Killing Darlings

I’ve always heard this phrase, and I’m sure you’ve had, too. I was proud, because I’ve never created words I refused to change, and I’m glad I don’t grow overly attached to things and that editing, once I figure out what needs to be changed, is relatively painless in terms of losing what was (though the effort of figuring out what should be is quite painful indeed!).
Unfortunately, I’ve had a bit of a realization lately while working on revisions. Killing your darlings isn’t just about the cute guy that only shows up on page 2 and needs to go, or that gorgeous paragraph on life’s meaning you wrote that no longer has a home in this book. Killing your darlings is sometimes letting go of who you thought a character is and letting them be who they must.
Generally my characters arrive fairly well-formed. I often know what they would do before I know why, and I know things like the kind of place they live in or what they do for a job before I know what they’re trying to accomplish in a story. However, in my latest revisions, I found myself wrestling with how to make the story work and why all the chapters about my character at work didn’t seem to fit, despite how fun and hilarious writing them was and how neatly they meshed with my character’s personality.
It wasn’t the right job. In my head, Andee is a nanny, and it makes perfect sense and I have so many sweet or comical scenes pulled generously from my own experiences. It gives her and Conner some lovely moments and helps her see a different side of him.
But it’s just not right. I’ve begun reworking the book with her as an English tutor, and somewhere in the depths of the book the words are clicking together like they should be, puzzle pieces that belong, not just that can be forced together. I’m having to delete all my wonderful scenes, and it really does make me sad because they’re great parts. And maybe, in the end, the story would have worked that way. It wasn’t a bad book before, really, it just wasn’t great. I could have left her job alone, let Conner reveal his character in the same ways and Andee show hers as she did, and it would have been okay. But it wouldn’t have been perfect. I’m finding much deeper information about who the characters really are and what their goals and dreams are this way, and it’s proving to be the gateway toward fixing the biggest problem of the book, which was motivation. I’m losing a lot, but I’m gaining an answer to that giant question that wasn’t resolved before.
Killing your darlings is never fun. If it is, I’ve learned, they weren’t really your darlings. A darling isn’t a sentence you like, it’s a story component that’s personal and important and maybe even connected to your pride. But those are the things that have to be sacrificed in that search for the true story, the one you’ve been meaning to tell even when you’ve gone astray here and there. If you’re revising and feel like the pieces are just barely sticking to each other, or drafting and starting to suspect something’s not right, see if there’s anything you’re assuming – about the characters, the plot, the world – without really challenging yourself with other options.

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2 thoughts on “Killing Darlings

  1. Great post, Jamie. And hang onto those scenes. You never know when, in a future draft, they may find their place. I’ve re-inserted cut scenes months later, but with different characters in entirely different places in the story. Amazing how your words will come back to haunt you, in good ways!

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