The Townhouse of Ideas

Please Don’t “Kill Your Darlings”

If you’re a typical novice writer, then you’re obsessed with doing things the way a professional writer does things. So when a pithy piece of writerly advice comes along, you probably follow that suggestion like it’s one of the Ten Commandments. 

Sadly, this gung-ho attitude is sometimes taken to ridiculous extremes by novice writers.

Take the pithy saying, “Kill your darlings.”

Now, what this is supposed to mean is that if a sentence, subplot, or supporting character doesn’t work, even if it’s something you worked hard on and like, you should cut it out “for the good of the story.”

Consider the source for this advice. Yes, Stephen King said it, but the guy who popularized the saying first was William Faulkner.

Think about Faulkner for a bit. This is the guy who decided to do the most self-indulgent thing I can imagine—writing one sentence that went on for pages—and he’s telling you not to be self-indulgent. And yet people remember Faulkner for taking this artistic risk. But he’s telling you not to take similar artistic risks?

Novice writers are so young and enthusiastic, that they often take writerly advice to an illogical extreme.

So, you have novice writers prowling around their prose like they’re Elmer Fudd, saying, “Be wery wery qwiet, I’m killing my darlings!”

They do the same thing with adverbs, the words “very” and “slightly,” and so forth, but my husband recently covered that one.

The point is that I’m starting to suspect that novice writers are overdoing it, because modern books are often very boring, and there’s an appalling lack of individual writing styles out there. 

Now, I believe that you have to be willing to cut what doesn’t work. But I don’t believe that you should be actively hunting down every line of writing that you like and killing it.

“But it’s for the good of the story!” a novice writer will probably argue.

No, dear novice, it’s not for the good of the story, it’s for the good of the plot.

Plot does not equal story.

Plot is like the Wikipedia entry for a book. You read the bare bones of what a book is about, but you don’t get setting, dialogue, narrative style, nor character development. Only a whole book can give you those things.

A story is everything that a story is. A plot is simply what happens to the characters.

A story, in addition to a plot, has to have a setting, three-dimensional characters, good dialogue, an interesting narrative style, and an interesting writerly style.

Let’s talk about writerly style for a minute. Every writer should have their own style of writing. Yes, when you’re starting out, you’ll stand on the shoulders of your influences, but eventually, you’ll have to stand on your own. If you don’t have a writerly style, your prose suffers. As Shirley Jackson once said, writing isn’t the same thing as reporting the events that happen to your characters. There has to be a living, breathing soul behind your writing, or else it’s dry, lifeless stuff.

Nowadays, I see too much faceless, unindividuated prose out there. Oh, it’s professional enough, but it feels like an AI wrote it instead of a human being. 

If I showed you a page of Dorothy Parker’s work, a page of P.G. Wodehouse’s work, a page of James Thurber’s work, etc., you would see that all of these writers have a unique way of seeing the world and writing about it. Yes, they’re all humorists, but they’re each funny in their own way—they’re each off-beat and quirky in their own way.

And I think they’re that way because they didn’t get Faulkner’s memo to kill their darlings.

That line or subplot or character that you’re killing off may be what gives your story zest and individuation. So, that line doesn’t advance the plot—it may do something more important, such as advance the readers’ understanding of a character, or help suspend the audience’s disbelief, or make the audience like/identify with a character.

Talk Sherlock Holmes. Technically, Holmes doesn’t need a pipe, or his “seven-percent solution,” or his lectures to Dr. Watson about Holmes’ methods, or Holmes’ criticisms of Dr. Watson’s writing style, or Holmes’ violin. None of these things contribute to the plot of a Holmes story. But they do contribute to what makes Sherlock Holmes who and what he is.

Maybe the quirks are the reason why we remember Sherlock Holmes and don’t remember, say, “The Old Man in the Chair,” a nameless detective contemporary of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is quirky as can be, and, therefore, memorable.

Have you ever thought that maybe that line that you’re so eager to kill, far from being an annoyance that’s slowing down your plot, might be the very thing that makes you fascinating as a writer? Novice writers are told about all the ways that they can draw the reader into a story, but they’re told to kill any writerly quirks too, which seems illogical to me.

After all, the best way to attract anyone into your life is to be totally, uniquely yourself.

Maybe, just maybe, by killing something you love in your story, you may be killing off something that might make the reader remember and like your prose.

So, have your weapon at the ready to kill your darlings if they’re a threat to your story, but don’t go hunting them down—because if you’re kill-crazy concerning your prose, you may be giving yourself a self-inflicted wound instead of doing yourself a favor.