On the Killing of Darlings

Just about every writer has heard the advice, “Kill your darlings” (and if you haven’t, you just did). The advice has come to have an almost mythic quality to it. Hell, someone even titled a movie about a writer after it.

The “kill your darlings” formulation apparently comes from Faulkner (who graciously specified that this applies only in writing — which is good, because with Faulkner you never can tell). The original advice, as near I can tell from an exhaustive two-minute Google search, is from Sir Arthur Quilling-Couch’s 1916 book “On The Art of Writing” (Also available at Bartleby, if you can stand the pop-up ads):

Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a particularly fine piece of writing, obey it — whole-heartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.

It’s a warning against purple prose, basically: indulge the desire to show off, so as to get it out of your system, then scrub it. It comes out of Quilling-Couch’s general admonition against ornamentation, in fact, in his lengthier discussion of style. Let’s have it in-context, shall we:

To begin with, let me plead that you have been told of one or two things which Style is not; which have little or nothing to do with Style, though sometimes vulgarly mistaken for it. Style, for example, is not—can never be—extraneous Ornament. You remember, may be, the Persian lover whom I quoted to you out of Newman: how to convey his passion he sought a professional letter-writer and purchased a vocabulary charged with ornament, wherewith to attract the fair one as with a basket of jewels. Well, in this extraneous, professional, purchased ornamentation, you have something which Style is not: and if you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘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.’

Here’s the thing: he’s right, and he’s wrong. I have a secret love of alliteration and puns. Every now and then while writing I come up with something just awesome. I type it out, admire it, and then I sigh and delete it and move on. It’s not because readers dislike alliteration and puns, but because drawing attention to the text itself is the quickest way to punt a reader out of the story. It’s hard enough to keep the reader entranced without tugging on their sleeve and saying, “Psst! Aren’t I clever?” as one can with a particularly polished piece of prose. Those particular darlings are often your enemies, and need to be ruthlessly culled. (Or at least stored in that one secret text file. You know the one. You tell yourself that you’ll rescue them one day, but you only ever open the file to add more inmates. They eat each other when you’re not watching, you know.)

But he’s wrong in that sometimes the very fine writing needs to be there, or at least doesn’t hurt. Internet quote databases are chock full of unmurdered darlings, and rightly so. Exquisite turns of phrase are what we live for, as readers and writers, and there’s no sense editing toward mediocrity. If something is so awesome that it becomes a speed bump, why not try bringing the rest of the text up closer to its level? A diamond isn’t out of place in a jewelry box, after all.

Even some of those good darlings do need to die, though, not because you must kill them but because you must not save them. They can be downright poisonous to the editing process.

Case in point: in my story The Body and the Bomb, I had this great section of dialogue between the Chief Constable and the Medical Examiner. The ME was just enjoying stringing out his little triumph of deduction, and he got so close to the actual truth of the matter, falling just short of it. It was a very nice piece of dialogue… but after I made a necessary change to the order of the scenes, it didn’t fit anymore: it was too early to have that deduction, and it risked making them all look stupid.

I tried everything to make it fit. I tried rewriting the scene it was in again to let it stay, I tried moving it to a different scene (necessitating the rewriting of half the dialogue in that scene), I tried swapping out the Chief Constable for a different character who didn’t have as formal a relationship with the ME, I tried — well, I tried everything. It became its own little singularity: an island of awesome that created its own sea of suck. And I wasted far more time trying to make it fit than was justified by the enjoyment the reader would get from it.

Maybe it would be better to state the advice as, “Do not rescue your darlings,” then, to emphasize that sometimes they really can live, as long as they behave themselves.

In conclusion, I am going to boggle at the idea of Faulkner reading books on writing style.

3 thoughts on “On the Killing of Darlings

  1. I feel like this dilemma also applies, strangely, to Scrabble. I have a heck of a time giving up on e.g. a rack of letters that spells “infidel” even if there is nowhere on the board to place it.

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