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Writing Rules and Fantasy: Kill Your Darlings

This is the third in a series of articles about common writing rules and how they apply to fantasy writing. You can check out the first two articles here:

Show, Don’t Tell
Adverbs

Well, obviously this rule isn’t meant to be taken literally, or Peter Pan would have been a significantly darker story. This also isn’t, strictly speaking, writing advice. It’s editing advice.

In this case, ‘darlings’ refers to sections of writing that give the author that smug feeling, the bits he or she really doesn’t want to take out. The advice comes from William Faulkner, himself paraphrasing this quote from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch:

“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – whole-heartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings.”

Wait, what?

Hang on, delete all the sections that you feel most proud of, the bits that you really enjoyed writing? How does that make sense?

That’s not quite what the rule is advocating. This rule is a very simplistic one, and it is essentially saying: try not to let your ego win when editing. When it comes to our own writing, particularly those parts that we love, it can be difficult to be objective.

When misapplied, however, this can be a dangerous rule. It’s not telling us to take out all the best bits – that would be ludicrous. If you had a lot of fun writing a scene, or if it reads back beautifully, chances are the reader will enjoy it too.

Instead, the rule is telling us that when a section of the story is wrong, then it needs to go, regardless of how proud we are of the writing. Perhaps the characters are not behaving realistically, or the plot isn’t moving forward, the pacing off, or the section just doesn’t fit into the story you are trying to tell. In these cases, even if those bits are ‘darling’ to you, they will need to be edited or removed.

Fantasy Darlings

Okay, but how does the writer know what’s a ‘darling’ and what’s actually good writing?

This is hard, and it’s where editors and beta-readers really come in handy! But there are some warning signs to look out for, such as sections where the atmosphere feels off, parts where your attention might wander, or dialogue that seems jarring or unnatural.

And in the case of fantasy, there are some typical scenes that may require editing of the more ruthless variety.

A Sumptuous Feast
The overly described dinner, detailing each course and every historical delicacy. This can be a good opportunity to sneak some worldbuilding in without info dumping – strange animals, historical dishes, dinner entertainment, etc – but it can also be misplaced. Pages spent on food, no matter how sparkling the descriptions, could fatally slow down the pace, distract from character interaction, paint a household as richer than it really is, suggest an unwanted atmosphere of revelry or excess, or, worse, could bore the reader to tears. Think about whether this is the best scene to convey whatever it is you’re trying to get across, and if not, it might be time to put your manuscript on a diet.

The Beautiful Princess/Priestess/Warrior
The reader’s eye is drawn to the sexy woman as each of her characteristics is carefully described, including several similes or metaphors, and at least one use of the word ‘curves’. There are circumstances in which this lingering description might be appropriate. In others, you either have misplaced male gaze, or a slightly creepy scene in which the point-of-view character has obviously been staring a little too closely at the princess/priestess/warrior for longer than is quite comfortable.

There is also the possibility that you have emphasised the wrong characteristics instead of focusing on what makes the character important, or that you have attached a greater-than-intended sense of importance to a minor character. Besides which, sometimes it is better to leave a little to the imagination. You might be really proud of that extended simile about her hair, but if it’s out of place, be prepared to snip it.

Wizard Philosophy or Moral Lecturing
The speech that you’re really proud of – it’s just so deliciously clever, it spotlights your own politics so well, it sums up how the reader should be responding to the current dilemma, or it highlights the poetic grey area of morality that you spent so long setting up. Whatever the reason for it, however beautifully it’s written, this may not be the right thing to force into the story. Will it be jarring or unpleasant for the reader to find the voice of the author suddenly inserted into the book? Are the themes/in-jokes/twists better left for the reader to discover for themselves?

Monologuing
The villain’s scheme may be spectacular in its intricacy and sheer malevolence, and it may have taken several months of careful plot-notes and spider diagrams with different coloured pens to achieve, but in almost all cases it’s better seen than told. For some reason, fantasy villains have a greater tendency to monologue than any other villain – there’s nothing for bloating the ego like magic and dragons and really big swords. Still, no-one respects a monologuer, and that goes for the heroes too.

The Bloody (Long) Battle
The meticulously researched (and never-ending) battle. Fights might seem like fantasy’s bread and butter (particularly epic fantasy), but that doesn’t mean they’re always very interesting to read about. You might find it hard to say goodbye to your paragraphs of gore spattering or fisticuffs, particularly if you’re a bit of a history or military buff and your characters’ tactics are spot on, but in some cases it really does help to keep fights abrupt and sharp. When it comes to fights, remember that pacing is always key.

Kill Your Characters?

The ‘kill your darlings’ rule is not meant to be taken literally, but in some cases this might be exactly what’s needed. The characters that you’ve become the most attached to are likely to be the ones the readers love too. In some stories, it becomes far too obvious that these characters are never in any real danger. The author simply will not let their darlings come to harm. In fantasy, particularly when the fate of whole kingdoms or even the world is at stake, this can seriously reduce the tension and believability of the story. Killing a darling character might shock the reader, suddenly bringing everything back into perspective. (N.B. this can be taken too far the other way, and a death for the sake of a death is sometimes just as frustrating as a character with plot armour).

It is also worth remembering that a writer’s darling characters are not necessarily the darlings of the reader. Assuming that a reader will love and agree with a character simply because you do is a huge mistake. In this case, the writer’s darlings might need to be metaphorically killed – i.e. be shown to have weakness, questioned by other characters, or held back from dominating the story too powerfully.

Title image by Ed Ko.

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7 Comments

  1. That’s good advice. I would also add, although it’s not fantasy specific, any chapter you love that doesn’t help or hinder your protagonist in achieving their ultimate goal. If the chapter can be cut without affecting the outcome of the story, it should be.

  2. wolfking says:

    Enjoyed reading this one. Great article. I cut out a lot of scenes that I loved in my current work. Sometimes great scenes just don’t fit. Its a real shame.

    And I confess, I am a fan of long battles and hilariously out of place speeches during the fight. ILIAD anyone?

  3. Vincent Quill says:

    I admit that I constantly doing the wizard one. It’s so difficult to kill your ‘darlings’! Usually the scenes I plan to write that I am looking forward to writing go stagnant after a while of having not thought about them, so my ‘darlings’ frequently commit suicide 🙁
    Good advice though, I think I need to go on a mass darling murder spree to clean up my current work in progress!

  4. Samuel Bronson says:

    I especially agree with that last one. I think it’s quite important that the reader can feel genuinely afraid for the characters -with my book I’m writing, I made sure to establish that nobody is invincible, and the people you want to see come out on top don’t always win (this was possible by having POV characters on different sides – that’s another thing; two sided conflicts are often predicable).

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