I like when a topic ping-pongs its way around Twitter. Particularly in the department of writing advice — because it nearly always zips about, this way and that, carrying with it different perspectives and scrutinizations of the topic at hand. And that helps me look at my own point-of-view on these things, and helps me pull the topic out, furrow my brow, and give it a hard, gnarly squint under the magnifying glass.
Current writing topic du jour:
Kill your darlings.
It is, as with all pieces of writing advice, good advice.
Until it’s not.
Meaning, no one single piece of writing advice is a one-size-fits-all unitasker. Nearly all pieces of writing advice — with maybe the exception of FINISH YOUR SHIT — can easily be Judo-flipped onto its back. Nearly every piece of writing advice and its opposite is true, at some point, for many writers. And it’s vital we not be rigorous with what we feel are these chestnuts of writing advice. These chestnuts must, in fact, be roasted time and time again to bring out their nuttiest, most delectable flavor. Or, put differently, take the words of writer Jeannette Ng, who is in fact a finalist for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer this year —
“But in general I feel like we don’t publically interrogate this paradigm enough: The idea that exposition is always bad. That ornate prose is just showing off. That we shouldn’t get too attached to bits of our own writing, that we should kill our darlings.”
What a great verb, by the way.
Let’s rewind a little.
In writing, you have three tiers of putting together a story.
You have: technical sentence construction, which is to say, you put words together, gluing them hence with various fiddly bits of punctuation, and then they make sentences. And then you string sentences into paragraphs and paragraphs into pages. This is the technical aspect of writing.
Its laws are flexible, but firm. In other words, if I wrote, “It’s laws are flexible; but firm,” you could make a strong case that the construction of that, the grammar of it, are wrong.
Next level down: prose construction. This is the aspect of writing that probably gets the most attention, and it’s about constructing narrative at the language level. It’s about dialogue, it’s about exposition versus action, it’s the escalation of using writing not only to convey an idea, but also to convey a story. Right? And here, again, laws exist. The laws though are a little goofier. If grammar is fairly bedrock, then here we’re talking something that’s muddy and wet — a soft, gently moving earth. It’s stable… until it’s not. There are tectonic shifts. Gentle undulations. We claim that “good writing” is objective, but it’s very plainly not; our ideas of “good writing” will shift and warp as the months and years and decades go on.
Final level for purposes of this discussion is: all the story bits. Story being abstract. Story being narrative construction not at the language level, but the idea level. Character and theme, rhythm and flow, tension and release, the shape of narrative, and so on and so forth. This area probably gets the least total attention, which is understandable — it’s a PYROCLASTIC HELL REALM WHERE THE ONLY LAWS ARE MAD-MAXIAN IN PROPORTION.
Story is wigglier than a snake covered in fire ants. It’s slippery like an over-lubed dildo. It has few rules, if any. I dare say that if you show me any ironclad story rule, I can give you ten writers, right quick, that fucked that rule right in the ear.
One of the pieces of writing advice that is supposedly ironclad is the aforementioned:
KILL YOUR DARLINGS.
*crash of thunder*
And as I said above, it’s good advice, until it’s not.
More to the point, Kill Your Darlings (besides from being a great band name) is 101-class writing advice. It’s entry-level, as are most of the authorial platitudes. Show Don’t Tell? Sure, great, until the time comes when you need to tell the reader something. Write What You Know? Go for it, until you realize you don’t know a whole lotta shit, and if you take that advice too literally you’ll never write a goddamn thing that isn’t you sitting at the keyboard writing about writing about writing. Never Use Adverbs, For They Are Wizard Prisons! Great, great advice, perfectly golden always and forever, oh, except the words “always” and “forever” are motherfucking adverbs. Writers Write Every Day — except until they don’t, and some write every week, or every month, some write 2000 words a day, some write 15000 words once a month, some write for a couple hours, or four, or eight, some write to music, some write to the screams of the people they have trapped under their floorboards. Open With An Action Sequence, except action sequences don’t always give the proper context, and also, what if you’re not writing action?
On and on and on.
But today, we’re again tackling the old saw: kill them ding-dang darlings, darlin’.
It is, taken lightly, good advice.
It is, taken rigorously, very bad advice.
Why, taken rigorously, is it bad advice?
It’s bad because it presupposes to know what is essential in a story. A story, we are then lead to believe, is a concise series of narrative events, and anything that does not move them forward is chaff that must be separated from the wheat lest the story-food be chewy and unpleasant. And certainly, that can be true: if a part of the story truly stands in the way of the story, and most or all your readers feel it, then maybe that thing was truly a darling after all, a piece that was not only non-essential, but that blocked the story pipes like a flushed baby diaper.
But we run the risk of treating stories — or the idea of Story, big S — as something irrevocable and unswerving. It assumes that Story is a hard-and-fast blueprint pressed into well-set concrete. It demands we accept that Story is A+B+C, and onward, until Z. And any deviation from that alphabet is heresy: no imaginary numbers in there, no emoji, no X where the R should be, no cat’s-butt asterisk where the D would go, no series of FUs hunkered down in the middle like a glorious profane parade of middle-fucking-fingers.
It also assumes that Story is only, only, only for the audience.
And that isn’t true.
That can’t be true.
A story only for the audience is the worst kind of story — a soulless exercise. Maybe one that works! Maybe one that sells well, I dunno. But for my mileage as a creator, to remove me from that creation, to take myself and my ideas and my fears out of it, well, you might as well let Norman Rockwell paint over every Picasso, or vice versa. The artist is a presence in the art. The storyteller is part of the story. And so we must leave some room for the storyteller, and Kill Your Darlings narrows that space in some cases — and it can be constrictive.
Consider what is essential in all aspects of your life.
In a meal, what’s essential is, what? Nutrients. Food to survive. So, if food were reduced to a Soylent-like nutri-gruel, you’re fine, right? I mean, it’s totally cool not to live in a world with ice cream or snap peas or bacon or [insert your favorite food here], right??
In decor, what’s essential? Almost nothing. Decor isn’t essential. You don’t fucking need it. That painting on the wall doesn’t hold up the wall. It’s chaff. A darling. Kill it. Scour it with cleansing fire! Clarity is king! Burn down such frivolous rubbish HA HA HA HA *turns the flamethrower on the Bayeux Tapestry, also where did you get the Bayeux Tapestry, you thief?*
In a story, what’s essential?
Beginning, middle, end?
Character doing stuff, saying stuff?
Is a character’s description essential? How much is essential? One sentence? Three adjectives? A paragraph? A page? A whole chapter?
What about the description of family crests and epic meals and massive amounts of diplomacy? That wouldn’t go well in a spare thriller, but in epic fantasy, it’s a feature, not a bug. In the very good zombie novel This Dark Earth by John Hornor Jacobs, he includes a chapter about characters getting a locomotive up and running, under siege by zombies — it is, in the technical sense, utterly non-essential. It’s also my favorite chapter in the novel, and it gives the book a kind of counterweight and heart that anchors it, despite doing nothing for the plot, or even for the characters we generally care about.
Next year, I have a novel out — Wanderers. One day, a young woman finds her sister sleepwalking down the road — the sister cannot be harmed, cannot be stopped, and every mile or three, she’s joined by another sleepwalker. On and on they go, the flock of sleepwalkers growing as their friends and families walk with them as shepherds. We don’t know where they’re going, or why, or for what purpose sinister or benevolent, and that’s what the book is about — that mystery, and those people. The book is 280,000 words. It’ll be in the 700-800 page range when it finally bursts its copy-editing cocoon and becomes its MIGHTY WINGED BOOK FORM. It’s a huge-ass book. And all along, I had to resist a single piece of writing advice:
Kill your darlings.
At every turn I wanted to slam my foot on the accelerator and just push the story forward as fast and furious as I could get it to go. But that wasn’t what the story needed. It wasn’t what I needed it to be. I needed it to sometimes slow down, to take strange exits off the highway, to deviate in unusual directions for a time. It needed to have an epic scope, to change shape, to be a thing that wasn’t just the rush to rise, the bang of climax, and then the fall. It had to be bigger, odder, more beastly in its form, and that’s how I wrote it, and my editor — thankfully! — kept me from turning away. She demanded I stay on that path to write the book that way, and given the response the book is getting in very early readers, I’m thankful I did.
On the developmental edit, you know how much total word count I cut?
In fact, I rewrote the beginning and then added another 10,000 words.
But if I had really listened to the advice, kill your darlings, the book wouldn’t be the book. The story wouldn’t be the story. It would be leaner, meaner, a prison shiv instead of the whole prison — but a lot of things would’ve been murdered to make it that way. I would’ve lost so much. And therein lies too another problem with the phrasing of kill your darlings, as it presupposes that we need to cut things we like — which is kinda fucking bonkers, isn’t it? What we like is often important. It informs why we’re writing the story in the first place. Aren’t we better off instead looking for things to cut that we cannot defend, that at the end of the day aren’t bits we like very much at all? The things we love about a story, aren’t we served better by ultimately finding ways to make them work, to earn their place in the piece because, in fact, we love them so?
As such, I’ve learned what the opposite of kill your darlings is, and it’s this:
Know what hills you’re willing to die on.
What I mean is this: at the end of the day, it’s your name on that book. Not your beta readers’ names. Not your editor. Not your mom, your sister, your dog, your agent, your God, your favorite Star Wars character.
There, on the cover, is your name. A magic name. A seal of ownership.
So you gotta own what’s under the cover, too.
If a thing in the book is a so-called darling, you have to make a decision: is it a thing you thought you liked but doesn’t do anything for you? Then it can go. But if it’s a thing you truly love, a thing you truly need, keep it. Weld it to the fucking page with fire and lightning. I’ve had had reviews tell me that the interludes in Aftermath were utterly non-essential. I’ve had readers tell me the interludes in Aftermath were their favorite things in the book. And the only thing I can say about that is, I wanted them in there. Whether people loved them or hated them or both, I — me! — wanted them in there. Because they were mine, and a thing I loved, and a thing that was precious to me — they were part of the fabric of the narrative no matter how quote-unquote essential they were. Sometimes, the most interesting parts of a book are the darlings — the pieces that don’t conform. The pieces that stand out. Sometimes a thing stands out because it’s ugly and you gotta shave that wart off fast as you can. But sometimes a thing stands out because it’s the thing that defines the work — it’s a dignified stare, a bent nose, a beautiful imperfection that is far more compelling than all the expected, anticipated, overwrought bits.
Of course, the caveat is: you own it. Whether it works or it doesn’t, you own it.
But you own the story either way.
Might as well make it yours, in whatever fashion that feels most proper.
Kill your darlings when you must, yes.
But know too when they must remain, because they are yours, and they belong, no matter how much anyone tells you otherwise. Know when they are not merely a darling, but a beautiful bit to defend, to protect. Know when they are a hill you’re willing to die on, even if you do, in fact, die upon it. Know they they’re there. Why you must keep them. Then plant your feet, raise your sword, and demand your darlings be allowed to live.
* * *
DAMN FINE STORY: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative
What do Luke Skywalker, John McClane, and a lonely dog on Ho’okipa Beach have in common? Simply put, we care about them.
Great storytelling is making readers care about your characters, the choices they make, and what happens to them. It’s making your audience feel the tension and emotion of a situation right alongside your protagonist. And to tell a damn fine story, you need to understand why and how that caring happens.
Whether you’re writing a novel, screenplay, video game, or comic, this funny and informative guide is chock-full of examples about the art and craft of storytelling–and how to write a damn fine story of your own.