Caro Clarke ▪  novelist  ▪

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Darlings: what they are and why they should die

It is common writerly wisdom that you must "kill your darlings". What is a darling and why does it deserve this cruel fate?

A "darling" is a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph, a chunk of text, even a whole scene, that you keep in your story when you shouldn't.

Birth of a darling

A darling is born is when you write that phrase, a sentence, a paragraph, a chunk of text, even a whole scene, realise you've written something exceptional, and you know that you have just produced a diamond. You read it again. And again. Each time you do, you think, "Wow, that's great." It gives you a zing, a thrill. You're pleased with it and yourself. It's an example, right in front of your eyes, of what writers are supposed to do: write brilliantly. And now you have. Yay you!

That this particular phrase, sentence, paragraph, chunk (let's just call it a "passage") has pulled you out of your complete absorption in your story, has taken you out of the sense of where your characters are, what they are thinking, facing, doing, and where the story is going, so you can revel in what you have just written, is the first fearsome sign that you've created a darling.

A darling might be beautiful, but it wants all your love and attention. It has achieved it: you've stopped writing to gloat over it. ("Wow, that is GREAT!")

Why does this differ from noticing that you've just written something very fine? Because a piece of fine writing either doesn't draw your attention away from the story, that is, you only notice it later and think "wow" or because you pause for a heartbeat, think "yes, good", and then you move on, still submerged in the magic and mystery of the story you're telling. The point is that you move on.

This doesn't mean a darling is always recognised and celebrated at birth. You can become bewitched by its potency or excellence at a later point, for instance, when you're re-reading your work, perhaps reviewing what you wrote yesterday, if that's what you do, or when going through your full completed first draft, and you come across a passage that stops you in your tracks. Your reaction will range from "yes, that's great" to "wow, this is AWESOME." You know at once that you'll be keeping THAT little beauty.

You might not realise what you are doing. You might think you're appreciating a passage's fitness for purpose within the over-all story, recognising an example of quality. There's nothing wrong in appreciating fine writing, is there?

The metastasis of a darling

"Appreciating fine writing" follows one trajectory. Now let's follow the one you're on, the trajectory of a darling.

You are now at the stage of re-writing your first draft (you don't ever do a second draft? May I suggest my article Rewriting?). As your story evolves through the re-write process, changing with the fresh ideas and new insights that arise as you delve deeper into motive, structure, narrative drive, language and character, you keep coming upon that awesome passage. It is still awesome. Perhaps it doesn't q-u-i-t-e work now with the slightly different action before and after it, or with the character's behaviour in the rest of the scene, but no way are you going to lose it. NO WAY.

You continue to tell yourself that the passage is so marvellous that it simply cannot be eliminated, and you don't. In fact, you start to alter other things to allow you to keep it. You feel it's worth modifying the story to make it worthy of bearing that brilliant passage. It would be a sin to delete something so wonderful.

You keep re-writing, honing, improving, refining. You keep coming upon that darling and, each time, it stubs your mental toe: it just doesn't quite work, although it keeps giving you a satisfying thrill when you re-read it. Other passages you have liked have died because they were getting in the way of the story, but this, this, is one of your jewels and the pain of cutting it is too great. You twist your story into knots to make this gem make sense. You might not even notice how hard you're working to preserve it, but you find yourself justifying its retention, telling yourself that you owe it to your story, to your readers, to the Muse, to Genius itself, to leave it in.

Why it must die

You've fallen in love. That is why it is called a "darling". You will not let this passage go. Other pieces of fine writing have been born, lived for a while through several drafts, and you have admired them, ached when you realised that they had stopped holding their value, and have deleted them, but not this passage, because you have stopped thinking with your writer's head and are acting with your ego's heart.

This is you failing to be a good writer. You have chosen your darling over your story. You are glorying in it for its own sake. You have allowed your admiration (and it could well be justified — a darling doesn't have to be dross, indeed, it often isn't) to diminish the work as a whole. Your story has become something that serves the passage, not the other way around. You have permitted words that have increasingly been "not quite right" to live even though they fail to add to your story's development, they advance nothing, they deepen nothing. The passage is no longer part of your story, it's just embedded in it. It's become a cancer, having no purpose but itself, and almost certainly draining life from the tissue around it. And that's why it must die.

Dealing the death-blow

In the very moment you first think "this is so good that it must live forever", you already know on some level that it's a darling. It's hard to bring that knowledge to your conscious forebrain, but if you are lucky enough to have an instant of clarity, act on it. It's a lot easier to deal with the newly-recognised darling now, because increasing love for it will only make it harder for you to do the right thing later. Pity yourself, groan, wail, but delete it.

If you haven't had that instant of clarity and a darling has continued to live unidentified and and undeleted until you finally find yourself turning yourself into a pretzel to make it fit, try to pause before rewriting for the zillionth time something that will make the gem make sense and accept that you are striving to preserve a darling. Stop struggling to make the square peg of a darling fit into the round hole of your narrative. Delete it.

If, when you are reviewing a draft, you find yourself pausing in your analysis of the story's flow and development in order to linger over a particular passage, try to distance yourself from your fond admiration and ask yourself: "is this — can it be — oh, darn it, I think it is — a darling," suffer for a moment, and then delete it.

If you find yourself, on the way to work, or in the shower, or chopping onions, mulling over, worrying over, some problem in your story, some issue or dissatisfaction, a still small voice within is telling you what's wrong. Learn not to brush it away into silence. Learn to pay attention to it. It is often saying "you're right to be uneasy: you're nursing a darling." Once you've heard the small voice, you know what to do. Delete.

It's hard to delete the darling completely from existence. To lessen the pain, create a folder or a document called "Out-takes" or "Snippets", and paste the deleted darling into that. There's no harm telling yourself that some day you'll find a new home for these little beauties, if that makes it easier to cut them. In my experience, once cut, darlings stay cut.

There's nothing wrong in re-reading your deleted darlings in your "Out-takes" file. We all need these moments to admire jewels that, although it was hard to believe at the time, sparkled without giving heat. They still sparkle. They might always sparkle. You will always be sad for them.

Accepting loss is something you, as a writer, must get used to: great ideas, great characters, great pieces of writing, might not get the chance to live if your goal is a well-shaped, well-written story. Your comfort must be, as you drive a stake into another darling's heart, that your wellspring of creativity can and will give birth to as many finely expressed imaginings as you will need. Those surviving into print will do so because they are not solitaire diamonds, but golden links in a golden chain. They are part of the seamless quality that lifts your whole story to a level where a reader says of it all: "Wow, this is great!"