February 8th, 2012

Kill Your Darlings, but Keep Their Shadows

Originally published at Through the Tollbooth. Please leave any comments there.

Sometimes I feel like I’m wielding a machete or a flamethrower when I’m revising a book. Pages burn into ashes. Sentences blow away like the seeds of a dandelion clock.

There are times we must remove our Darlings. (“Remove”: a sterile word for “cut” and “kill,” which implies blood is involved.)

We may remove a word.

A sentence.

A scene.

A desire.

A motive.

A character.

Or another element of the story.

The revision may be substantial, and it is like we are pulling the warp threads out of a plot or sending the keystone from a character arc tumbling to the ground.

The art of writing involves knowing what needs to stay and what needs to be removed.

A positive spin: We are deleting cutting rescuing our Darlings from a place they don’t belong as we find the best way to tell our story.

What happens to the words we delete?

Scenes we eliminate?

Characters we yank from the pages?

Our Darlings may go on to another life as we tuck them away in our mental “use later” file or into a “cut from book” file in the computer. We can save an awesome turn of phrase to use at another time later. We can borrow and steal elements from a deleted scene for another story. Not a word we write is wasted.

When I remove words/ sentences/scenes/characters from a story, what else happens?

Example One: In my novel, River, I cut a significant secondary character. She wasn’t pulling her weight. (Truth be told, she didn’t want to be in the book.)

When I revised, elements of her character that were critical to moving the plot forward shifted to two other secondary characters.

Example Two: [These opening sentences are taken from one of my picture books that I wrote while at VCFA while in the picture book semester. This book was a finalist in the 2010 SCBWI Barbara Karlin Grant competition.]

1. “We climb our mountains from the inside, up and up we climb.” (First draft—when I was desperately trying to get words on the page so I could make my VCFA packet deadline.)

2. “Today we will conquer a new peak, the highest peak in the mountain range.” (2nd draft.)

3. “Today we are explorers. We cross the bridge toward the mountains wild . . .”  (Final draft, after numerous revisions.)

Only two significant words remain in the final draft: “we” and “mountains.” The concept of going “inside” shifts to a spread later in the manuscript. The word “explorers” in the final version captures the idea I wanted to express in the earlier versions.

Ghosts and Shadows

The essence of what is cut removed often floats around and squeezes into other sentences or parts of the book. At times, deleting and writing more words acts as a palimpsest: not all that was removed is fully erased. Vestiges remain.

Even when we kill our Darlings, they live on as ghosts and shadows. Aspects of what we removed remain in the pages. In essence, although what we cut is no longer there, ghosts of those words will haunt our pages and flit between sentences.

What is your experience with the traces and shadows, the ghosts of your Darlings?

~Sarah Blake Johnson