Thursday, 15 September 2011

Murdering Your Darlings

It must be one of the most commonly used instructions to writers:  Murder your darlings.  When I first heard it I though it applied only to a type of over-blown, adjective-heavy writing. Now I'm older and a bit wiser, I know there are other sort of darlings that should be bumped off, with a club like baby seals.  

Research:
You've read all the books, you know everything there is to know about blacksmithery in C17th Wiltshire.  And now you're going to share it with us.  Sometimes lots of information is good: Frederick Forsyth in Day of the Jackal writing about how to get a fake passport or smuggle a gun through customs.  But most of the time it's bad.

Great characters:
The main character's funny cousin, the doleful postman who delivers the fateful letter, the whacky best friend.  All tertiary characters ie they appear but don't do much plot-wise, should be kept on a tight lead and not allowed to take over, however hilarious you find them.  

Digressions and hobby horses:
Following ideas as you write can be a very creative process, but it can also lead you way off the plot.  Similarly, you may have strong opinions on many subjects, but a work of fiction is not the place to sudden start spouting about the iniquities of the planning system or the unfairness of post code lotteries in the NHS.  I once hung on doggedly to a little bit of social satire until I had a brief note from my editor: "What is the relevance of this to the story? Please cut it now."

The scene that's there just for the joke at the end:
Some years ago there was a joke doing the rounds of the the internet.  It was about a woman going to her gynaecologist and realising that she'd last washed using a facecloth that her child had used to store some glitter.  Not too long after being sent this joke I read The Adultery Club by Tess Stimson, where the main character goes to see her gynaecologist and realises... There's no real reason for the scene to exist except for that joke.  Sometimes it's a quirky name that's given just for the purpose of people making a joke out of it.  I once called a character John simply so I could make a Dear John letter joke.  It never worked, and got culled in the final drafts.

The simple test for spotting these darlings is to ask yourself: does it serve the story?  If not, then murder is the only answer.

Anyone in St Ives for the September Festival?  I'm giving a talk on Friday 23rd September at 11.00 am.  Go to the website for more info.

6 comments:

JO said...

I try all that - and still need someone to read it for me and point out the darlings. And then they are so hard to abandon - I often copy them into a notebook, they they haven't been lost, exactly, just help in a different place. They might, of course, be useful one day! (Or they might not!)

Writer Pat Newcombe said...

I agree with Jo - sometimes it's so hard to totally murder them... But you're right - it's good to be evil and 'homicidal'. Great post and good advice.

Debs Carr said...

A fun aqnd informative post, as usual. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Jo too; killing them is never easy. Thanks for flagging up the necessity.

Sarah Duncan said...

The only thing I can add is that being a serial killer becomes easier the more you do it, and you really start to see the effects of mass slaughter in your writing. But no doubt - it's haaaaaard.

Pamela Beason said...

Sometimes the more I edit, the more I tend toward the opposite problem--everything starts to sound trite and boring and I have to be very careful not to completely gut my story. Yikes! I have had occasions where I took out too many scenes and had to bring them back. Thank God for my critique partners and (eventually) the editorial staff at the publisher.