I began the Christian Fiction Writers’ Clinic as a means for sharing what I’ve gleaned over the years concerning content editing. I learn best by example and like to use memorable rules to help myself remember how to avoid particular pitfalls that I’ve read in books or that have been exposed in my own writing. For years the rules have been hidden in a shared document between myself and Dana Kamstra.
These “rules,” while being helpful, can be ignored if the author desires. I never want to set something up as an unbreakable rule. I certainly have not invented the art of fiction writing. However, each of the rules are meant to be guidelines to help you stay away from troublesome areas.
You’ll find a live video within the Facebook Clinic group discussing this writing rule.
This month we’re looking at one of the Plot Problem rules.
Something is weighing the story down;
Unneeded information, characters, or conflicts;
Stealing attention from the main story;
Jolting the reader out of the story;
Breaking up the flow
I think we’ve all read a story where we felt like something was added in that didn’t quite need to be. Maybe it was too much historical information. Or maybe it was a subplot that didn’t feel connected to the rest of the story. It could have been long-winded description.
Whatever it was, you can remember relating to the comments above about how it weighed the story down or broke up the flow, etc.
So what we’ll be doing in this post is discussing the notable Stephen King quote. Here’s the quote in full:
“Mostlywhen I think of pacing, I go back to Elmore Lenoard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts. This suggests cutting to speed the pace, and that’s what most of us end up having to do (kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings).” — Stephen King, On Writing (pg. 222)
What is a Darling:
Despite what you might think when you hear Stephen King’s command to kill your darlings, he’s not talking about giving your character the ax. There are times when you might need to cut loose a character, but most of the time it’s something else entirely.
The idea of YOU killing your darlings is because you’ve already had some critical feedback about your story. Your valued critique partner has pointed out something that isn’t working in your draft. But instead of eagerly agreeing with them, you cling to your precious and refuse to see reason. (See Mother Hen Knows Best for more info.) So let’s say that you’ve taken the Mother Hen rule to heart and are willing to consider making some changes. The Kill Your Darling rule is meant to encourage you to follow through.
Now that we know a darling is anything you cling to, let’s take a look at some areas where we may be weighing our stories down. This rule can apply in a thousand different ways, but I’m going to be looking specifically at areas where keeping your darling is actually slowing down your plot.
Darlings to Kill:
This is a quick rundown of areas where you may be weighing your story down.
Using the same words too often
Reusing unique words or phrases too often
Descriptives of a character or emotion
Lengthy descriptions of the setting or character’s appearance
Plot Twist or Sub-plot
Scenes or chapters
Daily details such as food, shower, or clothing
When to Kill a Darling:
All of the elements that I mentioned in the list actually have a place in your novel, so the question then is to determine when the element is actually a problem child in your manuscript.
To quote Dana, “Everything needs a purpose that aligns with the big picture goal.” And it’s not enough that something has a purpose for purpose’s sake, because not everything is a purpose worth having. So you have to be very discerning.
Talk to your critiquer who suggested the challenging feedback. Communicate with them if you think you have a reason for doing what you’re doing. But be sure to LISTEN to them. While you may have had a good reason, you probably aren’t displaying your purpose very well so it’s coming across as unfulfilled in the eyes of your critiquer/reader. Just because you KNOW what you were about, doesn’t mean you’ve done a great job of showcasing that. Your critiquer may be able to help you brainstorm how to correct it or the reasons why cutting it out is in your best interests.
Now let’s look at these one by one and talk about when they might need to be cut or corrected in your draft.
Words, Descriptives, and Unique Phrases/Words:
It’s simple. Using the same words to describe various things becomes tedious and annoying for the reader. The more you write, the more you become aware of overused words. Do a simple word search to weed them out.
Because we’re looking for new ways to say the same thing, sometimes we latch onto a unique way of saying it. But the thing with unique is that it stands out to the reader. So use those ultra-unique words sparingly. VERY sparingly. As in not using the same one more than once in a manuscript.
Some authors are more descriptive than others, so there are varying degrees of when you’ve gone too far. If anyone has ever said your description was too much, take it to heart because it most likely was. Leastwise, there is likely a happier medium between what you’ve presented and what your critiquer is suggesting.
Take a strong look at small portions of your description. How many descriptive words did you use for one object? And how far away is your next description? If you look at a small section and highlight your descriptive lines, you’ll have a better sense of how often you are actually describing things. And it may surprise you at little your story is moving forward because you keep pausing to describe something.
As I researched the topic, I ran across this rule of thumb: If your reader forgets where they are in the story, then you’ve gone too far in the description.
Conversations, just like everything else, should move your story forward. Conversations are a great way to relate information as well as showcase personalities and further the plot as a whole.
But look for the excessive niceties, greetings, ordering at a restaurant, or recapping things in conversation. It’s not feasible to cut out all greetings but the majority aren’t needed to make the scene complete.
Ordering at a restaurant or any other conversation that has a set pattern are things you can skip or skim over. The reason is because we’re so familiar with the layout of those conversations and they rarely ever add anything to the story.
Recapping a scene/conversation that we already read is another thing to weed out. With anything, there are exceptions but you’ll want to cut it out as often as you can or skim over the process and get to the point of the new scene which is typically the person’s reaction to the news and not the news itself. An example of something to recap would be a confession, but an example of something to weed out is recapping what your boss said.
Just like everything else, characters have to support the overall purpose of the story. But sometimes we have characters who don’t really add anything to the story. A good example of a useless character is someone who is only there for recap purposes. If your best friend character is only there so she can answer the phone and all your heroine does is recap everything we just read in the previous chapter, then this is a character who needs to be cut out or given a stronger role.
We might see this where there are two friends but the role really only calls for one. I actually had to do this recently with a pair of siblings. I had 2 children in the family. One had all the great lines and the other was more of an extra. The few lines she had could easily come from the other character, so I cut one and focused on the little star.
Scenes and Chapters:
Sometimes we include things in our early drafts that feel important. And maybe it was important for us to better establish the character’s life or personality. But in the end, if the scene or chapter doesn’t move the plot forward, it’s only slowing it down. We want to avoid anything that slows down or halts our plot.
Plot Twists or Sub-plots:
A great plot twist is always a bonus … unless you have too much going on in the story then it becomes a distraction from the main purpose. We see this more often in novellas where the story is meant to be smaller but there’s a novel-sized plot inside.
As for a sub-plot, it needs to be woven into the story so if there’s a sub-plot that isn’t really connected to the main plot, then it slows the story down and steals the attention away.
This is one of the most common “extras” that need to be on the cutting room floor of a manuscript. Don’t stress if you write a first draft with these details, but look for opportunities to cut them in the next draft.
Unless there’s a good reason, we don’t need the details of a character’s every meal. But there are exceptions.
The same is said for starting the scene too early and showing the character getting dressed for the day or preparing for bed. We can throw showers into this category as well. If these moments are included, there needs to be a reason. The moment needs to be furthering the character toward their goal. Showers, driving, etc are great opportunities for the character to reflect in between major scenes. So using them to reflect or wrestle with their problems isn’t a bad thing at all. It’s only a problem if you’re writing them for no purpose other than to let us know that she uses strawberry shampoo or because you feel like we’ll think she never showers if it isn’t included.
With backstory, you have to make sure it is absolutely necessary…not necessary to the character’s life but necessary for the reader to understand something about the current plot. A large portion of the backstory is essential for the author to understand the character, but NOT for the reader to understand the character.
It’s common for backstory to become a darling to the author because they’re convinced it’s important or because there is sentimental value to it. Maybe the backstory mirrors your own and you wanted to include it. So again, you have a purpose…just not a purpose worth having. 😉
This is another one of those weightier details that can stick out like a sore thumb if not woven in properly. Just like with backstory, the majority of your research will never (or should never) end up in the pages of your book. Like with description, you never want to pause the story to give a history lesson.
This is a hard one for many authors because we see these details as essential, but oftentimes they’re not.
Tips on How to Kill Your Darling:
The key is to take your time. Process the advice and the reason behind the advice. I repeat, LISTEN to the REASON behind the advice. If your critiquer was vague in their feedback, ask questions. Try to understand why they said what they said.
Then talk about it. Let them know what you were attempting to accomplish and listen as they share whether or not your motive was obvious in your writing. Oftentimes, it wasn’t. This may require to you take something out or to make some changes. We’ll talk next about when to save a darling.
One last tip on killing a darling: Don’t throw your precious away. Save them in a file with other deleted details. You never know when they will be useful to you again. And saving them or saving the original draft will make you feel more comfortable because you know you can always return to the original if needed.
When to Save a Darling:
Let’s face it. Sometimes we just don’t have it in us to kill off something we created. Sometimes we still REALLY see the value of something, even when our trusted early readers did not.
I bring good news. You CAN, on occasion, save them. Ok, fine. You can ALWAYS save them but most of the time it’ll hurt your manuscript so save at your own risk. 😉
BUT let me point out that many times, with a little more effort you can make your reader happy and save your darling at the same time. You can ask Dana, this is my go-to when it comes to darlings. 😉 What can I say, I’m a healer, not a murderer.
The author liking something shouldn’t be enough to keep it. And the reader’s not liking something shouldn’t be enough to delete it. There has to be a reason why they like or don’t like something. So stop, ask questions, and listen to the answers. Most likely their reasons for not liking something is the answer to how to fix it. Ex: if it’s too much, take away. If it’s too little, add in.
Too much description: Reread the section and pull out the most important elements. Keep those in the manuscript and save the others in a separate file. Start a file for rescued darlings. You may find homes for them in the future. In this case, you’ll only be saving some of your darlings in your manuscript and the others will put on an injured reserved list for later.
Needless Character: The best way to deal with a needless character is to make them necessary. Give them a bigger role to play. If this doesn’t naturally appear, cut the character but save them in a file to use in a different story. Be sure when you bring them back in, that they have a bigger role to play in the new story or they’ll be back on the cutting room floor.
Needless Scenes: If you cannot find something weighty and interesting to inject into the scene, then cut it out but save it. It could be great bonus material after the book has been published.
Backstory and Historical Tidbits: Backstory and historical research is primarily for the author to know so that they can write with authority. BUT when you know so much, it’s easy to convince yourself that your readers need to know everything about the characters and the real-life events surrounding the story.
The best thing to do is to plan, upfront, to share VERY little with the reader. If you can cut it out and the story still makes sense, then cut it out. But save whatever you delete. Your readers really may be interested in this info later. For historical details, you might add a page at the end of the novel. For backstory or additional historical tidbits, you can weave in bite-sized details in your social media posts or in bonus sections on your blog or webpage. Readers, after reading the story, may be more interested to hear about the characters.
When Backstory can be Current Story: A good example would be introducing the family pet then diving into a backstory about how you found him and how you named him. Unless the story is actually about the dog, the reader doesn’t need to know any of that. If it doesn’t pertain to right now, it’s likely not important at all. However, if you love it so much that you can’t part with it, consider making it your current story. How about instead of dropping unimportant backstory into our laps and making us endure it, you let them adopt the dog right now in the middle of the story? So instead of writing a backstory that doesn’t further the plot, you show the character falling in love with the rescue pup and weave in the naming fiasco into the fabric of your story. Then bam, both you and your reader are happy.
Any one of these things will distract but don’t enhance. We’re tempted to keep them because in our minds they add to the story but in reality that steal the thunder of what’s more important. They break up the flow of the story. In the same way telling breaks up the flow, unneeded info will do the same. It’ll jolt the reader out of the story. And in many cases it actually IS a form of telling.
But we also see this on the larger scale when we have scenes that don’t add any depth to the story, but were written as strictly filler scenes, scenes in order to pad the word count. And readers will pick up on that.
Sometimes it’s a character who seems out of place and doesn’t add anything to the story. Or a point of view character who doesn’t add depth to the plot.
The Kill Your Darlings rule is a call to the author to do the hard thing and delete the dead weight from the story. It’s a reminder to be courageous and follow through for the betterment of the manuscript. If you can cut it out and your readers never miss it, or they never ask you to explain something, then it’s proof that you never needed it there.
Again, there are a million different ways this rule can apply, and a million more ways we can dig even deeper than I have. But I hope this helps to set you up to take a closer look at what you’re putting out there and what you could trim away from your precious story.