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. Continue reading