Friday, September 11, 2015

When and How to Murder Your Darlings

I know, I know. The phrase is usually “Kill your darlings.” However, I’ve always chosen to use the word “murder” instead, because kill somehow seems much tamer. Sure, the person will be just as dead either way, but murder sounds more brutal and heartless.

Which is exactly how I feel every time I’m forced to kill off a character or cut out a section of my beloved story.

But it must be done. If you want your writing to be good, you must murder your darlings. At least that’s what we’re told. For the longest time, I used to think that this rule didn’t apply to me. I thought I could make that character work, force that scene into the story without hurting anything.

What an idiot.

But I didn’t want to take the painful route of looking at a character or scene and having to say, “If you want to be good, you need to stop all…this.” And then wince as my creation cries, “But you just pointed at all of me!”

Sorry. I just watched How To Train Your Dragon a few days ago and can't help myself. 

Anyway, I finally had to face the fact that, no matter how hard I try or how long I work to fix it, there are aspects of my writing that I simply need to murder.

But sometimes it’s hard to decide which character or scene to cut. First, you have to know when you need to give a piece of your writing the axe, and then you have to know exactly how to go about doing it.

That’s what this post is for. Here are some of the “Whens” and “Hows” to murdering your darlings:
When: Your character doesn’t fit into the story. His very existence complicates things and you’re constantly finding yourself having to force him into the plot. He isn't cooperating, is ruining the storyline, and is taking up valuable page space. What do you do with him? You murder him in the worst way possible. You erase him from the book completely.
  • How: Complete deletion from the novel. You go in and remove every sign of him ever having lived in your book. Take out all of his dialogue (or give it to someone else), delete his backstory, erase the memory of him from all surrounding characters. I’ve had to do this with two characters and, believe me, it is NOT fun. I imagine it to feel somewhat like a time traveler going into the past and making sure their own child is never born. What kind of a sick person does that? Me, apparently. It’s awful, but, if it makes your story flow better (as it did with mine), then it’s worth it.
When: The scene has too much backstory. Be it a prologue or a flashback or even a long conversation, if you have a scene that info dumps, it shouldn’t be there. This is basic knowledge that many writers ignore. Even if the paragraph or chapter is beautifully written, if it gives too much information, it has to go. I had to do this to a prologue of mine. I rewrote it 8 times. 8 times, people. And then I had to throw it all out the window because it had too much unnecessary information. Cool information, but unnecessary. It hurt, but the opening of my story is now 10 times better than it ever could have been with my old prologue.
  • How: Decide how much is too much backstory. Only leave the bare essentials: the information the reader is absolutely going to need to understand the following set of circumstances. Sure, the backstory may be cool to you or a handful of your biggest fans, but your average reader doesn’t need to know about the history of a desert flower or the meaning of your main characters mother’s middle name. Seriously. This is going to be harsh, but:
     At least not as much as you. So go through and cut out everything that isn’t vital to the storyline.
When: You need to engage your readers. You murder a book character, as in, write an entirely sad and pathetic death scene, and your readers are going to be more invested. Think Boromir’s death scene…or Snape’s, or Rudy Steiner’s, Newt’s, Cinna’s, pretty much every dog from every dog movie ever. Wait, don’t. I don’t want you crying while trying to read my post. But, honestly, if you want to give your audience a reason to keep reading, you need to invest their emotions. 
  • How: Create a character who your readers love and then crush them. This provides motivation for surrounding characters and it makes your reader want to keep going because, “Oh my gosh, I loved her! Does the person who caused her demise die a slow and painful death? I hope so. I’m going to keep reading to see…” Will this hurt you like hell? Yes. Here’s what it will be like:
So make sure you have some tissue and a corner to curl up in when you’ve finished your dirty deed. All for the love of a good story. You can also try this technique:
  •  How: Create a character that your readers love and then have a loved one of this character die. This is an interesting device I’ve seen used several times. Not many readers actually liked (or feel a deep connection with) the character who dies, but the way this characters death affects another character is enough to make the readers feel sad. A good example of this was Ellie’s death from Up. Sure, she was cool, but we felt her death so much more because the main character broke when she left. And then there was that horrible moment when Little Foot’s mom died (yeah, I still haven’t forgotten about that one). And was I the only one who felt like crying when Wilson (a volleyball, for goodness sakes!) floated off? We were invested in these scenes, not because of the character who died, but because of the character who survived. Brilliant, right? Also, this form of murdering your darlings is arguably less painful since you’re killing off a character you don’t love as much as a main or secondary character.
When: the scene makes all following scenes a bit difficult. You know when you write a scene that doesn’t quite fit, but it’s beautifully worded and you love it? You're just going to have to chop it out. Sorry, but those kinds of misfit sections cause a domino effect: One wrong scene will ruin all of the following. Which is why you need to highlight, close your eyes, scream, and remove it from the document while listening to your soul tear in two.
  • How: Save the scene for later use. Look, any piece of writing that you’re proud of deserves to be saved. Just because it doesn’t fit in the book or short story doesn’t mean it needs to be deleted. Copy and paste it into a separate document. I call these documents graveyards, by the way, because they hold the remains of all of the scenes and characters that I’ve slashed out over the years. You can always look back at your graveyards a few months later and realize:
    • This is really good. I can’t use this exact scene, but I can salvage the idea for this story here…
    • This is really good. I can actually fit this scene in here…
    • This is really good. I need to mimic this style of writing when I write this new scene here…
    • Oh crap. This sucks. How did I ever think this was good? *click delete button* 
Works out either way.
When: Your editor, or several beta readers, say you need to. Hate to be the one to break this to you, but if a professional editor or several beta readers tell you that something in your story doesn’t work, then it doesn’t work.
  • How: Get to deleting. You just have to suck it up and go. If you feel, deep down, that this is wrong, then plop the original version into a graveyard, write the new version, and compare them in about a month. Chances are the new version will be better after all.
When: You just want to kill a character. What? There are writers out there who enjoy writing a good character death. Which sounds sadistic, but it's not. There's a certain satisfaction that comes from knowing that you write well enough that people are affected emotionally by the way a story unfolds. At least that's how it is for me. I'm sure each writer has their separate reasons, varying from funny to extremely morbid, so I won't list them here. But I will dare you to leave your reasons below in the comment section.
  • How: Make your character go and die in whatever way seems best to you. 
Murdering your darlings can be unpleasant business. But here’s the important thing to remember: your darling’s murder is not in vain. Not only does your story benefit, but you get major experience points for being able to identify and eliminate problems in your writing. It takes a strong writer to be able to do that. So, if you’ve ever murdered a darling of yours, congratulations! You survived, as did your story.

As the Joker says, what doesn’t kill you makes you stranger. And stranger is often what's needed to be a writer.

What are some circumstances where you’ve had to murder your darlings? Do you think it made your writing better? Leave a comment below!

Related articles:
How to Know When to Stop Editing Your Novel
What To Do When Your Story Bogs Down
11 Songs To Listen To While Writing Moving Scenes

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  1. Have I ever told you your blog is my favorite? Because it's my favorite.

    1. I believe so, but let's pretend you haven't so that you can keep telling me. =)

  2. This is incredibly helpful. I have to admit that I often fall into the "just want to kill a character" group, my reasons being primarily I love making myself sad and I feel like character deaths are a great way to raise the stakes.

    1. Thank you, Gemma! Happy you found my post helpful! And I'm with you on your reasons for wanting to kill off characters. Sometimes the sadder I am the deeper I can go with my writing. Helps me write a good story with high stakes.

  3. Great article, Hannah :) Certainly helpful and well researched. Lovely.

  4. How to Train Your Dragon is an awesome movie. :D

    About character deaths: I think authors should be careful about killing off a character for the sheer devilry of it. If a character's death does nothing for the story, readers can feel like the author is trolling them (I just finished reading The Book Thief and basically people die for no reason except that it's Nazi Germany and it's realistic for people to die). Still, Steven Moffat kills people for no reason all the time and people hate him and love his shows, so maybe it works...

    Great post as always! I always enjoy reading your posts. Was that last part Denethor's quote from The Return of the King?

    1. I've been pondering the same think you just mentioned. When is it okay to kill off a character simply to toy with your readers? And when should that be off limits? As you touched on, I think it's important to have a significant and valid reason first...sheer devilry should be secondary. Maybe. Still thinking that one through. =)
      And yes, that was Denethor's line from ROTK. I was excited to see that it fit here, since I use it in my daily life more than would seem humanly possible. Thanks for the awesome comment! I'm happy to hear that you enjoy my posts!

  5. Great post! ^_^ I was wondering what your thoughts are on off screen deaths? Say a side character is separated from the main character and is killed. The news is then broken to the main character/reader without actually witnessing the death. It then focuses on the reactions and how the death affects the other characters left behind. Just wondering what you think about that sought of death scene? :)
    Keep up the amazing posts ^_^b

    1. Hmm. Great questions. It all depends: if the side character is somebody the readers like, then an off screen death will make them feel cheated. If it's somebody unimportant to the reader but important to the MC, then I think off screen is okay. I've seen this type pulled off several times and I think it's a really good ploy and can be very powerful. So yes, I give it a thumbs up as long as the side character is special to the MC and not super special to the readers. =) I'm sure it could be made to work in other instances, though it would be risky and possibly come across as a ripoff, if that makes sense. Thanks for the question and I'm glad you liked the post!

  6. I had to double-kill my darlings in the same book. The first chapter focused on a character that was originally going to be one of the mains. She ended up being a minor character. Which meant deleting the draft of the first chapter. Which was just an infodump of world building.

    I still have it saved as a graveyard as it helps me keep from contradicting in-story myths. Which is another case for keeping deleted scenes/chapters/etc. One of my characters I planned to kill turned out to be the opposite of 'character doesn't fit into the story'. Turns out, it was pretty important for him to stay alive after that part. Lucky him.

    1. Well it sounds like you are on the right track, Ramona! I love it when seemingly nobody characters end up being super important to the story. =)


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