Sparing Your Darlings

“Murdering Your Darlings.” Yesterday the subject came up in the context of cutting good material that nevertheless no longer belonged in the story you’re working on. That is, the case of a paragraph or page of chapter which is well-written, interesting in its own right, perhaps even particularly fine, but neither advances the plot nor reveals character. In other words, it’s just not pulling its weight, therefore it’s adding weight and slowing your story down. It has to go. That’s often the sense in which that phrase is used today, but it occurs to me that, originally, the phrase meant something a little different.

“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. ”  — Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch

“Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.” — Samuel Johnson

The rationale hasn’t really changed; the premise is that the material just doesn’t belong. Yet the subtext is that the material doesn’t belong in your story for the sole reason that it is especially fine. That is, the passage calls attention to itself rather than serving the story, and at that point it no longer belongs. There’s truth in that. For a story to work the voice and tone need to be consistent, or at least in some sort of harmony.  A passage that is so clearly out of place can jolt the reader out of the story, remind them that they’re reading and not really experiencing, and the risk is that the whole structure then collapses like the construct of shadows and mist and mirrors that it actually is.

So you murder your darlings. It’s good, tried and true advice…so far as it goes. I’m going to be a teensy bit contrarian here, and suggest that, like all advice–good or otherwise–sometimes it’s just full of crap.

This is not original with me, and I do wish I knew who said it first, but you can either “murder your darlings” as the conventional wisdom demands, or — and this is something to think about–you can rewrite the rest of the story until is worthy of that one fine passage. Sure, maybe the passage doesn’t belong. Or maybe it’s the only part of this story you’re trying to tell thatdoes belong. That’s harder to see, I know. The story could be complete, but this bit sticks out like a thoroughbred in a herd of mules, it’s distracting. But what if the reason it’s distracting is not because it doesn’t belong, but rather that the rest of your narrative looks like a sad little pile of scraps by comparison. Consider–maybe this passage isn’t the problem, it’s the entire rest of your story that’s the problem. Maybe were flailing a bit and that one section is where you got your act together. Maybe, yes, it doesn’t belong, because it goes with the story you were trying to tell, not the one you ended up with. Sure, it could be the tail wagging the dog, most likely it is, but what if it isn’t? What it what it’s wagging isn’t even a proper dog?

But I was done! The story was finished! Can’t I just cut this bit and go on?

Sure you can. This is the kind of decision you have to make all the time. But do one thing before you put a fork in it–set both bits aside for a couple of weeks, then come back and read the story again. Then read what you cut out, then ask yourself “Which one really needs to go?”

The answer may surprise you.

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One thought on “Sparing Your Darlings

  1. I agree: never, ever good to leave in a section of writing that is sort of a min-essay, distracting from the story-line. That matieral can be put into some guest editorial or something but should not be left to distract from the story.

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