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Kill Your Darlings: The Alpha and Omega of Stephen King

frenchheadshot2So, when I was pondering which part of Stephen King’s On Writing to share with you today, for some reason my brain said,


And I said, “Huh?”

My brain just rolled its eyes at me. But then it explained.

First Things

As I page through my well-read copy of King’s On Writing, I find that the very first thing I’ve underlined is:

“…(E)very aspiring writer should read The Elements of Style [by Strunk and White]. Rule 17 in the chapter titled Principles of Composition is ‘Omit needless words.'”

Aha! The plot thickens. But zere iss moar….

Last Things

As I page through the final fourth of the book, one of the last things I’ve underlined is:

“…(C)utting to speed the pace…that’s what most of us end up having to do (kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings).

“…You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd draft = 1st draft – 10%. Good luck.

Ahh, my dears. With that, we’ve come to the scary part.

Kill Your Darlings

The concepts of precision and brevity in writing form bookends within King’s On Writing, and for good reason. Writing a novel is not our excuse to ramble. It’s not our excuse for infusing our manuscripts with whatever words we want, assuming all the while that people will happily read them. Yea verily, we might pad our wordcounts for such endeavors as NaNoWriMo, but when it comes to crafting a novel that somebody will want to read, we must needs pound that padding flat and toss it out.

Kill your darlings.

Your “darlings” are those flowery turns of phrase you fall in love with. Your darlings are those landscape descriptions that paint a gorgeous picture of setting but have no connection with the main character. Your darlings are those adverbs you’re attaching to your dialogue tags instead of showing the reader your characters’ body language.

Kill your darlings.

They are yours, these darlings. They belong to you. You imagined them, created them, birthed them onto the page. In your eyes, they are beautiful because they are part of you. They are tiny essences of your very soul. Killing them would be sacrilege.

Kill your darlings.

Trim. Cut. Slice. Chop. Hack. Destroy.

Kill your darlings.

They’re pretty, yes. They are of you, yes. But they clutter up your writing until your novel resembles the narrow-path-honeycombed house of a Victorian hoarder. Believe me, readers will not want to come visit.

The Perfect Murder

Here are 5 ways you can go about “killing your darlings.” These methods aren’t all pain-free…but they’re worth it.

1. Change your thinking
First drafts are drafts. They are not the be-all, end-all of noveling. Finishing a first draft is a great accomplishment, but the work doesn’t stop there.

Your first draft is a statue with rough edges. It’s got odd lumps in peculiar places. Its face isn’t well-defined. When you type “The End,” the story might feel finished, and it might feel perfect. Sadly, it is neither.

To smooth out this statue’s lumps, you first have to accept that it needs smoothing. This mindset is vital to the whole process: the crafting of a story and your growth as a writer.

2. Get beta readers.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: You gotta get beta readers. We writers are chronically unable to view our work objectively — especially when it comes to trimming it down! Forest-For-the-Trees Syndrome strikes again.

You can’t see the Forest of Necessary Trimming because you’ve got your writerly nose shoved up against the bark of the nearest tree. And that’s where the writerly nose tends to stay. You need somebody outside to look at your story and identify excess branches and superfluous shrubbery.

Writing can be lonely work, but we can’t do it alone. That’s a paradox I’ll save for another post…but maybe you get the picture anyway.

3. Edit for simplicity.
Break up long sentences into two or three sentences. Replace flowery phrasing with straightforward description. Choose simple action verbs over the ones that sound high-falutin’.

Simplify. This applies to characters and (sub)plots, as well. You might be completely in love with a supporting character…but your beta reader asks, “What is this guy’s purpose again?” Or one of your subplots just doesn’t fit with the rest of the story. These are great things for slicing out of your manuscript without hitting anything vital.

Simplify. Your story will thank you — and your readers will too.

4. Get rid of adverbs.
Okay, brief grammar lesson. And yes, I am keeping this very simple, and my explanation here is not complete. But I don’t want to put people to sleep, so the purists are gonna have to deal with the incompleteness of my instruction.

Adjectives describe nouns. Blue, hot, solid, wet, and shiny are adjectives.

Adverbs describe verbs. In point #2, I used the phrase “view objectively.” Here, “objectively” describes the how of “view.” Other examples of adverbs are: lustily, happily, worriedly, and sideways.

“I got a new bike for my birthday!” she said happily.

Okay, so she said it “happily.” What does that look like on her? Don’t tell me she said it happily; instead, tell me that her eyes are wide, her smile is huge, and her teeth glisten in the sunlight like tiny bottlecaps.

Yes! Make it a hideous description, if that’s what it takes. I’ll read anything, just get rid of that clunky, boring, milquetoast adverb!

“But wait,” you say. “Wouldn’t adding description actually increase my wordcount?”

Well, yeah. Probably. But adverbs weaken your sentences, and overusing them will make your novel unreadable. I’m picking on adverbs because they’re a bad habit and because this is my list and I can.

5. When all else fails, re-write.
This one’s kind of self-explanatory. If you’ve trimmed and trimmed and trimmed, and the novel is still too Victorianly (see what I did there?) cluttered, it might be time for a complete re-write.

I hate even thinking those words, much less typing them and putting them where people can see. But sometimes, it’s the only choice we have. Maybe the story took off in the wrong direction in Chapter 2. Maybe there’s a side character who needs to be cut. Maybe there’s a side character who’s supposed to be the main character. Maybe the climax should’ve happened five chapters before it did.

Whatever it is, a re-write might fix it–and fix it well enough that your wordcount “magically” decreases by whatever percentage you require.

Alpha and Omega

In the beginning, Stephen King recommends that we omit needless words. In the end, he recommends the same thing, and I concur. In every chapter, scene, and sentence, ask yourself: “Does this belong?”

If it doesn’t, you’ve identified a darling.

Time to kill it.

2 Responses to “Kill Your Darlings: The Alpha and Omega of Stephen King”

  1. BD Crowell says:

    Nice post. I think you nailed it. It’s hard advice to take, esp. 4, but it makes the writing stronger.

    • Thanks, Brian! I agree, killing adverbs can be quite painful — even for me, and I hate the suckers. ; ) And I will admit to preserving one here and there, where a longer description would ruin the flow. But I try to limit myself to one adverb per page at the most. It’s a challenge, but it’s definitely worth it.

      Thanks for visiting and commenting!