Friday, September 09, 2016

No Pain, No Gain: Killing Your Darlings

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

It's a sad truth that when revising, our favorite lines usually end up being the ones we have to cut. Lines we slaved over, polished to a bright shine. The ones that always get a laugh or bring a tear to readers' eyes. It kills us to cut them, but sometimes, we really do have to hurt the ones we love.

It's painful to have to cut a line we worked hard on, but a novel is more than just the words on a page--it's how those words flow and how they lead the reader through the story. If that journey is bumpy and teeth-rattling, no one is going to make it to the end.

When you run across a line or even a scene you love, but your instinct is telling you is might not belong, ask this all-important question:

Does it serve the story?

Anything that doesn't serve the story has to go, no matter how much you love it. The more you love it, the more likely you'll bend over backward to keep it, and that you might force the plot to go where it doesn't want to go.

Look at the lines that lead up to that darling:
    Do they read naturally, or are they setting up a great line you're struggling to keep? If you can cut one line and an entire scene no longer needs to be there, that's a bright red flag that you're forcing in a darling.

    Are you angling the entire scene so this line can take center stage?
    If your instincts are telling you edit a scene or paragraph a certain way, but doing so would kill a great line that's coming up, you could be forcing the text to show the wrong thing. The point of a scene isn't to show a great line, it's to advance the story.

    Are you reworking the scene so you can end it on this line?
    While this can work, it can also encourage you to write a bunch of fluff to fill out a chapter. Tread carefully and make sure it is the perfect place to end that scene and not a good line that's waylaying the plot.

    Does the line work in context of the scene or does it read like an inserted joke? Some jokes are funny only to the person telling it. If a line has meaning for you, but no one else is going to get it, and it feels out of place in a scene, it probably needs to go.

    (Here's more on Kill Your Darlings—Unless You Can Give Them Goals)

    Individual lines aren't the only darlings to might fall victim to the red pen. Favorite scenes and even chapters could need pruning.

    I wrote a scene in an early draft of my novel, Darkfall. It was full of action, humor, fun characterization, but I had a feeling it was bogging down the story and the entire book would be better if I got rid of it. I left it in anyway, because I loved it. Sure enough, when I got my editorial notes back, my editor questioned if we needed that scene at all, especially because it forced the plot into several chapters that took the story off on a tangent. And that was the real danger, because those chapters weren't serving the story at all.

    I hated to do it, but she was right--the scenes hurt the novel. I gritted my teeth, said goodbye, and cut that scene and all those extra chapters.

    (Here's more on Hey, Still With Me? Poking Dead Scenes With A Stick, Part One)

    If you find yourself writing extra scenes or events to make a favorite line or scene work, that's a red flag that you need to cut it.

    "I can keep it if I do this..." is a warning. In rare instances you can find a way to make a favorite line or scene work, but more often it's the start of a convoluted plot that twists the story into knots just so you can keep that scene or line. Look closely at the scenes that are there to support the scene you love and determine:
    • Do they do anything to move the whole story along or just serve that one scene?
    • Do they connect to the overall plot?
    • Do they raise the stakes or reveal new information? (This is a biggie, as darling scenes often do nothing to raise the stakes or reveal anything new for the reader. It's just more of the same, frequently action for the sake of action)
    • If these scenes didn't happen, would anyone but you notice?
    No matter how good the line or the scene, if it doesn't work for the overall story it hurts that story. We've all known that person who tries too hard at parties to be the center of attention. Instead of being awesome, they end up looking awkward. Don't let your great lines be that person.

    What darlings have you had to kill? Were you able to do it?

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    Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

    She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

    When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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    1. One way to lessen the pain is to keep back the cut material and publish it on a blog or other platform for the most interested parties. That way it's not only not lost, but still shared.

    2. I think every writer wants to be able to write that one perfect line or paragraph that ends up being quoted in e-mail signatures or becomes a cult phrase.

      If you've ever read any of Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, his closing paragraphs for Storm Front send chills down my spine. I want to make my readers feel that.

    3. I needed this push up the hill today. Much appreciated.

    4. Porky: That's what I do! When the paperback for Darkfall comes out, I'll have to add that deleted scene as part of the "extras" in the back. Or even post it on the blog.

      Paul: I feel that way about Harlan Ellison's work. And Aaron Sorkin. And Joss Wheadon. Oh heck, about so many, LOL.

      Teri: Most welcome! Hope you crest that hill :)

    5. Love the new look!

      I have no problems cutting words, paragraphs, scenes (yep even chapters) from my wip since I know it will make my writing stronger. I didn't realize how much stronger until a critter (on my last novel) deleted chunks and I saw how much better things flowed without them. Now I read my stuff with that in mind. :)

    6. I read somewhere a good point about lines that you love: they almost always draw attention to themselves. We love them so much that they set up neon signs advertising their existence which is usually a bad idea.

      Thanks for the great post!

    7. Yeah I've had to cut afew characters and scenes that weren't needed.

    8. Your points make total sense. It's so hard to kill those lines/scenes you love but you can't sacrafice the novel just because you like it. But I do, like a previous commenter said, keep those favorite lines and scenes in a file so at least they aren't gone forever! :)

    9. Oooh, this is tough. It's even harder when you have to cut a scene that your beta reader loves, because you feel like you're disappointing someone else.

    10. I do save scenes and lines in a special folder. I will kill them, but not bury them.

    11. There's an Australian author with a book called "Darkfall" - part of a trilogy.

      Anyway... It is painful isn't it, killing off your favourite lines/sections? :P I realised recently though that a lot of the stuff I was cutting was stuff I'd written for my own gratification...not because it was necessary. ;)

    12. That's true. But, for those who don't have an editor it's tough to decide to cut

    13. Stina: Thanks! Don't you love those "a ha!" moments like that?

      Elizabeth: They often are. But only if they don't fit. Like wearing great shoes that don;t match :)

      Natalie: I think every early draft has a bunch of those. Or at least mine do :)

      M. McGriff: I do too. Some of them have even gone on to better lives in other books.

      Chicory: Oh, that's the worst! It's extra hard when your gut is saying kill it, and they say keep it.

      Holly: Love that line. Great way to think about it.

      Trisha: I think Dean Koontz has a Darkfall out there as well. Titles do get reused :)

      Boris: That's the whole point of the article :) To help writers figure out what might stay and what might go.

    14. This post is so painfully true. I have a favorite scene that I've had to cut twice now --I keep hoping it will fit in somewhere, someday, far it fits best in my "misfit ideas" drawer.

    15. Ooo that hurts. Maybe it'll wind up being it's own story one day?

    16. Every single book I have to kill stuff like this off. Good advice, ma'am!

      1. Thanks! They do like the sneak in there.

    17. Excellent stuff here! I think it takes time, and lots of revisions, to learn that less can actually be more. As the old song says, "breaking up is hard to do."

    18. Love the idea of thinking about those darlings as someone who tries too hard at parties!
      I have a few great lines in my WIP which I've highlighted yellow. It doesn't hurt as much as hitting that "delete" button. I know they will need to go eventually, but it helps my heart to keep them in for now and see if there is somewhere else in my manuscript where that great line might actually work without sounding forced or unnatural!

      1. That's a great idea. It also gives you time to get used to the idea so it isn't as painful if you do have to kill it.

    19. uch, sounds so familiar... I had 40+pages written sending my character on a journey to his home country - and then I realised it didn't add anything to the story, so I decided to "park" it into another file (Which feels slightly better than just 'deleting' though in the end it is the same thing :-) )
      I ended up using some of the concepts, but no more... still I think it was a good thing that I wrote it, it helped me get clearer on some things, on how he would react in different situations etc, which made the whole 'deleting' somewhat easier to live with :)

      1. Parking, what a great word for that! No writing is ever wasted, and that's a great example of it. Who knows? Maybe one day those 40 pages will be a short story :)