NaNoWriMo: Kill Your Darlings

If you’ve been a writer for any length of time, you’ve probably heard the adage “kill your darlings.” It means you should never get so attached to things in your story that you aren’t willing to cut them out. But how much of a difference does that really make?

Here we are, in the homestretch of NaNoWriMo with Seth and Scintilla Studio! Only six days are left in this crazy-intense writing session, and I am proud to say that I’m going to make it. I’m rapidly approaching forty-thousand words, and even some exceptionally bad days haven’t slowed me down.

The sad truth is that I’m going to have to get rid of a lot of those words.

Yes, some of that is because they’re messy or can be explained better (as in Show, Don’t Tell!), but even a lot of the good parts are eventually going to be edited out for the sake of the story.

While this topic applies to editing, I think it’s still important to discuss in the writing phase so you can construct a better story during NaNoWriMo. To that end, I’ll be illustrating what I mean with some examples from Star Wars, a world which has been very influential on me as a writer.

If I say, “Episode II: Attack of the Clones,” most of you will immediately roll your eyes –  for any of several reasons. Mine is one of the most awkward and shoehorned-in romances I’ve ever seen in a film, to the point where it may as well be the poster child for the trope Romantic Plot Tumours. But, because of the way the prequel trilogy was set up, that subplot just had to be there, and as a result, the entire film suffered.

This is a perfect example of not killing your darlings–if we as writers get so attached to something, be it a character, a subplot, or even a specific scene, that we are unable to get rid of it for the sake of the story, our stories can get shipwrecked.

So what does this mean? Should we get rid of all of our favorite parts just so they don’t detract from the story?

If we did, our manuscripts would likely be only a few pages long.

I had the opportunity several months ago to meet Timothy Zahn, a well-known science-fiction author who has added some twelve novels and at least as many short stories to the Star Wars canon. In our discussion, one of his newest novels, Scoundrels, came up, and I mentioned how much I enjoyed the twist ending of that book. His reply really struck me.

“It was my editor’s idea,” Zahn told me. He had written the ending of Scoundrels one way, before being approached by his editor to make this particular change. He agreed to rewrite it, and the end result is one of the strongest endings I have ever seen in a novel, as well as cementing it as one of my favorite Star Wars novels in the Legends canon.

All because Zahn was willing to take someone else’s advice and kill his darling.

The key idea I want to stress with “kill your darlings” is that of balance. Whatever’s in your manuscript should be there for a reason, whether that’s because it will be a plot point in a sequel or because that scene serves to illustrate a certain theme that is important to the story as a whole.

On the other hand, if you do cut something from your manuscript during NaNoWriMo, be sure that you have a good reason for doing that as well. One of the easiest examples I can give is that of character deaths.

For example, Obi-Wan Kenobi sacrifices himself to Darth Vader so that Luke and the Millenium Falcon can escape the Death Star. In Vector Prime, the first novel of the now non-canon New Jedi Order series, Chewbacca sacrifices himself to save Han’s teenage son Anakin–and his death reverberates through the entire rest of the series. A huge part of Han’s character arc from then on is learning how to cope with the loss of his best friend, whom he’s known for nearly four decades by that point.

Is Chewie an excellent character? Yes. Does having him die generate all sorts of subplots and character moments that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise? Yes.

While there aren’t a whole lot of specific resources for this topic, here are some questions to keep in mind:

  • This cool idea isn’t fitting into this scene. Is there another place I can put it, or does it just not work?
  • Do I trust my beta reader enough to rework this ending they told me wasn’t working, even when I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it?
  • What might be the impact of killing off this character I really like? Are the benefits greater than those of keeping them alive?

Stay strong and stay humble as you write, and have a happy Thanksgiving!

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