On Murdering Your Darlings

Editing process underway?

We writers are known for killing off characters in creative ways. Wood chippers are a favorite method. (Oh, I’m the only one who does that? Uh…never mind. I’ll just…move that thing back into the garage.) Yet the writing adage “murder your darlings” did not originally refer to killing characters but cutting out unnecessary words. While William Faulkner and Elmore Leonard have been credited with it, the original quote is attributed to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who wrote:

“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.”

It’s a hard lesson to learn, especially as a young writer. One of my early writing coaches, after reading thirty pages of the novel I’d submitted for her workshop, turned to me and said in her lovely Texas drawl, “The first ten pages are beautiful. Get rid of them.”

At the time, I’d only been writing for a few years, a self-taught novelist with a thin skin but a lot of passion. I fell in love with every throbbing adjective I wrote, every artful passage, every quirky character. Criticism from someone I respected hurt me to the bone. After a good cry in the ladies’ room, bemoaning the wasted effort, I eventually figured it out. I was a victim of my own inexperience and impatience. I was in such a big, hot hurry to finish a novel and get published that I didn’t understand a fundamental part of fiction: it’s not really about the writer.

Sure. I’m writing it. I’m throwing my whole being into it, my heart, my soul, my entrails, maybe giving the characters some of my own traits and experiences and burning a few pots of brown rice in the process. But in the writing, it’s not about me. It’s about serving the story. It’s about engaging the reader. Yes. The ten pages may have been lovely, but all those words did nothing to advance the plot, create tension, seed in backstory, or develop the characters. Anything which doesn’t do this can easily distract the reader or even kick him or her out of the story altogether. These are the “darlings” that Quiller-Couch and others advise us to kill with our metaphorical wood chippers.

Yet the writing of those ten pages was not a waste. On the contrary, they helped me get to the next forty pages. They helped me develop a greater knowledge of the character. In other instances, ten pages of backstory can boil down to one or two pithy sentences. When used at the right time, these bits tell volumes about the character. For example, Bill has a deep, dark secret in his past. It gives him night terrors and a strange revulsion to librarians and laundry detergent. However, he has a plot to arc through. Interrupting that plot for a twenty-page accounting of everything that led to his fear of Woolite might be taken as disrespectful to your readers and can cause them to lose interest. Do we need to know every detail, just because you already wrote it? Not necessarily. But if you, the writer, did not know this information, you couldn’t have Bill hesitate at a critical moment when Mary, wearing a freshly hand-washed angora sweater dress, desperately needs his help with her Dewey Decimal System. Instead of leaving the main action to talk about the evil librarian babysitter who forced a five-year-old Bill to wash her delicates, Bill could merely recoil, have a couple of words of interior monologue like, “Ugh. Woolite. I hate Woolite,” and make some excuse to Mary about why he flaked out of their conversation. Now the reader knows that Bill has some serious damage, which may affect his relationship with Mary. Maybe in a quieter moment in the story, he can share a bit more. Like why he sends his laundry out and can’t walk into a library without breaking into a cold sweat.

It’s your choice. What to retain, and sometimes more importantly, what to leave out, can make a difference between an engaging story and one your readers want to send through the digital wood chipper.

Feeling squirmy about completely eliminating those darlings? Save them in a special folder. You never know what you might need later: for another book, or to just look back once in a while, as your writing improves, and feel good that you knew how to cut something that didn’t work.

Author: Laurie Boris

Laurie Boris is a freelance writer, editor, proofreader, and former graphic designer. She has been writing fiction for over twenty-five years and is the award-winning author of four novels. She lives in New York’s lovely Hudson Valley. Learn more about Laurie at her website and her Amazon author page.

12 thoughts on “On Murdering Your Darlings”

  1. Great article, Laurie! Of course, I hate to make those tough cutting decisions (who doesn't?) but it does help to put them all in a separate word doc so it doesn't feel like completely wasted effort.

  2. Right on. After my first editorial review of Back From Chaos (which hurt until I thought about whether it was valid) I went through a ruthless rewrite and reduced the book by 30%. It was absolutely necessary and made the book so much better. Now I do most of that as I go and have become much less verbose in my writing.

  3. I absolutely agree, Laurie. I feel like a poster child of this. My first “epic” novel is actually rather short (the best fantasy you’ll ever read in under 250pgs). It is largely because of the wood chipper. After editing, entire chapters were boiled down into strategic hints. It worked wonders. It sounds like a burden but like you said, it’s actually useful and made my characters’ motivations punchier for readers. It’s like the difference between the director’s cut and standard versions of a movie. Both are good but which one obviously made the final cut?

    P.S. I saved all of my cuts in a file too 🙂

    1. Sort of funny story…when I was working on "Joke" with my publisher, I went back and forth with their editorial staff chapter by chapter. When I put them all back together for the final review, it seemed to me like something was missing…yeah, the WHOLE CHAPTER I left out. The editor didn't even notice. So we left it out. I still save my cuts. I've made a couple into short stories.

  4. Great piece. This is a watershed moment indeed. And a tough one. I remember when I finally accepted the truth. I was so stubborn. If I workshopped a story and someone gave me a good idea, I used to tear the story up and throw it away. Now, I take everything I can get. And I murder words like a psychopath.

  5. Thanks, JD. It's tough to hear a favorite line called a reading bump, but I'd rather the reader not get distracted by it than think, "Wow. Gorgeous line. Nifty metaphor. That reminds me of this other nifty metaphor I read once. So where was the protagonist going? The supermarket? Mars? Eh. Let me just check my email…"

  6. Damn, you beat me to it! So I win no prizes for pondering the topic while someone gets it written. Great post. Sound advice (though I prefer 'butcher your babies' myself).

    1. Yes, a more apt phrase for our less refined times! Got my gears turning now. Ruin your rugrats. Annihilate your anklebiters. Off your offspring.

  7. Missed this one yesterday, but great, brutal stuff, Laurie. That figuring out what has got to go is always the hardest part of editing for me, but it's gotta be done.

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