Why Can’t Writers Kill the Little Darlings?

kill your darlingsMany of you have no doubt heard the infamous quote by William Faulker, “In writing, you must kill your darlings.” If you haven’t, or you don’t understand this, it means that in our writing, we authors at times may inject characters, scenes or story elements because WE like them, not because the story demands them. I’ve certainly battled this myself. In a recent book I was writing, I had an idea to stick an Airedale in there. I have an Airedale, love them to pieces, and I thought I could write one in just for kicks. I fully intended to, knowing from the get-go that it had nothing to do with the story and was just a bit of fluff that served no purpose except I liked it. Well, the story unfolded, I wrote the whole book and, guess what? No Airedale. There was no place for it in the story. Oh, sure, I could go back and shoehorn it in; I could jam it in there somewhere. But the story didn’t call for it. The story didn’t demand it. Ergo, no Airedale.

Good thing, because it would have stuck out like a sore thumb. That’s the thing about these little darlings. Because they don’t fit and they don’t grow organically out of the story, they rear up like a mini-Godzilla, wreaking havoc with the book and throwing the readers under the bus. Because they don’t fit, the reader bumps up against them and goes, “Huh? What does this have to do with anything?” They don’t advance the story. They just take up space and pop the reader out of the telling.

Recently I was helping a client edit a book, and unfortunately, the new author had several of her own little darlings. I could always tell because (1) they didn’t fit, sort of like jamming a brick in sideways into a hole in a wall, and (2) she was especially enamored of them. If I suggested she might want to delete that particular entry, or at least try to come up with a better transition and/or motivation for it, she dug her heels in. No, she liked it this way.

Alrighty, then.

I was writing one book a while back about an archaeologist who takes a group of grad students to a Native American ruin to survey, and connects with an ancient Sinagua woman. At the same time, I was volunteering one morning a week at my local archaeology center, which is like Disneyland for an archeo geek like me. One day a week, I get to pretend I really did finish school and get my degree; I get to curate artifacts like desiccated corn cobs and potsherds and textile fragments and cordage. One week the staff showed me a medicine bag that had just been opened for the first time since it was excavated, and inside was a tiny obsidian arrowhead that was so thin, it was translucent. In the same medicine bag was a fossilized mammoth tooth. This was seriously the coolest stuff ever, and as soon as I got done with my work that day, I rushed home to try to figure out how to incorporate these items into my book. Another time, I was able to examine a pigment holder, a reed that had been modified to hold and carry dry pigment used for painting pots, faces, walls, whatever. The open end of the reed had been plugged with a wad of cotton and — get this — it even had a long, wooden applicator, tipped with a smaller wad of cotton! Who knew the ancient Indians were so inventive and resourceful? Well, as you can guess, I couldn’t wait to write that into my book, too.

Never happened, though. I realized pretty quickly that the story wasn’t demanding these things. I just wanted to put them in there because I thought they were cool, but there was no place for them. Waugh! Well, such is life. As it turns out, six chapters of that book are moldering in my computer; I don’t know if I’ll ever finish it. The wall I hit had nothing to do with the little darlings, though. Other issues came into play that I couldn’t resolve. Maybe one day I’ll go back to it, and I will, sadly, not resurrect any of my little darlings.

So what about you? Are you guilty of such highly personal transgressions? Or have you run into them in your own reading? The fact is, we’re all human, with human foibles, and it’s not unusual for us authors to cross the line once in a while. After all, if we didn’t like these ideas so much, we wouldn’t want to write them in. We just have to remember, if we really really want them in our book, even if friends, readers and editors tell us they don’t belong, guess what? They’re probably our very own little darlings. And unfortunately, they must die.

Author: Melissa Bowersock

Melissa Bowersock is an eclectic, award-winning author who writes in a variety of fiction and non-fiction genres. She has been both traditionally and independently published and lives in a small community in northern Arizona. Learn more about Melissa from her Amazon author page and her blog.

20 thoughts on “Why Can’t Writers Kill the Little Darlings?”

  1. That’s an interesting take on “little darlings” than I usually think about. And I have been in that position many times. Somehow, though, I’ve reached a point where I seem to know before I add them. I no longer look for that shoehorn.

    I used to be more guilty of the other way to look at it – the extra verbiage that seems perfect – until you realize that it slows things down, or gives irrelevant information. My first book lost 30% with the first rewrite. Now I only lose only perhaps 3%. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve gone too far the other way.

    1. I feel like it’s easier to recognize what the story needs than to recognize what it doesn’t need. Seems like I am absolutely sure about the former, but I waffle on the latter, arguing with myself about it. That’s the biggest giveaway to me, is that I’m not sure about it. That makes it suspect.
      Interesting on the evolution of how much you cut; I would definitely call that progress. Maybe you’re just developing a tighter, more concise voice. I know I am. I used to disgorge everything; now I tell much less, leave more to the reader’s imagination.

    2. With all the “dos” and “don’ts” flying around these days, it’s hard for an author to trust his or her judgment and natural writing style. For example, many of those “little darlings” add depth to characterization or reality to a piece of fiction. Don’t get me wrong: irrelevant information can always be removed–details that add little or nothing to the story. However, when revising, it’s wise to remember the adage, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”

      A lot of advice given indie authors is ignored by popular authors, who are traditionally published. I read books all the time that break the “rules.” It must be wonderful to be able to write without a flock of dos and don’ts circling about one’s head! This doesn’t mean that writers should go off on a tangent, though. Authors don’t want readers shaking their heads and saying, “What the heck does this have to do with the story?”

      Distinguishing between “little darlings” and “magnificent trifles” can be challenging. Thanks for the post, Melissa. Pinned & shared.

      1. Good points, Linda. Like they say, it’s hard to see the big picture when you’re inside the frame, and that’s the constant struggle for us. Rules are there for a reason, because “most” of the time they apply, but as you’ve noted, they can be broken if the story demands it. That’s always my bottom line–what does the story need? Not what I need, but what the story needs. And if something pops the reader out of the story, that has to go.

  2. From my perspective as a reader, if the author refuses to kill the little darlings, I’ll do it for him or her by flipping through the pages until the story gets back on track. I do it all the time.

    I have to agree with Linda. There are some very high profile, best selling authors out there who love their little darlings.

    Interesting article, Melissa.

    1. John, that’s definitely one way to deal with the little buggers, but of course it does interrupt your immersion in the story a bit. Better for the writer to surgically remove them before the book gets into your hands. Thanks for commenting.

  3. I’m with Linda Lee Williams. It’s those “Write what you know” moments that give a book individuality. It’s the “Why do we need to know that?” moments that slow it down.
    Do I hear the need for a good editor tapping on my shoulder?

  4. As I’m a pantster, I tend to write the whole backstory of a character – screeds and screeds of it – into the main story as I go. And then I have to take it all out again. But I believe the little darlings do serve a vital purpose – they often tell us things /we/ need to know, even if the reader doesn’t. Just keep a hatchet handy. 🙂

    1. You’re braver than I am. I write my backstory into my story bible and refer to it often, but I don’t put anything in the book that I don’t plan on keeping. However, I LOVE the idea of keeping the hatchet handy! Minor surgery is usually called for at one point or another.

  5. Here is an idea, right now I am focusing on short stories, and I have yet to write a novel. I think it is natural to come up with side stories or ideas for extra happenings as part of our creative practice. So when you discover a little darling that you like but know won’t fit in the novel, why not write a separate short story about it and add the other little darlings you come up with together in a short storybook. Offer it as a freebie or extra stories based on the novel or series and put them together in a short story book and offer it as a background teaser to your novel or series to satisfy your creative yearnings and give your readers some additional back fill stories. Bradbury, King and even Tolkien did this.

  6. I hear ya, Melissa. Last fall, I got all fired up about the Hopewell culture and their huge earthworks in Ohio. I read a couple of books and visited several sites, intending to write all of it into my NaNo novel. Yeah, not so much. And readers will be grateful, believe me.

  7. I’ve never had “little darlings” of that sort, nor have I heard it explained so well. Thank you! Now I know it doesn’t mean people should die in my books lol

    I’ve heard that some writers have a trademark character who appears in most of their writing; for example, I’ve heard that Stephen King has a “little Tommy” in many of his books, apparently doing cameos. (I’ve never noticed Tommy, myself, but horror is not my preferred genre.) Would that be a “little darling,” as well, or a test for plagiarism?

    1. No clue, Michael, since I stopped reading Stephen King ages ago. As I say, if it works for the story, it’s fine, but if it’s just stuck in for no reason, I would say thumbs down. However, King is certainly allowed to name his characters whatever he wants, and it sounds like he might have created an Easter egg type of thing for his steady readers.
      As for killing people in your books, do that at your peril. I killed a horse in one of my westerns and my husband still hasn’t forgiven me!

  8. I have a friend, a fellow writer, who added too much jazz and other stuff to a manuscript. I don’t know if it got removed later, but I don’t like jazz, and I find it annoying. I just noticed that, and moved on – she’s a very good friend. I made a comment or two, and hit a nerve, so I dropped the jaxx.

    I write long – my debut novel is mainstream and 167K – but all that is in there for a reason. If something doesn’t contribute to a scene in several ways, out it goes – because I know the novel is already too long.

    The test has to be the story: does it work better for ME with or without the darling? And then the hard one: is it too much? Will it annoy? Then there’s really no choice.

    On the other hand, if the plot needs something, I grab a starting point from my own experience, because the material is mine, and I know it intimately, and I can massage it into something for the novel without fear of having stolen it.

    1. Alicia, perhaps your friend thought she was “educating” her readers on the subject of jazz. I’ve seen that in books, but the problem with that is, if I want to know about something, I’ll find a resource for it, not read a novel. We can hope she thought about it later and reined it in.
      You hit the nail on the head with this: The test has to be the story. That’s it. Thanks for commenting.

  9. Yep, I totally empathize with the struggle. I’ve had scenes I really wanted to write, but chose not to because they didn’t fit. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that all readers have different tastes, so it’s important not to confuse “little darlings” with rich detail. A book I’m currently reading (I say “a book” instead of “the book) because I’m always reading more than one at a time) is about a dancer and is full of details about the dance world. Some readers may be put off by that, but I’m drinking it up. I love it. I feel like I’m living out my own unfulfilled dance dreams vicariously through the characters in the book. Is there stuff in there that doesn’t really advance the story? Sure. But it adds depth and realism to the world in which the story takes place. I’m glad the author did not decide to take any of that out.

    1. As always, there’s two sides to every idea. I would be offput by the dance stuff (as with the jazz stuff), just because it’s not my thing. So, yes, it’s very specific to the reader. We all just have to decide if it’s enriching the story or waylaying it, and that can change depending on who’s reading it. Isn’t it nice to know that there are NO rigid guidelines to writing?

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