Have you ever been in a relationship that wasn’t good for you? Whether romantic, friendly or familial, I bet you have. They may not be a bad person, they may be great!
But they just aren’t contributing anything to your life. They’re distracting you from your goals, they are interfering with your professional life, they are pressuring you to pay more attention to them instead of you.
In the writing world, we call these “darlings.” They are any element (characters, plot lines, sentences, etc) that aren’t serving or contributing to your story as a whole. They may even be harming it, distracting from the overall plot or killing the tension. You love them – they may even be your favorite part – but ultimately, they’ve gotta be cut.
Why you ask? The main benefits include increased tension, self-discipline and substance as well as improved self-editing skills. And if you happen to need to trim a few thousand words (like me), this can help.
But how do you know which elements are your darlings? Which pieces of your story need to be culled?
Identifying Your Darlings
Look out for the elements listed below and ask yourself the following question:
If I cut this scene/sentence/character, would anyone but me even care or notice?
- Prologues. They’re going to be the first thing to go once you get an agent, so you might as well save yourself the time and effort. Most prologues simply don’t add anything to the story, but if you are just desperate to have one, check out the opening scene of The Fellowship of the Ring. Now that’s how you to write a prologue.
- Characters without purpose. Every character must have a strength and a weakness. Every character must have a stake in the overall plot. Every character must either drive the story forward or assist in development of the main character. Do they do these things? If not, cut ’em.
- Superfluous plot lines. Every novel has multiple plot lines going on at once. Without them, the story wouldn’t have much depth. But each and every subplot needs to contribute to the overall story. If it is distracting or tension-killing, get it out of there. Be particularly aware of this with romance subplots.
- Long descriptive paragraphs. You can only describe a leaf on a tree on a hilltop so many ways, guys.
- Monologues. I must be on a LOTR kick today because I am going to use another example – a not so great one this time. Take a look at the video and tell me if you really think Theoden’s overly pitiful and poetic speech adds anything to the story.
- Too much backstory and info-dumping. Again, each scene with backstory or information needs to be pertinent to the story. Weave these facts into dialogue or short, sweet passages. Stay away from the dump truck.
HINT: Listen to your beta readers. If one says something isn’t working, maybe don’t cut anything drastic. If twenty readers do? Get out the red pen.
Now, identifying is one thing, but cutting is a easier said than done. I am in the process of slowly killing one of my darlings in State of Grace, and it is physically painful. But there are a few methods of coping to keep the process as smooth and painless as possible.
Killing Your Darlings
- Declare the dead. Read through you work and use the “strike through” function as
you read. Don’t delete them just yet, but make sure they are easily identifiable later when you go back through.
- Bury them. Once you are really ready to pull the trigger, take all those darlings and copy them into a separate “graveyard” file. Save them for later or maybe for another project. This will sting a little less than just deleting them all together.
- Take time to mourn. Step away from your project for a few days and just give yourself some time to wrap your head around the loss.
- Fill the holes. Reread the scene before and just write what feels seamless. Then ensure the transition to the next. Go back and edit later, but the key here is to just do what feels right for the story.
- Move things around. Don’t be afraid to mix up your chapters once your darlings are out of there. Big holes call for big opportunity!
- Always put substance first. It has to trump your darlings every time. If you don’t, you’ll get revision request after revision request.
- Write for your readers. Yes, obviously write for yourself too, but ultimately if you want to get published, your writers have to be your main priority.
I know it sounds hard and heartbreaking and time-consuming, but think of how much better your book will be when those darlings are six feet under.