Killing your darlings

It’s kill my darlings time. Major revisions a-comin’. Seasoned writers talk easily about it—the need to delete descriptions, characters and scenes that served a function during an early draft but later detract from the story as a whole. We wish it weren’t so. Wish that the first draft would work just the way it was. Wish the process weren’t so brutal.

A Beautiful MindLast week I enjoyed Ron Howard’s movie A Beautiful Mind for the second time, then viewed the deleted scenes with the commentary turned on. Talk about killing your darlings! Howard reflected on the way each cut enhanced the film’s dramatic tension. Some of the cut scenes were especially touching and well-acted, and some shed light on schizophrenia, the protagonist’s illness. But they slowed the pace, so they went. The movie won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2002.

Dramatic tension. Emotional arc. Pacing. I come back to these elements again and again. From my current work-in-progress, I just slashed an entire section in which a secondary character took center stage. I’m thankful for early-readers who identified problem spots I hadn’t seen. Which darlings will I cut next? Like Howard, I keep them in a “deleted scenes” folder. I fight off the lament—the disappointment—the fear—that I wasted my time writing them in the first place.

Cut & PasteHere’s a snapshot of my cut-and-paste work on one section of the muddy middle. (I use Scrivener, but this revision was hard to picture until I laid it out across a bed.) I have to remind myself that writing those now-deleted scenes was a necessary part of the process. Even Ron Howard develops scenes that end up on the cutting room floor. And he blows a lot more time and money in his process than I do! Somehow I find that comforting. The creative process is nonlinear and sometimes maddening and frustrating and seemingly wasteful, but it is what it is. Either you love the process and accept it, or you’re better off doing something other than writing.

2 responses to “Killing your darlings

  1. Meredith Davis

    I have one of those “deleted scenes” folders, so convinced am I that the words I’m cutting were brilliant, just in the wrong place. I’ll just save them over there in that deleted scene folder until I can find where to put them. And then I never look at them again. There’s something a little less painful about cutting and pasting to another folder than just hitting delete. Best of luck as you attack the darlings, Anne. I know you’ll end up with something brilliant and witty and wise.

  2. So true that pasting to another file is less painful that hitting DELETE. In some cases (not many, but a few) I’ve actually gone back and retrieved a deleted scene. I’ve learned to save them with titles that help me identify each one. But for the most part, they go and are never missed.

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