What Should We Do with Our Darlings?

There’s an old saying in writing: Kill your darlings. William Faulkner gave writers this piece of advice, to essentially purge the things that you adore from your manuscript. Don’t hold on to things that are weighing your work down. They’re often the little things, ones you feel precious about but are not essential to the story. You may be enamored over your own cleverness or attached to something that has some deep meaning to you. But the reader may not care, and the darlings may ultimately detract from the overall work.

Identifying these darlings can be tricky. In practice, at least for me, the time to fret about them is when I’m looking at the divide between the word count I’ve been given and the amount of words I’ve written. Something has to give, certainly, so identifying things that simply aren’t necessary is key. Writing, in many ways, is the act of carving down and honing the words.

The metaphor, however, has always struck me as a little creepy, and it also puts me in mind of Lou Reed’s “Kill Your Sons”:

There are, of course, lots of ways to kill those we love, literally or figuratively. We can also reject and abandon them because we believe it’s for the best.

I’ve found that when I consider my darlings that simply eradicating them isn’t always the best solution. Better is to try to come to an understanding with them–to learn what they actually want to be. Rather than either making them fit into my story the way I initially expected them to or discarding them, I try to meet them on their terms. I am often surprised, discovering that they are more beautiful and complex than I had assumed.

Often, my darlings are tied into some piece of history I’ve uncovered during research for a Call of Cthulhu scenario. There are sometimes too many interesting details to adequately put into a scenario. Recently, I was working on a scenario and ran into this problem. There was a historical detail that wasn’t integral to the plot but would have been significant background color. To adequately include it seemed to require an additional NPC and a sidebar explaining the subject. Having an extra NPC in and of itself wasn’t an issue, since the scenario takes place in an isolated town and the investigators will likely interact with numerous townsfolk. But I needed to trim things down, so I turned my Saturn eye toward this NPC and the historical details he embodied. While I considered it, it struck me that this NPC could be combined with another one. Both NPCs would be stronger and more interesting for it. That interesting historical detail was incorporated fully and briefly into the character’s background instead of needing a lengthy digression in a sidebar.

If I foster and support my darlings, maybe they fit just fine. It was only my view of them and what I wanted them to be that was wrong. And, yeah, I think this is something to be mindful of for parenting and other relationships.

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