Malcolm Reynolds Firefly

Killing Your Darlings: Learn to Self-Edit Like Joss Whedon

Let’s just admit it. We all get the urge to throttle someone from time to time. Annoying coworkers, overbearing family members, and just plain nasty members of civilization—they all bear the brunt of our frustrations and our mumbled threats. When it comes to our fiction, however, we tend to be a little more lenient about killing our darlings.

When I look at that big fat pile of manuscript on my desk, I’m much more likely to lean back in my chair, fold my hands over my stomach, and smile complacently, than I am to pull out the old X-Acto knife and start slashing. My words are like children, and no one in her right mind goes around axing her kids. That first glimpse at a finished manuscript is magical. You hold it in your arms for the first time, and those thousands of words marching across the pages, those words over which you labored for months, suddenly appear imbued with some mystical essence. It’s an essence that writers and mothers alike are familiar with: perfection.

So, really, it’s little surprise that we find it difficult to even see our mistakes, much less draw our razor-sharp red pens and cover the page in bloody excisions. It’s an unfortunate fact, however, that a little bloodletting is about the only way to prevent the inevitable rambling, bloating, and general hubris that find their way into most all of our first (and second and third) drafts.

Killing Your Darlings: It’s Not Really Necessary, Is It?

Years ago, when I was introduced to the writerspeak term killing your darlings, my response was to cock a disbelieving eyebrow. The article I was reading made a statement about “taking a look at your manuscript and deleting all your favorite lines.” Understandably, I said no way and chalked the author up as a minimalist kook.

Simon Tam This Must Be What Going Mad Feels Like Firefly

It took me years and several less-than-memorable novels to understand that the point of this statement was not that I should be hacking out all my best work, but rather that I should be taking a good, long look at my “darlings” and analyzing whether their presence in the story was the result of necessity or just my smug enjoyment of my own supposed brilliance.

Joss Whedon on Killing Your Darlings

If this is arguably the most painful lesson an author has to learn, it’s also arguably the most valuable. Self-editing is the keenest blade in a writer’s armory. Too often, we fall so much in love with passages, characters, settings, plot twists, ad nauseum, that we miss the bigger picture. We fail to see that our darlings are actually stumbling blocks, both to our writing of the story and certainly to the reading of it.

Scriptwriter Joss Whedon reminds us to “cut what you love”:

Here’s one trick that I learned early on. If something isn’t working, if you have a story that you’ve built and it’s blocked and you can’t figure it out, take your favourite scene, or your very best idea or set-piece, and cut it. It’s brutal, but sometimes inevitable. That thing may find its way back in, but cutting it is usually an enormously freeing exercise.

(Just don’t be surprised if your darlings fight back.)

Mal Reynolds Firefly

How I Kill My Darlings–And Why It’s Not So Bad

Dreamlander NIEA FinalistI’ve been doing quite a bit of darling killing this past week, in the latest draft of my recently completed portal fantasy Dreamlander. Two of my favorite scenes—scenes that I’d written with much joy and oohed and ahhed over in the second and third drafts—became increasingly obstructive to the realism of the story. Suspension of disbelief was in danger.

So I chopped them. (I swear by my pretty floral bonnet, I will end you!)

In all honesty, I knew they were scenes that should never have made it past the first draft. And as soon as that first flash of pain was over, the relief and the assurance that the story was much the better were overwhelming.

So, here’s to arming ourselves with the reddest of our red pens and setting forth to do some slaughtering of the darlings.

Tell me your opinion: How do you determine when a passage really is good–or when you should be killing your darlings?

Killing Your Darlings Learn to Self Edit Like Joss Whedon

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland's monthly e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.
Email:
About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. It’s always hard to let go of what we love the most, but in the end it’s sometimes the best thing to do.

  2. Yep, less is usually more.

  3. WOW!!! I love the way you have with words. You have wonderful insight and advice. It is difficult to pull myself away from your blog to attend to my own darlings! Thanks for the advice and teaching,

  4. Thank you. BTW, I wouldn’t recommend killing *those* darlings!

  5. This sounds so scary. Cut your favorite parts? Having said that, and reading your full post, I think that I may have to cut my favorite parts and see if my story will go anywhere.
    At first the writing advice seems harsh but upon further reading, the advice is very sound.
    Thank you.
    I’m glad I found this blog!

  6. Your reaction sounds similar to my own when I first encountered the concept. After all, why cut the good stuff, when it’s hard enough cutting the bad stuff? But knowing when to let go of the scenes I love is one of the most valuable skills I’ve learned as a writer.

  7. Sakuntala Gananathan says:

    Thank you for the advice and you have made me fell better. After publishing my historical novel of 520 pages, ‘White Flowers of Yesterday,’ last year I indulged in ‘darling killings.’My revised book now has 336 pages.
    But at times the incisions hurt me beyond words!

  8. I ended up cutting 40,000 words from the book I talk about in the post. It was a wonderful exercise in restraint. Painful, but useful!

  9. Sakuntala Gananathan says:

    Thank you for the advice and you have made me feel better.

  10. My pleasure!

  11. Tom Babington says:

    KM – I am a brand to fictional writing, and I very much appreciate your helpful advice as we seek to move from writer to author. Your advice to study Larry Brooks was right on. And, having read your “Outlining” book, I’ll say that BY FAR the biggest jewel in your advice was the idea of outlining backwards. It is a fabulous tool, especially to someone who has never done any of this before. And I especially appreciate your spiritual approach to the rigors of writing.

  12. I’m so glad you enjoyed Outlining Your Novel! For something that seems completely counter-intuitive at first glance, outlining backwards is actually *very* intuitive. I’ve used in practically everything I’ve ever outlined. Glad you found it useful as well!

  13. This is EXACTLY what I needed. There’s this one scene I’ve been planning out, and yesterday I realized I didn’t need a large chunk of it and was arguing with myself to cut it out. This was exactly what I needed, thank you!

  14. Killing darlings is always painful. Sometimes we just have to give ourselves a little time to wean ourselves off the lovable but useless scenes.

  15. C.E.Dillon says:

    A character of mine just died, iPad no control over it, I swear? My antagonist went and died on me. I had FORGIVEN HIM, he was MARRIED TO THE PROTAGONIST, yet he still died. He was my favorite character, and no win sad that he’s died. So, in his memory, I have made an epilogue. It’s about the violin he owed that was given to my protagonist and it’s story, how it survived wars, divorces and fires. Am I dragging out an unplanned character death to much?

    • C.E.Dillon says:

      And that should be I had, not IPad, iPads nor any other electronic equipment had anything to do with it. as its set in VICTORIAN LONDON

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sometimes we have to write those segments just to get over our own grief! Sometimes readers need to share them too – and sometimes not. I would recommend giving yourself a little space (a few months or more) from the story. Then come back to with fresh eyes and evaluate whether or not the epilogue actually serves the story.

  16. *ouch*

    Yes, I’ve done it. In the re-write I’m on, I totally re-worked the plot so it would focus on the most important storyline (instead of having somewhere around five storylines getting equal importance.) The others made it to a various degree of subplots – and that meant I had to cut several scenes that I just *love* but now won’t fit in.

    Oh, I tried my best to keep them in there. For a while.
    Now they’re safely printed and kept in a folder … for me to read and daydream about. They won’t get any public spotlight, but I can still enjoy them. 🙂

  17. thomas h cullen says:

    When it still sounds correct, after you’ve psychologically detached yourself from the text – that’s when you can determine the line to be authentically good.

    It doesn’t even need to be the best, but just correct:

    All what matters is you’re honesty. Is what you’ve said true to the person, and to their innate character?

    Don’t worry about writing to the best – since when does a person need to be the best?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree. “Best” is highly subjective. “Correct” is always about what’s best for the story in the specific instance.

  18. thomas h cullen says:

    And it’s like what I said about a week before – it’s sincere art that’s the best art.

  19. pamelacreese says:

    That is certainly the question, isn’t it? You told us you cut them with a red pen…but not how YOU knew those were scenes that needed cutting. (yes, I understand endangering suspension of disbelief) I have scenes i have chopped for the same reason…but that is, I think, actually an EASY reason to spot. How do we know, across the board, which ‘darlings’ are in need of slaying?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Often, darlings are going to be specific to their stories. What might work in one story just won’t be pertinent enough in another story. But here are a few articles on editing that you might find helpful.

    • thomas h cullen says:

      At the first round, anything that doesn’t relate to the main plot, and then at the second any and all things which you don’t ‘feel’ to be good.

      Just general advice.

  20. I know what you mean. I had this story (that I could never publish) with this one scene that, at the time I wrote it was PERFECTION!!!!! I’m not kidding. But it was at the end of the book and by then everything I found out my characters did contradicted with the scene. I still kept the scene though, just didn’t have it for that story.

    And a quick tip for anyone else who reads this comment. If you ARE having trouble killing your favorite oddball lines/scenes/ect cut it out, put on ice, and save it. Who knows? Maybe your next work will need it!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally agree. Never permanently delete anything. Keep it in a “delete” file. Not only is it a lifesaver if you decide you want to put it back in, but it’s also much less painful than deleting it forever.

  21. matt schnetter says:

    See, I always took this advice for a warning against weighing down your work with superfluous words thereby slowing the pace of the story. If you love something (dialogue, description, action, whatever) then you probably overuse it, and could trim away most of ‘your darlings’ leaving a leaner, meaner manuscript that still gets the job done. But then again I’m unpublished and use two spaces after every period, so I could be wrong.

  22. I use two things: a non-reader and my own gut.

    My wife doesn’t read fiction, doesn’t like fiction, but will listen to me try passages out on her. For a short story I’m working on now, I read to her two scenes that I quite liked, and she liked them as well. And then I read the scene that would become the new opening scene. She agreed that the new scene accomplished everything necessary from the first two in much fewer words and moved the story along more rapidly. (Plus, the new scene actually starts with the inciting event.) But it is always a lurching feeling in my gut when it dawns on me that a scene that I really loved isn’t right for the story. I’m learning to listen to my gut.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s interesting the different perspectives that non-writers and non-readers can bring to a story. They often see things totally differently than we do.

  23. thomas h cullen says:

    The instinct to get right to something isn’t easy to possess.

  24. I’m three-quarters of the way through a first draft, so I know killing my darlings is going to come up soon. I’ve already killed tiny things here and there, but I’m preparing to have to go big. Ulp!

    Oh, and btw–most genius post ever, tying it to my all-time favorite show Firefly. You had me at “I swear by my pretty floral bonnet…” I miss that show SO much!

  25. While writing the first draft for my fantasy WIP, I cut out a character. After finishing the first draft, I cut out another character that had a sizable role. Now I’m working on revisions, and this article has given me the courage to at least start examining whether or not I need to cut out a major character from the book. I do tend to add more characters than are necessary to tell the story. Mainly I look at how they fit in the flow of things, how they interact with other characters, and what purpose they serve to the heart of the story. I know there will be plenty of scenes and other “darlings” that will need a closer look. I use to be so afraid of “killing my darlings” but now I’m starting to see the real value of it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      A good rule of thumb for determining which characters are unnecessary is to examine whether or not their presence actually influences the plot, as well as whether or not two or more characters are fulfilling the same role in the story.

      • thomas h cullen says:

        Masters of Sex season two’s been guilty of this, retaining onto a recurring character despite their virtual non-existent interaction with either Masters or Johnson.

        Character can be kept – it’s just one’s having to consider whether if their length of story compliments their use.

  26. I’m only about 70k words into a novel I’ve been working at for some time now. It’s had several revisions and rewrites, but I could never bring myself to take out the different scenes and the multiple POV characters. Now, I look at it and it’s a bulky, hairy mess. At this rate, it’ll never see the light of day.

    Commence shedding of blood and tears.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah. I commiserate. Hot messes are still messes at the end of the day.

    • thomas h cullen says:

      Marie, just remember this:

      Life’s subjective, thereby characters and versions of events and situations told don’t need to be best, but just correct.

      Has what you’ve said been honest – like this approach it.

  27. mimsy (what did I use before? - shrugs-) says:

    Songbirds fluttered In and out of the trees as she walked by. Gardens doted the spacing between the houses. A large water fountain in the middle of the city had several spouts it sent cascades of water into the air.

    Both are from two different paragraphs. This is a dark fantasy story and those aren’t very dark feeling are they. -Sobs- Well i saved them in a document, and I’ll edit that frustrating first chapter again. I lost count edit number 30? I had it in my mind that It added to the story, but it’s just pretty filler isn’t it? xP

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Always smart to save the darlings in their own file! Makes it much easier to delete them. Plus, you never know when they’ll come in handy again!

  28. I’m working on writing a fiction story that takes place far away and a long time ago. The main Characters are three children, and a tornado strikes in the beginning, leveling out the village they call home. Their neighbors disappear-(I haven’t figured out yet what happened to them) and the three siblings-Johnny, Rebekah, and David, are left alone not knowing what to do. Their parents are visiting some sick friends in a distant town, and soon, after finding a canoe in near-well condition they decide to travel down the river. They encounter Natives along the way, and stop quite a lot to fix their boat. How can I minimize my characters?????

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Write a list of your characters. then in a second column, write down what would happen if you pulled them from the story. If the answer is nothing or not much, that’s probably a character you can cut. That done, start looking for characters who fulfill primarily the same role in the story and figure out ways to combine them into a single character.

    • Check and see if you can interchange the dialogue tags on any of them If it still sounds/feels the same with that change then take that one out and the character voice wasn’t different enough yet. (works well with a new character that isn’t fully set up.)

      (I’m been researching lots. 😛 )

  29. As a discovery writer, I’m always having to cut out weird tangents. For me, cutting a scene is like not typing your research notes in the middle of a chapter. Sometimes it was just on the page so that the characters could tell me about themselves.

  30. Question. You said:

    “and the assurance that the story was much the better were overwhelming.”

    Where is that assurance coming from? Because I don’t have it. I can cut and move scenes around and I can’t tell if the draft is better or worse for it. My gut instinct hasn’t been trained in the art of plot and pacing. I can’t kill my darlings for no reason, and I can’t tell if their deaths help at all.

    I’m a mindless murderer, and that scares me.

  31. Christy Moceri says:

    The first manuscript of my novel was 145,000 words and included 4 POV chapters of a character I loved. HE was my darling, but I eventually had to face the fact those chapters did not belong in this novel. Out he went. He has a few appearances later in the book and is still an important character, but his POV belongs better in a sequel, where I can give him a whole book to grow. Between that and excising my witty conversational meanderings and endless internal monologue, I’ve got the novel down to 125,000 and still cutting. My biggest fear is my betas will read it and say, “I liked the first version better.” But I guess that’s a hazard of being a cold-blooded killer.

  32. Christy Moceri says:

    When reading a book, you can always tell when the writer likes the sound of their own voice. Nobody wants to be that guy. I think I’m learning to sublimate my ego in the service of the story.

Trackbacks

  1. […] “Killing Your Darlings: Learn to Self-Edit Like Joss Whedon” (Helping Writers Become Authors) […]

Speak Your Mind

*