Hi. My name’s Elliot, and I’m an assassin. (I’m also a girl; I thought I’d clarify right
away to banish that image of a creepy man with a goatee and a semi-automatic). I
thought I’d never be able to get the hang of this vital writing skill, but my current
work in progress has just endured a thorough slaughtering.
There’s no mess, which is nice. It’s like cutting excess fat off a steak: scenes,
characters, plot twists, settings, even paragraphs that just don’t belong in your story.
When do you know you need to kill your darlings?
When the steak doesn’t taste as good because you’re spending copious amounts of
time chewing through the fat to get to the meat. Or when you’ve erringly decided to
plop a scoop of ice cream on top of your steak. More on that later.
You, the writer, are the one with the steak knife. No one else can clean up the story
like you can. But writing is a delicate process; you’ve wrestled with each phrase
to get it right. How could you change even one perfectly placed word, let alone an
My recent massacre included the annihilation of a main character. Not a couple
sentences, not an indulgent scene —a main character! This girl has been not only in
my head, but on paper. For! Years! She’s distinctive. Probably one of the strongest
characters that ever came barreling into my imagination.
Getting rid of someone who has been living inside your head for so long feels a lot
like losing a good friend. As corny as that sounds, it’s true. That’s the most difficult
kind of murder. The kind where you’re killing something or someone you’ve been
emotionally attached to. Maybe it’s something you thought up when you were
twelve, and maybe the story has been developing in your mind like a little embryo,
growing with your experiences and maturing as your writing style develops. Maybe
there’s no maybe, maybe that’s exactly what happened to my friend Teresa.
She was interesting, but she was like an eleventh toe. Not needed, and unable to fit
in toe socks.
She was just another name for the reader to keep straight. Two other main
characters drove the story forward, and they are the ones who avoided death by
delete key. I can’t say the same for poor Teresa.
But if something is crowding up your story, blocking the flow, distracting from
what’s important… get that knife out. Close your eyes while you hit delete, if that
makes you feel better. Just don’t back down.
Now the ice cream.
The stuff is delicious. Who can refute that? You’re just a liar if you say you don’t like
But ice cream on a steak?
You’re eating steak, warm and savory, and then boom! You get a forkful of freezing
cold, creamy sugar. You try to adjust, but the next bite has you back to warm and
juicy. Confused? Suspicious? Wanting to call the chef in to explain a few things to
It might be the chef’s signature ice cream recipe, but that doesn’t mean it belongs on
a steak. It has distracted us.
In the same way, you might rip your reader out of that “fictive dream” by throwing
in a random dollop of your finest diction, say, describing a sunset during a chase
scene. It might be a work of art! It might be the best paragraph you’ve ever written!
And because of that, it totally stands out on your steak.
The result is this: it will yank your reader out of the story, making them step back
and leave that world you worked so hard to suck them into. These little darlings will
kill your story if you don’t kill them first.
Recognize them. If there’s something you find yourself especially proud of, then it’s
a darling. If you’re indulging yourself, it’s probably ice cream. Some writers, like
Faulkner, would encourage you to murder every last one, bloody as you like.
Admitting that I don’t have even a fraction of the literary track record of Faulkner
(and that I’m a vegetarian) I think there are exceptions. But not many.
Get up the courage to take out that beautifully crafted, but completely unnecessary
scene. Erase that mesmerizing, but advanced metaphor if that’s not what your kid
character would really think.
Don’t serve your reader a fatty steak, and please leave out the ice cream.
I’m not as heartless as I may seem. Teresa will most likely show up in another
project of mine. Just because she didn’t fit in this story doesn’t mean she can’t run
her own show sometime, somewhere else.
So as you’re killing off your darlings, store them in body bags and don’t forget them.
They might inspire you in the future.