8 Things to Cut When You Kill Your Darlings, by Kristen Kieffer
If you’ve been writing for long, you’ve most likely heard the phrase “kill your darlings.” In fact, this phrase has become so ubiquitous that you probably roll your eyes upon reading it.
But, as with many clichés, “kill your darlings” is popular for a reason; it’s a tried-and-true editing technique that can help you create the best version of your story. Don’t believe me?
Take a look at these popular authors who have touted the phrase after finding it vital to the success of their own work:
I don’t know about you, but if some of writing’s greats are using this technique to edit their novels then I definitely want to employ it in my own work.
But what does “kill your darlings” actually mean? And how can you apply it to your writing without going mad? Without any further ado, let’s talk about that!
Defining the Phrase
The phrase “kill your darlings” advises authors to cut any elements from their novel that don’t serve to further the work as a whole, even if those elements are ones that they love. Below, we’ll talk in detail about what types of elements are best to slay.
But first, let’s discuss why killing your darlings is an important technique that you should employ in your own work. After all, doesn’t it seem like removing the things you love most from your novel will make the story less passionate?
Under some circumstances, that might be the case. However, most of the work you do when you kill your darlings will actually enhance your story, helping you to create the best possible version of your novel. If that doesn’t impassion you, I don’t know what will!
“Kill your darlings” offers three main benefits to your work. It can 1) strengthen your characters and plot, 2) improve the overall quality of your writing, and 3) refine your self-discipline. And while all of these benefits are certainly amazing, I especially love the third.
Keeping an objective eye while editing is incredibly difficult. You’ve worked on your story for so long that you are undoubtedly biased. And your views are probably pretty subjective, too. By forcing yourself to kill your darlings, you are actually practicing objectivity, thus improving your self-editing skills.
Know What You Need to Cut
With that in mind, are you ready to carve away the unnecessary elements of your story so that you can craft its most beautiful form? If so, here are my top eight elements to kill when editing your novel:
Weak Characters. Weak characters are those without strong personalities and purpose. To avoid creating a shallow character, make certain that they embody more than one personality trait. And don’t be afraid to give them both strengths and flaws. This is a mark of a well-developed character.
But a character with a well-developed personality is still a weak character if they don’t serve a strong purpose. Every character should fulfill at least one of two main purposes; either they must move the plot forward or reveal something new about your main character. If they don’t do either of these things, they need to go.
Extraneous Plot Lines. A plot line is a course of related events that occur throughout your novel. Every novel has a central plot line that follows the main character as they work to attain their goal. But many novels also include sub-plots. These may relay the actions of the villain, a secondary character, or even the hero as they try to achieve a secondary goal.
But just like your characters, each of your sub-plots needs to serve a purpose. To ensure that they do, consider why you’ve included each one in your novel.
Do they help readers better understand the main plot line or present a seemingly inconsequential event that will later make a major impact? Do they foreshadow future events or reveal new information about your main characters?
If not, it’s time to rip these extraneous plot lines from your novel.
Pointless Metaphors and Similes. Metaphors and similes are figures of speech that highlight the similarities between two seemingly unrelated things in an effort to further reader understanding. Note that italicized text, okay?
Metaphors and similes are meant to provide clarity concerning a hard-to-understand concept, but most authors simply use them to create pretty prose. This is a huge mistake, as it adds unnecessary fluff that slows down the pace of the narrative without actually revealing anything new to readers.
For example, most readers understand basic body language concepts. Writing “his eyes darkened like the sky before a storm” doesn’t serve much of a point because readers already understand what “his eyes darkened” means.
Reserve metaphors and similes for concepts that actually require further explanation and they will make a much stronger impact on your readers.
Backstory. Raise your hand if you know every tiny detail about your characters’ lives. *raises hand* Fleshing out characters’ backstories is one of the most enjoyable activities to complete during pre-writing. And as a bonus, it truly does help us better understand our fictional babies.
But do readers really need to know every detail of your characters’ pasts? Absolutely not! Readers opened your novel to read about your characters’ present stories, not their past ones.
So if your backstory doesn’t reveal any pertinent information about your main character, it’s time to say goodbye.
Prologues. Now, don’t get up in arms just yet. If you’ve read my post on the Great Prologue Debate, you know that I’m actually a fan of well-done prologues. That being said, there is a *very* strong chance that your prologue (or epilogue) is simply unnecessary.
Insider look: I actually wrote four different prologue drafts for The Dark Between – one reaching an insane 5,000 words – before finally finding the courage to slay my darling. And yes, my manuscript is waaay better off for it.
If your prologue doesn’t reveal something new about your main character, further readers’ understanding of your story world, or introduce a vital plot point – all of which cannot, under any circumstances, be worked into the main body of your text – then it needs to go. Hands down.
Unnecessary Scenes. Sometimes, we authors indulge our fancies by including fun but irrelevant scenes in our manuscripts. And while we find them entertaining to read, readers will probably view them as an unnecessary divergence from the plot.
Save the fan-fiction for your readers. Keep your story focused.
Pointless Romances. Giving characters a little flirtatious relationship, or even throwing them into a full-blown romance, can be so much fun for writers. After all, our characters are our babies. We want to see them live out their own personal fairy tales.
But just like unnecessary scenes, we writers can’t afford to indulge our fancies at the expense of readers’ enjoyment.
Every one of your characters’ relationships needs to develop them – for better or for worse – as human beings, adding additional layers of complexity to their personalities, as well as complicating the plot.
If your romance doesn’t make that happen, it’s time to whip out the editing scissors and start cutting.
Your First Chapter. First chapters are one of the toughest sections of your novel to write because of all that you need to accomplish in just a few thousand words. This includes introducing your main characters, setting the scene, and initiating the conflict, all while making sure that readers understand the context of the story.
Most writers begin their novels too early in an effort to compensate for the complexity of the first chapter. It’s the easiest way to fit everything in, but it also risks boring readers with drawn-out exposition. This can lead readers to giving up on the book before they’ve even gotten to the main attraction, which is why your first chapter probably needs to go.
The Key to Success
The elements above needed to be cut because they simply didn’t serve a purpose, offering your novel little but fluff and fanfare. Now, I know that you have an amazing story, and hopefully you know that, too. So why hide that behind unnecessary elements that only serve to aggravate your readers?
Killing your darlings is one of the easiest ways to set your novel up for success…
Yet it can be so hard to do. It’s completely understandable that you’ve become attached to your story’s unnecessary elements. After all, you’ve spent hundreds of long hours daydreaming and drafting to bring them to the page. The thought of simply tossing that work into the trash can be heart-breaking.
But while self-indulgence may give you warm, fuzzy feelings, it won’t help readers enjoy your novel.
Now, you might be thinking, “But Kristen, haven’t you always said to write for yourself and not for others?” Yep, you’ve got me there. First and foremost, you should always choose to write a novel because it sets your soul on fire. Simply writing for commercial success will only lead you to write a novel without heart.
But don’t mistake writing foolishly for writing for yourself (and yes, I’m calling your darlings foolish – I’m sorry).
If you truly are a passionate writer, you know that writing a story isn’t about bringing all of your fantasies to the page. It’s about crafting a novel that speaks to the soul, that creates a human experience that won’t soon be forgotten.
And that involves cutting away any elements that don’t serve that end, no matter how much it hurts. But trust me, the end product will be well worth the pain.
How to Kill Your Darlings
Are you ready to kill your darlings? Great! You know what needs to be cut. Now allow me to show you exactly how you can make those cuts happen.
There are two main methods that you can use to ditch your novels unnecessary elements. Let’s break them down:
The Rip-the-Band-Aid Method. Also known as the Cold Turkey Method. Call it what you will, this method forces you to cut all of your novel’s unnecessary elements as quickly as you can, typically in one sitting. It’s meant to help you purge your novel so that you can immediately start fresh.
Pros: The process of killing your darlings is over in a flash, so you won’t be drawing out the pain. And bonus: you’re also left with a snazzy new manuscript.
Cons: You’ll probably feel a bit devastated by the whole ordeal, especially if you ditched a decent number of darlings. Though your manuscript will be much more focused, the glaringly obvious heap of work you’ve just thrown out the window may cause doubts to come rushing in.
The Slow Withdraw Method. Using this method, you will slowly but surely remove all of your manuscript’s unnecessary elements over the course of a few weeks. This method is meant to help you process all of the major changes you are making to your manuscript so that you can better understand the purpose of each cut.
Pros: You’ll have more time to accept why cutting certain elements is necessary, thus decreasing the pain and a good number of those pesky doubts. You can also patch up any plot holes that arise as you work.
Cons: Choosing to kill your darlings requires a lot of will power. If you don’t cut them all in one sitting, your resolve may weaken, leading you to keep certain elements that really should have been cut.
Either method will get the job done. It’s up to you to weight the pros and cons and decide which method will work best for you and your manuscript.
Now that you know the two methods for killing your darlings, here are a few techniques that you can use to make those edits happen:
Start a new document. If you have a good number of unnecessary elements to cut, you may want to start a brand new document instead of editing your current one. This will save you the confusion of working with a messy draft.
Use Scrivener’s snapshots. If you’re writing your novel with Scrivener, you may know about the snapshot feature that allows you to take a “picture” of your current document. You can then edit your novel as you please, and if you end up disliking the work you’ve done, you can simply click to revert back to the old version of your document.
You can learn more about that process by reading up on this She’s Novel post.
Make a copy of your file to edit. If you don’t have Scrivener but still want to compare old and new copies of your manuscript to see which you prefer, simply make a copy of your file before editing. You can easily compare the trimmed down version of your manuscript with the previous draft.
Place cut work in a new file. If you’d like to maintain one main file for your drafts but are terrified of making changes you’ll later regret, save the work that you cut from your manuscript in a separate folder. If you decide that cutting a certain element was a mistake, you can easily add the work back into your novel.
Employ text modifications. If you’re afraid of regretting your changes but don’t want to set up any extra files, give text modifications a try. When you find a passage that you’d like to cut, simply highlight, strikethrough, or underline it. You can then decide later if the cut was unnecessary or if it truly needs to go.
Just cut it. If you’re a brave soul, you may want to simply open your manuscript and cut away. Going with your gut is always a safe choice. If it’s worked well for you in the past, then consider purging your novel of darlings without a backup plan in place. This will also reduce your risk of caving and adding something unnecessary back into the work.
Look at you, making it all the way to the end of this super long post. Gold star for you, my friend! Is there anything I missed or that you’d like me to discuss in further detail? How do you kill your darlings in your own work?
– LOVE, KRISTEN –
P.S. If you enjoyed the quotes from Stephen King and William Faulkner at the beginning of this post, you can follow my Pinterest board for even more inspiration.