For years I mistakenly thought that writing was just about words. About particularly poignant sentences. Flourishes of the language. Creating a passage so magnificent, it makes the reader stop and ponder the meaning of life.
Of course, it isn’t just about words. It’s about all the words, together. It’s about the story.
So in pursuit of the best story this week, I had to kill darlings. We’ve all heard the phrase before, but what does it actually mean? What are we bludgeoning to death?
In short, “darlings” are pieces of writing that do not further your story. They are superfluous lines only there because you want to admire their shine and glow. Ooh, sparkly!
The reader should not be jolted out of the story by the beauty of your words. The point is to draw the reader further in, not shove them out.
So what do these little darlings look like?
Sorry, not Kristy McNichol.
These darlings may drag a scene on too long. The point has already been made, but you stick it to the reader one last time in such a witty way. Sorry, kill it.
Sometimes we get so caught up in fun devices like alliteration, internal rhyme and onomatopoeia that we end up with gobbledygook rather than glory. Sorry, kill it.
On occasion, we write jokes that fall flat. Sure, we laugh hysterically but to everyone else they go SPLAT, right in the kisser. Sorry, kill it.
You know that character who magically appears, says one important thing and then leaves? Why? Where’d she go? Is she ever coming back? No? Well then, murder must be committed.
And if we’re writing a story based upon real events, we can feel inclined to include things that actually happened, even if they don’t necessarily add anything but word count. Kill, kill, kill.
Edgar Allan Poe’s “Single Effect” theory suggests that everything in a short story should contribute to an overall emotional theme. Everything you put into the story, he said, should be carefully selected to elicit the desired effect.
And since we’re writing what can be considered super-short stories, we need to be even more diligent about leading the reader down a specific path. Veering off means higher word count—which can kill the story’s publication potential. Sacrifice some darlings and save the whole village!
Finally, don’t be sad about killing your darlings. When you have to kill one or two, just refer to these gifs. They’ll make you feel better. (I know they helped me.)