I first heard Stephen King say “Kill Your Darlings” in an interview a million years ago (though I don’t think he’s the originator of the phrase).
Seeing the mantra quoted quite a bit recently, it seems most folks take the term literally associating it with the life and death of main characters (the characters dear to the writer) and not on the more general association of superfluous things the writer finds very dear and charming within the story…
With that interpretation in mind, I thought it was high-time I stepped into the ring and set the record straight.
So, is killing your darlings the golden path to a script/story no one can put down?
Is it the secret sauce for getting repeat customers by the thousands.
Will killing your darlings compensate for an otherwise subpar script?
A line I would prefer to use instead is;
“Don’t be afraid to kill your darlings IF the story requires it.”
And that little “if” makes all the difference in the world. The minute you turn to killing a main character (or secondary character) to wake your audience up, to literally startle them—grab and put their attention back on your narrative—you’re dictating where the story is going, instead of letting the story dictate where it needs to go.
Even though you’re the writer and creator, you never want your readers to feel like they’re on the outside looking in—that you’re a writer, spinning a yarn to them. You want you to be the invisible part of the story experience. You want your tale to feel organic, like the reader is there as it’s unfolding around them.
Artificial, contrived stories (doing things just for the sake of doing them) almost never engage an audience… and worst of all, put the mechanics of your writing on display. Which in turn leads to predictability—the death knell of effective story telling.
So if Killing Your Darlings is not a good mantra, why do so many people subscribe to it?
The answer is simple; main character deaths, in well executed genuine stories are indeed, very powerful moments.
Writers see them effective in those stories and think by including them in their own work, it will have the same effect by default. (Which is not the case.)
No matter how you crack it, killing a main character IS attention grabbing. Even when done artificially, if you toss a main character into a wood chipper, your reader is going to take notice. (And remember nine tenths of writing is keeping your reader engaged and reading.)
But like a hit from a drug, sooner or later, reality comes crashing hard when the effects wear off. If you call for character deaths, instead of the story calling for it, as soon as your reader’s adrenaline wears off, they’ll be coming back to the story with increased focus… looking for anything and everything surrounding the impactful event.
Superfluous deaths unsupported by story (to carry on the emotional roller coaster), move at high speeds toward a brick wall…
What further complicates common perception of killing your darlings, is that main character deaths often fill primary roles in a story. Even writers who haven’t taken the time to understand the mechanics of this, recognize it instinctually or subconciously.
For example, killing your darlings amps up the stakes—which is always required over the course of a story for a genuine story. It’s all fun and games until somebody dies… A major character death shows the other characters (and reader) what’s likely to happen to them if they don’t get their act together—that there are real consequences in the story. In genuine stories this raise in stakes often springboards into a “Crap or get off the pot” moment for the main character.
Also, there are many standard (genre) tropes that utilize main character deaths. The most immediate one that comes to mind, is the classic Mentor archetype killed by the MAF (or villain). Look no further than Obi-wan in Star Wars. Death of the hero’s mentor usually catapults the hero into completing the quest at hand, seeking retribution or some combination of the two.
Notice, in both of these instances the distinct difference between simply killing a darling for shock value (even if its turning the story in a new direction, but unplanned and unsupported direction) and killing a darling as the story calls for it. The latter injects distinct narrative drive, and purpose in moving the story forward.
The death happens for a reason.
A basic method to recognize if a darling is prime for a possible murder, death, kill, is to take a look at the character’s arc. If their arc is not yet complete, it’s too early for the character to be knocked off.
If the character’s arc is complete. If they’ve expressed the message of their journey, then it’s open season on them… but remember, even then, stay away from artificial deaths.
Only kill the character off when the story calls for it.
So for everyone who loves to get down on their cast like George R.R. Martin writing a Friday the 13th movie, get rid of the kill your darlings mantra.
Don’t set out with the goal of killing your darlings, just for the sake of it (for the shock and spectacle).
AND Don’t refuse to kill your darlings, even when it’s time to do so.
Instead focus on writing an engaging, genuine story where everyone survives.
You’ll learn how to develop a story without the spectacle and be in the company of classic stories like, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Goonies, Star Wars, Rambo, Willow, etc., no deaths required.
And if you try but CAN’T write the story where everyone DOES survive… odds are the story is telling you a death is required.▪
About the Author —
Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, amazon and in select stores around the U.S. Visit NickMacari.com for social media contacts and news on his latest releases.