(Download the instrumental version of the song here.)
“In writing, you must kill your darlings.” –William Faulkner
What are Darlings?
When Faulkner says, “Darlings” he’s talking about the poetry that wanders into our novels. He’s talking about the colorful descriptions in our black and white detective stories. The hyperboles that get lost inside our stark realism. The esoteric language that finds its way into modern thrillers.
The Darlings are the details that no one needs to understand the plot.
The dimensions of a character’s face, right before someone drive’s a fist into it. The Victorian architecture of a dome roof, right before it explodes. The color of the foliage, in the background of a love scene. Sure, those little details might be accurate, but they’re not necessary.
With every draft we put our Darlings on death row, and every draft we grant them a stay of execution. We say, “That paragraph was too damn fun to write. I can’t punish it for my literary sins.”
Soon our manuscripts are colored with Purple Prose. They explode across the page like ink from a bank robber’s duffle bag (like in this sentence for example).
Purple Prose are extravagant descriptions that pull the reader out of the story.
We’re painting portraits, when a stick figure would suffice. We’re writing sonnets, when a limerick is all we need. We’re singing operas, in the middle of a top-forty pop song.
Where do our Darlings come from?
Darlings have many origins: first time writers who long to prove their mastery of the craft. Metaphor mixers who long to show you how clever they are. Poets who are afraid their stories will come across as police reports.
To find our voice, sometimes we speak in a language no one else can understand.
Darlings come around when we know what’s going to happen next. When our scene needs a little bit of extra oomph. When things start to get predictable, the Darlings rise. Soon, a scene about a plea bargain becomes a scene about how much a lawyer’s cufflinks say about him.
Sometimes the Darlings disguise themselves as the plot. One night you’ll fall asleep in the middle of a scene. The next morning, you’ll find you’ve lost the momentum. Unsure of where to take the action, you start writing some description. Every scene needs a setting, right? The description blossoms into a list. Before long, you’ve got a garden of flowery prose.
Last night, your hero charged headlong into a graveyard. They fled the glint of an assailant’s blade. This morning they’re describing the statues, admiring the fine details chiseled into the angel’s wings. The hero wonders why they carve cherubs into babies’ tombstones. The assailant’s blade might as well be a million miles away. Your hero is no longer running for his life. He’s touring the grounds.
Sometimes Darlings come about, because we look at our peers in writing and get word count envy. We write, because the blank page mocks us with its whiteness. We write, because we need to feel like we’re accomplishing something.
I’m going to broaden Faulkner’s definition of the term “Darlings” to include “Asides” (he’s dead, what is he going to do? Bring it on, ghost man). Asides, are not descriptions. They’re narrative threads that don’t serve the story. Sometimes B plots weave their ways into A plots. Sometimes C plots give our hero the necessary tools to vanquish evil. Sometimes D plots give us some much needed comic relief.
Asides are F plots.
Asides are the details none of your characters could know, information their journeys never show them. Asides are flashbacks, patches of backstory that don’t match the tone of the piece. Asides are the unresolved plot threads left to dangle.
Do our Darlings deserve the death sentence?
When it comes time to edit, it’s clear these purple patches are speed bumps in the flow. They gum up the works. They never fit the context.
You know how those old Tom and Jerry cartoons looped their backgrounds over and over? It’s because the backgrounds didn’t matter. Now just imagine if the animators drew elaborate woodcuts into the furniture.
Purple Prose give us a vivid image of something we don’t need to see.
Your story will benefit from their absence, but will you benefit from their deletion? Allow me to shift perspective from second to first (you’ve been in the spotlight for long enough. It’s time to give someone else a turn).
I never kill my Darlings. I will spare them. I will orphan them. I will maroon them on desert islands, but I will never murder them. I don’t care how gaudy they are. One page’s elaborate description is another page’s poem. One novel’s Aside, is another novel’s plot.
I never kill my Darlings. I keep their resumés on file, until I have the perfect job for them.
I stash their head shots away, until I find just the right part. I sit on their demo tapes until their genre is back in fashion.
If a Darling isn’t right for my story, I copy and paste it into its own document. One character’s raving monologue, might make a great blog entry. One paragraph of Purple Prose might make a fantastic poem. I recycle my words all the time.
Remember, it’s not plagiarism when you steal from yourself.
Knowing that my Darlings will live on, makes it easier for me to cut them. They’re not dead. They’re just frozen in cryostasis.
Put your Darlings to work
One of my favorite Darlings was a stanza that corrupted the poem around it. It took a dark piece and turned it pitch black. The poem was called, “Eye Poison.” It was a threat to the reader. It put a curse on anyone who dared to finish it. Each line argued the power of words. It was hyperbole on parade, a death threat through verse. Here’s an excerpt:
You’re in the devil’s spotlight
You’re selling your soul
Just by reading the contract
Continue and be damned
You got into the wrong taxi
And now I’m driving you mad
One Bloody Marry
Two Bloody Marry
You get the idea. It was supposed to be a light spooky read. Something to evoke the spirit of a childhood dare. That wasn’t enough. I had to go and make it really dark. To exaggerate the power of words, I included a list of authors who’d killed themselves, a literary death toll that went like this:
Sylvia Plath counted sheep in the oven
Anne Sexton lost count in the garage
Virginia Woolf slipped on her favorite coat
And lined her pockets full of rocks
Hart Crane dove in after her
Spalding Gray dove in after him
Then inspiration just kept striking
Hemingway sat at the dinner table
And ate himself a shotgun
Hunter S. Thompson said,
“I’ll have what he’s having.”
Spooky just got a whole lot more cryptic. This Darling spoke louder than the rest of the poem. It didn’t fit, but it deserved to live on.
A few months later, I wrote a story about a pulp Detective who set out to confront his Author. The Detective was not pleased with the laundry list of tragedies that filled his life. He knew that his God was a cruel one. Imagine his anger when he discovered that his overlord wore a cardigan with leather patches on his sleeves.
The Detective cornered his Author in a smoke filled bar. He knew he’d need some harsh words to get the Author’s attention. That’s when my poem leapt off the page and into his mouth.
The Detective pressed his finger into the Author’s chest. He said, “Maybe Edgar Allen Poe had a little too much laudanum, but maybe, just maybe, the words got him.”
The line takes on a whole new meaning in the context of a story. Here it’s no longer a Darling. It’s no longer an understudy who got a speaking role just for sleeping with the director, no. It’s the star of the whole damn show.
Spare your Darlings and they might just live to serve you.
Don’t get me wrong, Faulkner had a point, he just didn’t know about word processors.