Don’t Kill a Darling Just to Kill a Darling
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This essay is based, in part, on the ending to the television series How I Met Your Mother, which aired over 5 years ago in 2014 – if you are still avoiding spoilers, you probably shouldn’t read this!
You’ve probably heard some variation of writing advice nugget before:
- “Murder your darlings.” – Arthur Quiller-Couch
- “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” – William Faulkner
- “[K]ill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” – Stephen King
There are arguments that other versions of the quote exist, even before Quiller-Couch’s advice On Style was published in 1914.
But the origins of the quote are not the point. (Though I firmly believe in taking the time to attempt correct attribution whenever you can.)
The quote has good intentions, and it often does lead to better writing.
There are a number of stylistic “crutches” that we lean on as writers. We’re scared to take those steps that allow our most basic ideas, our unornamented sentences, and our simplest words to stand on their own.
Sometimes, those choices are what make our writing, our writing.
For example, I am a habitual misuser of the Oxford comma. I love me a good grouping of three (like I wrote two sentences ago), and people can often tell that a piece is “by me” when these pop up throughout.
You might be surprised to learn that in most cases, at least 50-60% of these groupings are cut in editing.
I’m aware that this is a darling, a particular style that I adore, but eventually it eats away at the message. It can get too wordy, too adverby…it adds too much.
In context, most of these “kill your darlings” quotes refer to this exact issue. To pare back ornate style, thus allowing your ideas and words the room to breathe.
Yet the advice has come to take on a much larger scope, urging many writers to kill entire plot-lines (or even characters, thanks J.K. Rowling) simply because it might make the story better.
I won’t lie to you, this advice is sometimes accurate. But sometimes, it is very very bad advice.
Take, for example, the background to one of the most-loathed television series endings in recent years, How I Met Your Mother.
For those unfamiliar with the show, it is narrated by Bob Saget about his 20’s and 30’s, and all the twists and turns it took to lead to the moment he met his kids’ mother. This plot device is shown with each show opening, in which two teens are sitting on a couch, listening to their father prattle on about what a complete idiot he could be while stumbling through multiple girlfriends, dates, and one-night stands.
In writing this recap, I am reminded of how creepy this premise is.
Why would a father be re-counting what amounts to an almost-decade of his Little Black Book, including the extremely uncomfortable inclusion of the many iterations of his relationship with the kids’ “Aunt” Robin (“Aunt” because she is not blood-related to either parent, but a member of their family-by-choice.)
We go through nine seasons of these stories, building up to the last season (which is jam-packed to take place over 2-3 days), the ultimate goal being that we finally get to see the moment that the Father met their Mother.
It happened! It’s the happily-ever-after we’ve been waiting for! These poor kids might barely escape years of therapy at learning how much their dad got around and how intimate many of those relationships were!
But wait. In the next episode, the series finale, everything we’ve invested ourselves in as an audience is ripped from us in some weird Greek-tragedy twist, with the death of the Mother. And the explanation that the Father was willing to unload his heart and soul onto his children in this weird oversharing manner, because he wants them to understand why he is going to ask their Aunt Robin to date him again. Because she is the other love of his life, and now is the time for them.
Now, I’m not actually a fan of many happily-ever-after endings, as they are often contrived and not real-life. And as I noted above, I can actually see how this ending fits the story of a father divulging his sexual and relationship exploits as a way of preparing his children for (what could be) an even-more horrendous betrayal of their affections and upbringing when he begins dating their Aunt.
It’s one way the story ends.
But it seems…off. Many viewers picked up on this.
The reason it seems off was further clarified when one of the show-runners explained the limitations they were under in the first few seasons of the show. As with most American television, this show was on the bubble (in danger of not being renewed) throughout it’s early run, before it became a number one contender and reigning champion. And they only had so many clips of the children, sitting on the couch, being the same age.
So they recorded an ending clip, with the kids finally saying something.
Then, they made the decision to use that scene, from way back, in the finale years later.
Which essentially undid all the work they had done since then. All the character development, all the new plot-lines that unfolded, all the devotion the audience had acquired…WHOOSH! Gone.
In a moment, we were all swung back to a final episode from years ago, but with the knowledge and connections we had spent the past five to seven years experiencing.
They killed a darling…poor Mom didn’t stand a chance. Her fate was to die. We know why, we know that it makes sense in the grand scheme of the premise.
Why would a father tell his kids these wholly inappropriate stories (for what had to be the longest Dad Diatribe ever) if there wasn’t a bigger reason?
But in killing one darling, they clung to another. They clung to that recorded scene, and original concept – and in doing so, they took back everything they had built.
What can you take from this?
As writers these days, we are expected to put out a nearly-prolific level of quality writing.
At least monthly, preferably weekly, really preferably multiple times a week – or almost daily.
It’s almost impossible to consistently put out this volume of content without some serious planning.
I’m sure there are some writers out there who can do this on the fly, and good for you.
For many others, however, we rely on content calendars and saved post ideas and constantly incubating for what may be.
Yet there’s a danger in doing this.
If we cling too hard to the darlings we created, we can forget the needs of our audience, or lose the journey to focus on a destination.
Readers, even essay and blog post readers, are here for the ride. They read our writing to learn how we got to our conclusion. It’s what makes a story compelling.
So if you are going to use editorial calendars or saved post ideas to keep up with the current demands of creative output, make sure to stay true to your own journey.
Don’t publish something you wrote or planned six months ago without reviewing (and possibly revising) it, to see what might have changed.
Maybe it is the public zeitgeist. Maybe it is a change in your industry or niche. Maybe it is a change in you.
Whatever the changes might be, if you are going to share something old with your audience thinking they are getting something new, you need to honor the journey everyone is on.
Don’t kill a darling just to kill a darling.
But don’t be afraid to kill the darlings that aren’t serving your purpose or style any longer.