You’ve probably heard the famous writing advice “Kill your darlings” often attributed to William Faulker, Allen Ginsberg, and Stephen King (but probably really first said by Arthur Quiller-Couch). But what does that mean exactly? I’ve often heard it interpreted to mean that if you really love a piece of writing, it’s probably self-indulgent garbage. But I disagree. Sometimes those passages you love are special because they work incredibly well with the story.
So when should you really “kill your darlings?” There are three main situations in which a scene or passage needs to get kicked to the curb, whether you love it or not. All passages need to fulfill one of these three purposes.
It moves the action of the story forward.
Whether or not you’re writing plot-driven or character-driven stories (see this post for what I really think about that dichotomy), sometimes your plot needs to get from point A to point B. These “housekeeping” type passages can move the plot forward or relocate the characters to a different setting. The key is to keep them short and focused. If they are, they can stay.
It reveals something essential about the character.
A scene showing your gruff hero playing with his infant niece might not be strictly essential to the overall plot, but it tells us something important about the character and allows readers to relate to him better. Likewise, your story might have nothing to do with paintball, but showing us that your uptight, strictly-business heroine organizes a family paintball war every year shows a side of the character that your readers may need to find her likable. It’s okay to take detours with your story as long as it contributes to characterization.
It incites or resolve conflict.
Some passages may not be “housekeeping” or characterization, which leaves us with conflict. If the scene serves to introduce new problems for the characters that relate directly to their main goals or to resolve a conflict, it’s essential to the story and it belongs in the manuscript.
What if your scene is fabulous but doesn’t meet any of these three criteria? It’s time. Pull out the red pen or the delete key and kill that darling. Your manuscript and your readers will thank you for it.