In Service to the Story

This past February while writing a new scene, a character showed up, whispered to my protagonist, “We have safe houses for kids like you,” and disappeared. I nearly fell out of my chair. Of course, I had to run after her—had to figure out who she was, and what she wanted.

Shadowy figure2For months I learned cool stuff about her: she does music therapy with a therapy dog, a wonderful golden retriever named Calcutta. She happens to be writing a dissertation on kids raised in hate groups. My fourteen year-old protagonist develops a crush on her, the older woman, then squirms over the taboo nature of his attraction. So far I’ve written twenty-two chapters, and there’s a lot going on, but just recently it hit me that as soon as I complete my first draft and switch into kill-your-darlings mode, she’ll be the first to go.

She’s a great character! Problem is, every time she appears, the pace slows. Every time except her initial appearance when the protagonist sucks in his breath and takes off in a direction he wouldn’t have gone, not then. But once he gets where he’s going, she’s no longer needed. Now I see other factors that can propel him to get where he needs to be, and once there, these other factors matter more than she does.

So, yeah… I have to cut this therapist, and I’m already preparing myself for the day of surgery, grieving the loss of her, telling myself it’s for the best. You kill your darlings in service to the story, the greater good. I’m thankful for the role she played, and I imagine that in another novel, she might emerge with a story worth telling. But in this one, a boy is struggling with his place in the world, and it’s his struggle I’m telling, not hers. I’m still on the first draft, still seeking his story, wondering what he’s going to do. And who knows? Maybe he’ll run into her again. But if he does and if her presence doesn’t keep me turning pages, once again it’ll be, Lights out, lady.


Photo credit: mrhayata

8 thoughts on “In Service to the Story”

  1. I understand perfectly, Anne. I’ve been shortening what was a novel into a novella, and I killed them right and left. Gone are the grandfather from Trinidad to plays steel drum, the black studies professor who dresses in tribal-themed outfits and the aunt and uncle who came from the islands and settled in Norfolk. Loved them all, and maybe they’ll show up again somewhere.

  2. They sound like wonderful characters, Jody! But yeah… sigh… if their presence on the page doesn’t raise the stakes and propel the story forward, then that’s all they are… wonderful characters.

    I’m looking forward to reading your novella!

  3. I love it, too, Gigi. And even though I’ve learned to appreciate the process of writing a character-driven novel (no outlines!), the way a story unfolds always surprises me.

  4. I’m so glad to find your blog! Love this post. It’s so painful to cut a character you’ve gotten to know. But I had to do this to tighten my story.

  5. It is painful, Linda! But now that I’ve decided to cut her out, I’ve been writing new chapters with characters much more compelling than she was, and finally a plot is emerging. It’s as if the story was stuck for a bit. She was holding it back. Now it’s moving forward, and the writing is flowing in ways that it wasn’t a month ago. Man, I love this process!

  6. Anne, I started out with mostly historical characters and a few of fictional. Readers found the fictional ones more interesting.The real people killed off all but one of the fictional. (The survivor is the hero.) Must be a lesson in there somewhere…

  7. Millicent — I’ve sometimes heard writers defend their work (post-critique) by saying something like, “But that’s what really happened.” And the problem is that what really happened doesn’t necessarily make for a great story. That’s why I love fiction and the freedom we novelists have to veer off in directions that raise the stakes and enhance the story arc. But that being said, boy do I love it when I encounter nonfiction that keeps me riveted to the page! I just started reading “Bomb” by Steve Sheinkin, and it’s fabulous. He’s following the lives of multiple “characters” — scientists and spies — involved in the race to build the atomic bomb, and in his hands, the stakes are high and getting higher. He know how to present “what really happened” in a compelling way.

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