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

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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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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!

  4. 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. 😛 )

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. I just wanted to say I loved the Firefly references in this! Huge fan!

    Also a huge fan of you. I’m a complete newbie to writing novels. I’ve written tons of short stories but this is my first attempt at a novel. I’ve found your advice helpful and inspiring. I’ve been reading your site religiously for the last several weeks and I don’t expect it to end anytime soon! I’m not quite at the point of having to kill my darlings, but I’ll remember this advice when the time comes.

    Also just finished reading Dreamlander, and MAN! was I hooked!

  10. Totally get what your mean. It’s hard, but nessesary. I find it easier to cut them out and store in special file, rather then delete completely. After all, destroying such precious parts of work might feel like killing your children. Also, sometimes those pieces could be turned into something valuable later in the plot or be redone for diffrent story.

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