Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Kill Your Darlings

Ole "No Man but a Blockhead" Sam

It's attributed to William Faulkner, and in a slightly more clever version to Samuel Johnson:

"Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out."

What it means is, when you are telling a story, any piece of it, no matter how good you think it is, no matter how it warms your heart to read, or makes you feel clever as a wordsmith, if it doesn't serve the tale properly, has to go.

And what I mean by serving the tale is that it has to move things along, either the characterizations, plot development, setting, or tone in such a way that to take it out would be like slicing away muscle. But: If you can cut it and it the story will work just as well -- or better -- then you have to do so.

Well, okay, you don't have to; but you should -- for at best, like a vestigial appendix, it will serve no purpose save to sicken your story. Get rid of it. 

This is one of the hardest things you as a writer will have to learn. 

If you have a scene wherein Your Hero is on a roller coaster at age twelve and so scared of it that he pees himself, that might not have anything to do with the plot per se, but it could be absolutely necessary for his character development.

If you have a scene in which Your Hero is kicking ass and taking names to get to the bad guy, and you love the action, but you have two other scenes just like it of equal-sized obstacles, then you probably don't need it. The obstacles should get bigger and harder as you go.

A while back, a publicist sent me a zombie novel for potential review. I read it because the buzz on it was hot, but I didn't like it. Once you have a herd of zombies attack and get blown away, you need to vary things, and this writer had the same sequence repeated five times. After the second time, you are thinking: Oh, look. Zombies-by-the-numbers. Yawn.

Yeah, it's about zombies and you have to have exploding heads and faces getting eaten off and all like that, but you need to be creative, and you need to ramp up the jeopardy and peril.

In my current work-in-progress, Bristlecone, I have a scene I really liked. In fact, it was the sequence I posted on my blog introducing the main characters -- a bunch of bad-ass young covert ops getting told to step carefully or the old folks would hand them their asses. I thought it was a way-cool scene, if a bit talky, so I cleaned it up and crafted it so it moved faster, and was quite pleased with myself.

Reading over it today, I realized it was completely unnecessary. All that stuff I told my reader, I had already shown them leading up to the scene. It was redundant. I could have made it the prologue, but then I would have to give up the one I had, which was necessary to set the tone for the villain. So, much as I liked Wilson and the boys going on about how Hull and Khadra were bad fuckers and would stomp heads if somebody bothered them, I had to cut the scene. I didn't want to cut it, understand, but your first responsibility as a writer is to serve the story, not show how you can craft a cool -- and useless -- scene.

Another darling bites the dust.

Oh, drat.


Anonymous said...

You could post it here; like director's cut material.

Steve Perry said...

Already did, what? a year or so ago. Culled it for the Blockhead book I'm writing.

Bobbe Edmonds said...

Die! Die! My darling!

Steve Perry said...

Not to worry, Kid -- I can kill those for you.

And, of course, will ...

jks9199 said...

Are you sure it didn't serve the story? Sometimes, it's worth strengthening your case, so to speak. Or can it be adjusted & tweaked to highlight something about the characters? If it was worth the effort to write and craft -- it should still have a place. If not in that story... save it for another!

Steve Perry said...

Never throw anything you write out, but this scene won't play for me in this book. I could leave it in, and probably not get many complaints -- I fancy I can craft a scene that keeps readers turning pages, now and again. But my auto-editor kicked in, and when atman speaks, he is almost never wrong.

Scene had to go.