over. It’s good advice when it’s applied correctly.

I’m giving you an overview today, but I do plan on going back over some of these ideas in more detail later. There’s a lot to cover here.

First, let’s go over the basics

It seems like a lot of newer writers see this and think it means they should kill their characters. I mean….That could be part of it, but it’s not the whole picture.

What kill your darlings really means is that you should be prepared to get rid of anything that doesn’t work for your story, no matter how hard you worked on it or how much you love it. It could be a character, a scene, a subplot, or even just a word you tend to overuse. Adverbs are often darlings for whatever reason. If something doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.

But how do you know if something is working or not? When we get really invested in our own stories, it can be hard to stay objective and separate what a story needs vs what we want to happen. I have a few things you might try if you’re not sure about an element of your story.

Things that almost always need to go

Note that I said almost.

Entire paragraphs of information

I’m talking about info dumps here. I did a critique for someone recently who had a brilliant idea for a story. Rebellion, jewel thieves, magic, spies…This story had it all. And then some.

The selection that I critiqued was about 6,000 words. The first 2/3 of that was the author describing their setting. That’s a lot, y’all. My brain had glazed over by the time I got to the real meat and potatoes of what the author sent me. I feel like it was another case of someone who opened their story too early. I suggested a new starting point for the author and tried to gently tell them that, although they had done a spectacular job of building their world down to the last detail, they needed to give their readers something to really care about. Most people won’t have a reason to become emotionally invested in pages and pages of descriptions of buildings and streets.

Character interactions that don’t stay on target

Sometimes these are fine, and sometimes they’re not. If you find yourself going off on tangents in every single scene, you might have a problem. Your readers are probably expecting your story to lead them in a certain direction. They’re eventually going to get annoyed if your characters are constantly getting distracted and going off track.

Characters that don’t really do anything

It’s so easy to get attached to characters, even minor ones, but sometimes your characters don’t add anything to your story. I like to use the object rule: if you can replace a character with an inanimate object, and it doesn’t have a major impact on the story, you either need to spend more time developing that character or replace them with the object.

Garbage words

Garbage words clog up your sentences. They’re puffy, they take up space, and they don’t pull their weight. They are often adverbs, but not always. Sometimes they’re just repetitive or redundant in some way. You’d be surprised how much dead weight you can clear from a manuscript when you cut out all the garbage words.

This tends to be micro editing, and I’ll probably go into it in more detail in the future. I feel like there are enough garbage words out there for an entire post on the subject, and I’m still working on examples.

You can also resurrect your darlings

Something that isn’t right for one story might work perfectly well in another. You don’t have to kill your darlings and have them be gone forever. Create a Notes folder for yourself, cut and paste the killed scene/character/whatever into a new document, and save it in the folder. Go back over it from time to time, maybe when you’re between projects, and see if you might be able to tackle something from a new angle.

This is where I get a lot of my short story material. In an earlier draft of my novel, my main character had a horse she (and I) really loved. Unfortunately, the horse just didn’t need to be in the novel, so I cut those scenes. Later, she became a major element in a short story.

If you’re having doubts, get a critique

A beta reader or critique partner can help you identify parts of your story that need to be killed. You can ask them specifically to look for things that seem like they don’t fit your narrative, or you can just let them give you their general impressions of the story and work from there.

If you’re ever questioning something specific about your story, it’s good to go ahead and ask your readers about it. It’s not a burden on them, either. I like having a little guidance when I’m giving critiques.

Try not to feel bad about removing things from your story

Knowing when to kill your darlings is one of the best things you can do for your book. It’s so easy to get attached to certain concepts, and being able to remove things that aren’t relevant is an essential skill. I’ll probably revisit this topic in the future, especially if I decide to start offering exercises again, so please be on the lookout for that.

If you have any questions or anything you’d like to add, please leave a comment below. Those social media buttons are down there, too, so feel free to share this with your friends if you think it was helpful. Thanks!

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