Wednesday, August 26

Kill Your Darlings—Unless You Can Give Them Goals

By Bonnie Randall 

Special Guest Author 

We all have those scenes, right? We love ‘em, but they really don’t serve a justifiable purpose. I’ve had many, but am considering one I really loved; it lived in my notebook almost since the conception of my novel. It was one of those ‘Aw, that’s so sweet’ scenes, one that made my tummy all a-flutter.

Except fluttering tummies don’t exactly turn pages. They just sort of…well, sit there.

When I at last reached the point in my story where that scene was supposed to go (for those of you who don’t know, I write ‘shotgun style’; sometimes from the middle out, sometimes from the end backwards, rarely from beginning to end, like a normal human being) I was crazy-excited. Here was my tummy-flutter scene where at last my heroine discloses, to the hero, her night of great shame.

Now, initially, the goal of this scene was to allow my character to have an internal emotional arc: disclosing an intimate and deeply shameful secret to a man (her potential lover) that would end up illustrating, beyond question, how powerful her feelings are for him. I thought it was perfectly fine—but when it hit the actual story itself, I discovered that…meh. It was ‘ok’ but not ‘good’ and light-years from ‘great’.

Why? Because tummy flutters do NOT sell copy. Goals sell copy. And alongside goals, discomfort sells copy. Heroines and heroes doing what they don’t want to do yet doing what they MUST do sells copy. (Tummy flutters help, especially when combined with a whole lot of ‘ouch!’ moments, and we’ll get there. But first) …

There I was with my sweet little tummy flutter scene that just…didn’t work. I was reluctant to backspace through it though, and as I mulled it over, it hit me. The goal–a shared tender moment–wasn’t necessarily WRONG. It just wasn’t ENOUGH. That made me think; a good goal, like anything else in a novel, needs layers and they look a little like this:

Macro Goal: How the scene is advancing the Plot / how its helping the problem be solved?

Mezzo Goal: How is the scene advancing the Character—how will this person grow, change and self-actualize by engaging in this scene that is also pushing your plot forward?

Micro Goal: How is this scene going to change the Character’s HEART—how will this person’s emotional journey advance because of this scene?

Employing this template, I reconsidered which of the above goals was being met by the tummy flutter scene, and decided it was my character’s emotional quest (Micro Goal). I was then charged with how to amplify the scene so that both the Macro & Mezzo goals were progressing forward too. By breaking it down like this, I discovered a whole way to employ this scene I really loved and wanted to keep because then I could tie it (which was essentially my heroine’s emotional journey) to her entire character arc and to her problem-solving journey, linking them as symbiotic events that could not grow and arc without the other.

Hurrah! A scene saved! And there’s more:

With each layer within this scene that were now moving in the same direction, I also asked ‘And how can I make this hurt?’ then jacked up the pain. Reflecting on that, I knew I didn’t just want it to be embarrassing for the heroine to disclose her night of shame, I wanted it to be excruciating (micro). And I didn’t just want her uncertain about allowing herself to trust, I wanted her to feel out and out fear (mezzo). And then (macro now) when her hero lies to her about this very night it doesn’t just sting. It breaks her heart.

Summing up: Layering the goal gave me not only a much stronger reason to keep the scene, but also stronger prose within the scene. It opened doors for imagery and emotion that weren't there before and, most importantly, made the ‘tummy flutter moment’ not only necessary but CRUCIAL to the heroine’s quest (on every level!). And then, when the ‘disaster’ within the scene happened the ouch!was bigger, deeper and harder to repair—and that’s what ultimately made the reader turn the page.

So…don’t place your finger on that backspace button too hastily with those Darlings that seem directionless. Consider and reconsider the potential for goals within those scenes, then see if you can make the scenes work (like the employees they are!) to serve your story.

Bonnie Randall is a Canadian writer who lives between her two favorite places—the Jasper Rocky Mountains and the City of Champions: Edmonton, Alberta. A clinical counselor who scribbles fiction in notebooks whenever her day job allows, Bonnie is fascinated by the relationships people develop—or covet—with both the known and unknown, the romantic and the arcane.

Her novel Divinity & The Python, a paranormal romantic thriller, was inspired by a cold day in Edmonton when the exhaust rising in the downtown core appeared to be the buildings, releasing their souls.

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  1. But... but they're my darling!

    I created a whole chapter 1 darling. My critique partner said : cut it out and put it on your blog or fan page.


  2. I feel your pain - I get insanely attached to some scenes, it's as if they're my children or something.
    Any way your Cahpter-Darling can be recalibrated with some sharper goals?

  3. I now have your three questions tacked up on the wall above my desk. Excellent advice.