K is for Kill Your Darlings

“Kill your darlings” is one of the most universally recognized quotes in the writing community. For so few words, it has resonated deeply with thousands of writers, who quote it often when their peers lament the process. William Faulkner was perhaps the first to coin that specific string of words, but Stephen King goes further in his book On Writing (which I haven’t actually read. Bad me.)

kill-your-darlings

Not knowing the full context in which these words were written, I can only base my opinions of them on their quotation, but really, they’re a very interesting piece of advice. How do you define “darlings”? How do you define “kill”?

There is, of course, the most transparent reading. That which says “murder your beloved characters”… but even there, there is room for interpretation. Murder them in the story? Cut them out of the narrative entirely? Force bad things to happen and refuse to give that character you love so much a happy ending?

On a deeper level, I think it can also speak to writers who grow attached to their prose. In that case, “kill your darlings” becomes an anthem for editing: to cut words, sentences, and passages that aren’t essential. To remove full plots, even amazing plots, because they distract from the focus of the story.

So, how do you define “darlings”? How do you define “kill”?

Tomorrow: L is for Layout!

18 thoughts on “K is for Kill Your Darlings

  1. racheltoalson says:

    I still have a hard time with this. I think about my beloved characters, mostly. It’s hard to make them miserable…or dead. George R.R. Martin is really good at this, and I love to hate him for it. πŸ™‚

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  2. tdharveyauthor says:

    Despite not particularly liking Stephen King’s prose, I found ‘On Writing’ a really useful, entertaining read. For me, from reading that, Kill Your Darlings is about editing. Even though you are proud of the prose you’ve just written, if it’s not forwarding the plot, it’s got to go. It’s about not being so precious about your words that you can’t objectively cut them if they don’t work. It can be painful, but less so if you’re prepared to Kill Your Darlings.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Lyle Tanner says:

    I really have no problem killing off characters, so the more literal interpretation doesn’t apply. Over the past year, though, I have gotten very good at cutting those phrases and metaphors and subplots I like to shreds whenever they aren’t necessary.

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  4. J.C says:

    I too believe it’s about editing – taking out everything that doesn’t feed the story, move it forward. All those pretty pieces that are just there for prettiness and nothing else. It all needs to serve the story one way or the other. I ADORE chopping words and sentences and sometimes entire paragraphs πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  5. The Childlike Author says:

    I sometimes think of killing darlings in a more terrible sense… if I’ve got characters I really really like, I try to transform them into characters I hate, and vice versa. The transformations usually make a story more interesting and surprising.

    It also makes me cry.

    Liked by 1 person

    • A Writer Inspired says:

      I also cry when my ‘darlings’ die. I also cry when I read a book and the ‘darling’ I’m attached to dies. Then I fling the book across the room at the wall and stomp around for a minute before angrily finishing the book to the end.

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  6. Marlene says:

    Awesome post! For me, kill my darlings is cutting unnecessary passages, purple prose, scenes that go nowhere. Often, they’re the result of me starting to write for the day w/o reading previous pages and starting with the wrong style. Often this is the result of what I might be reading. Once I was beautifully moved by one of Maggie Stiefvater’s books and wrote some amazing paragraphs in my MG comedic sci-fi. Boy that didn’t fit.
    Of course my method of killing is to cut and save, just in case!
    Marlene at On Writing and Riding

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  7. whalenalexandra1990 says:

    I have always thought about the phrase in more literal terms but you are completely right, it can be thought of in a different light. For me, I actually enjoy editing so the literal interpretation is what is harder for me. I get way too attached to my characters so making their lives more difficult is hard, but then if I don’t there is no story!

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  8. Allison Forsythe says:

    I like my characters too much, so I’m sure I give them too much “air time”. I end up with scenes and sub-plots that are fun to write, and that are usually entertaining (for me), but will likely get cut from the final draft because they’re not essential to the overall story. I think that’s how I define killing my darlings — it’s about cutting out that extraneous, self-indulgent stuff. (I saw another writer call her first draft her “self-indulgent first draft” because she could include all of that extra stuff, but she knew that she would have to kill those darlings in later drafts. I think that describes it well!)

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