Tuesday, November 05, 2019

When Not to Kill Your Darlings: Exposing Another Awful Writing “Rule”

By Dario Ciriello

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Kill Your Darlings has been a writing-advice staple forever, but there are times when we shouldn't follow that advice. Dario Ciriello is back this month with his thoughts on the topic.

Recently, In the course of beta reading a long Epic Fantasy novel by a very skilled and highly-acclaimed author friend, I came across a single major issue: a subplot and its characters, fascinating and well-written and full of wonder and wisdom, had grown so large it threatened to hijack and overshadow the core narrative.

I could see three main ways to fix this. These were: (i) pare that entire subplot down by at least a third; (ii) break it up further still with interspersed scenes happening elsewhere; (iii) reassure the reader, using brazen foreshadowing, and more than once, that all the events taking place in this subplot were relevant to and would tie back into the core plot.

Think Before Cutting

Although I lacked a scene-by-scene schematic, I had read closely enough to be able to analyze what was going on here. And the more I thought about it, the obvious solution — and, sadly, the knee-jerk one for too many writers and editors, viz, to make swingeing cuts to the problematic subplot — would not do. 

The subplot, even sprawling as it was, carried a ton of character development and technological detail; it ramped up conflict and elaborated on character motivations; and it did so much seriously heavy lifting on world building and cultural issues that it was absolutely essential and integral to the book.

Moreover, there was no fat to cut — none. The material was all relevant and well-written, and imbued with great swathes of wonder and humor. Cuts were absolutely not the solution here.
Murder your darlings," I wrote back to my friend, delighted to identify another idiotic, so-called writing “rule” touted as a prescriptive absolute, “is right up there with show, don't tell as the worst writing advice ever given" (except for those rare occasions where it’s intelligently nuanced with warnings and caveats, and skillfully applied by an author who knows what they’re about).
I was convinced, I continued, that the best option was the one I set out in (iii), i.e., to add in foreshadowing at key points to reassure the reader the author hadn’t just got carried away, that the subplot was very relevant to the core issues and braided into it. 

Like all information management, the secret lies in timing and voice. And since the book is written in omniscient, any foreshadowing could be slipped in more easily than ever.

Not convinced? Stephen King, for one, does this in several novels, and in the ballsiest way: he breaks third person limited to do it, typically in a direct authorial one-liner intrusion at one or two key points of the book. It not only works, it punches up suspense.
My friend agreed. “Surprisingly,” they added, “sometimes pacing and attention issues are best resolved not by cutting, but by judiciously adding.” 
This insight made me grin, since I’d more than once found myself doing the same (I tend to write a little lean and have to add material and connective tissue in rewrites; your mileage may vary).

(Here's more on No Pain, No Gain: Killing Your Darlings)

Pure nonsense

I bring all this up of course in the context of my firm conviction that the rise of the internet and the intense competitive pressures of the modern media and publishing world have convinced far too many impressionable writers that there are hard and fast rules of writing. This is pure and simple nonsense. Every writer is different, every instance is different.

Nobody is going to be a better writer by adhering to the “rules” shouted at them from every corner of the internet, and by laughable, simplistic notions like those set out in Save the Cat, which actually suggest there is a hard, inflexible template for winning fiction and screenplays.

I you haven’t read Snyder’s little cult tome, a glance at the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet will tell you that the theme of the tale must be stated on page 5 of a script; that the catalyst occurs on page 12; that all is lost on page 75; and that the curtain comes down on page 110. “Isn’t this pure? And easy?” the author tells us.

Did you ever wonder why so many movies and books feel the same? And despite widespread conformance to these insane formulas and “rules,” most of them sink without a trace. 

Nobody is going to improve a book by cutting material that matters.

Write Your Way

Reject formulas. Look askance at all the so-called “rules” of writing. Question writing gurus and mavens. Consider whether instead of murdering your darlings it might not be better to treat them with love, dress them in their Sunday best, and introduce them to society.

Above all, write what you want and tell your story in the way that works for you.

To summarize, I’ll quote Neil Gaiman, as I do at the beginning of my craft manual, The Fiction Writing Handbook:
The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

—Neil Gaiman
Have you ever found that instead of cutting, adding material to a problematic scene, chapter, or subplot, was the winning solution? 

Dario Ciriello is a professional author and freelance editor as well as the founder of Panverse Publishing.

Dario’s fiction includes Sutherland's Rules, a crime caper/thriller with a shimmer of the fantastic; Black Easter, a supernatural suspense novel which pits love against black magic and demonic possession on a remote, idyllic Greek island; and Free Verse and Other Stories, a collection of Dario's short science fiction work.

Dario’s 2011 nonfiction book, Aegean Dream, the bittersweet memoir of a year spent on the small Greek island of Skópelos (the real Mamma Mia! island), was an Amazon UK travel bestseller. The Fiction Writing Handbook: The Professional Author’s Guide to Writing Beyond the Rules (Panverse, 2017) is his second nonfiction work.

In addition to writing, Dario, who lives in the Los Angeles Area, offers professional editing, copyediting, and mentoring services to indie authors.

Website | Facebook | Goodreads | Panverse Publishing

About The Fiction Writing Handbook

A Unique Approach to the Craft of Writing Fiction

The Fiction Writing Handbook*
 is a complete guide for the fiction writer who wants to develop an individual voice and understand the reasons underlying the so-called rules of writing. Although a few rules really are necessary, the vast majority are either dogma or passing fads. Worse, so much advice like “show don’t tell” and “open with action” is often poorly explained and entirely misunderstood, causing writers no end of problems. Similarly, the importance of both character and narrative voice, as well as tone, cannot be overstated.

Drawing on twenty years of writing, critiquing, editing and mentoring experience, Dario Ciriello explodes writing myths, shreds conventional wisdom, and dissects the often misleading advice and diktats shouted at writers by books and blogs, agents and publishers. The Fiction Writing Handbook gives authors the necessary tools and insights to retake control of their story and make it unique.

Other topics covered in The Fiction Writing Handbook include external and internal dialog, writers' block, traditional vs. indie publishing, PoV (point of view), creating suspense, and much more.

Whether your interest lies in short stories, novels or screenwriting, The Fiction Writing Handbook shows you how to tell your story in your voice and place it before your audience, eschewing novel plotting formulas and cookie-cutter fiction to remain true to your own, exceptional vision while adhering to the few rules that actually matter. Because writing isn’t about prose wonks and industry insiders: it’s about the reader, and most of all it’s about telling a story. Your story.

*Originally published in 2017 under the title, "Drown the Cat"

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | | iTunes | Indie Bound | Kobo | Panverse


  1. Well said, Dario! Believing that there's only one right way to do things can really handicap writers, especially when they're just starting out.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Sandy. Agreed, those dogmatic, prescriptive mindsets to so much harm. And they're EVERYWHERE. It's unfortunate there's far more money to be made by telling at people over adverb use and story beats than there is by actual writing. But even when we write not for money and adulation, but because it's what we need to do, it's ALWAYS, first and foremost, about telling a story, about crafting something unique. Rules and dogma should be tertiary considerations. More blog posts coming on this, though I cover most of it in my book.