Thursday, April 7, 2011

On the Advice to, "Kill Your Darlings"

Reading thuRsday
There's a set of actors, usually comedians, who can do remarkable work if kept tightly under control but quickly become tedious if left to their own devices. Robin Williams and Jim Carey are two example that come immediately to mind. I'm sure you can think of others.

I think of such talents when I hear the oft repeated writing advice that we must, "kill our darlings."

Where did that quasi-homicidal advice come from? According to Kill Your Darlings ATL (a community for writers):
William Faulkner is rumored to have coined the literary expression “kill your darlings,” but the expression actually comes from British author Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. ...

When describing “style” in his 1916 publication “On the Art of Writing,” Couch argues that “style” is something which “is not—can never be—extraneous ornament.” In an effort to stay on course, he created a practical rule to follow:
‘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.’
“Murder your darlings” has since become “kill your darlings” as attributed to William Faulkner whose famously quoted to have said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” [See "The Meaning of the Literary Expression 'Kill Your Darlings'"]
While I understood and agreed with the sense of the advice, I couldn't help hearing its pithy formulation as, "you should delete the parts you like best." That implies you can only write things you don't like, which clearly goes too far.

A better way to say it would be, "if it's too precious to go, it probably should go."

But the best way to say it is that nothing in the story is nonnegotiable. Everything is open to scrutiny. If a word, phrase, passage, scene, or character doesn't contribute to the story, it should go. The overall balance of the story is more important than any individual element.

Which brings us back to the comedians. I realized that I find them tedious when they eclipse the story and reduce it to an excuse for a performance. But when a good director keeps them under control and allows them free reign only when it serves the story, the result can be delightful. Similarly, you don't have to kill your darlings when they're serving the story. If they call attention to themselves, "git the rope!"

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

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