A Writer’s Lesson: Kill Your Darlings

I used to think a complex plot was the sign of a brilliant writer; the harder I work at writing, the more I think the opposite true –a brilliant writer can pare down their story to focus on what matters most.

It’s hard.

I should know. I have to do this regularly.

My problem is keeping the focus narrow. I start out writing a book with a plot twist or scene I want to reach in mind, and new characters and subplots creep in and pull me in too many different directions, leaving me feeling overwhelmed and unsure how to tie everything together… until I have a “come to Jesus” writing moment and start ruthlessly cutting everything that doesn’t work: dead plot lines, flat characters, good ideas that don’t belong. I kill “my darlings,” so the main plot and main characters can shine brighter and have more focus and depth.

So, when I say Fantastic Beasts 2 disappointed me… I say it with love, because Rowling no longer knows how to “kill her darlings.” I found her first three books tight, well-plotted, and fantastic. Then came The Goblet of Fire, which was longer than the rest with more subplots. I was okay with this, because I love the Tri-Wizarding Tournament. But page by page, Rowling’s stories started getting longer. More out of hand. More characters. Even padded. When the first Fantastic Beasts came out, I loved it, even though it wasn’t perfect. I thought the limited running time would force her to stay focused.

I was wrong.

Fantastic Beasts 2 left me disappointed. I saw the best of Rowling glinting under the hot mess – the stuff she does best, the wonderful moments of pure character “magic.” But she tried to tell so many stories at the same time, none had much screen time, so there was almost no character development, which made the plot reveals stacked at the end emotionless, and many of the scenes had nothing to do with one another. I got lost. And it broke my heart, because there was so much potential lost in the chaos.

fantasticbeasts2

Every writer needs someone to tell them “no.” They need someone to tell them to shave their plots. Authors are not objective. They think, “My characters are great. My plot lines are great. I need every one of them…” No, they do not. If I step back from a manuscript, put myself in a reader’s shoes, and realize they’ll feel lost and confused, because I am lost and confused…  then I have to face the truth: I have too much plot.

If you remove a character and need not rewrite extensively to fill the hole they left behind… you did not need them. I have to thank a friend who read my second draft of The Usurper’s Throne and said, “You don’t need Sir Thomas More.”

I felt injured. I LIKED Thomas More. His wit. His banter. His intuition.

I sulked.

Then I took him out. And realized nothing changed. His scenes were there because I liked and wanted to include him, not because he contributed to the plot. I miss not having him there, but the story did not need him. It still does not. He will come in when it’s time.

That was a hard lesson for me to learn.

Rowling has made me learn it again. I saw her hot mess and came home to face mine. I arrived defeated. I looked at my work in progress, then took out a notebook and wrote down my plot. It’s far too complicated. So I chopped things.

It wasn’t enough. I still had too many subplots.

I asked myself the question I’d forgotten along the way. Who is the protagonist? Who is the antagonist? Every character / scene / development has to deepen understanding of these characters and their struggle or further the main plot / subplot.

And… a bunch more subplots fell away.

I stand looking at the naked bones of a novel. Part of me feels sick with frustration. 80,000+ words I now have to gut, rearrange, remove, and stick in a “save for later in case I want to use the subplot” folder. But another part of me sighed with relief. Stripped to the core with no distractions, I can write about Edda and her father and her fondness for the boy, Tristan. I can write about Henry VII, the looming force over their lives. It will deepen all their plot arcs. I don’t need the rest.

I just wonder when, exactly, I am going to learn to do this sooner.

22 thoughts on “A Writer’s Lesson: Kill Your Darlings

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  1. YES! DKoren and I have been opining to each other how much good story was buried under the extra new characters and distractions. Sigh. I just got the screenplay, and I’m hoping it at least fills in some gaps left by all the glitter.

    Sorry you have a lot of gutting to do. But that can be really good. Sometimes fun, even. But yeah, learning NOT to do that in the first place would be helpful.

    1. What plot line would you have chosen? I felt Grindelwald’s connection to Dumbledore, and his desire to use fear of WWII to recruit wizard to his ranks was an excellent storyline she should have capitalized more on; I also thought she needed to focus way more on Queenie and Jacob, to sell THAT plot twist. I don’t think she needed Credence or Nagini, nor the characters from the Ministry, or Newt’s brother.

      My story seems to be breathing better now that I ripped out all the excess fat — so it’ll be all right. It may even go faster now. 😉

      1. Neither of us connected to Newt’s brother’s fiancee, and his brother may be interesting someday, but isn’t really now. I agree she should have focused it all more on Grindelwald’s obsession with taking Dumbledore down — using Credence to that end would have been a perfectly fine way to tie him in and capitalize on Newt’s regret at not saving Credence and determination to do so now.

        Both Nagini and Flamel smacked of “hey, wouldn’t it be cool if…” writing, though Nagini managed to be interesting enough that I want to know more about her.

        Overall, it lacked focus SO MUCH. And I’ve come to realize that focus is something I pretty much demand of a story. Not always — I like some sprawling, meandering epics too. But I value tight focus, and when a story suffers from its lack, I get annoyed.

        1. I think, in a way, Rowling has written herself into a mess, because she started this franchise with Newt — and yet, he’s less of an interesting character here than Dumbledore and Grindelwald. If you have Jude Law and Johnny Depp, USE THEM. I kind of wondered, actually, why this movie wasn’t about using Credence to attack Dumbledore. She could have moved the “big reveal” at the end to the first thirty minutes of the film, focused on Queenie being seduced by the dark side, and then driven the story into conflict, without the muddled plot of whose baby died.

          Yes, focus… it had not. Too much all at once. I don’t mind a long story (LotR, for example) but it needs a main narrative.

  2. Okay, but I love that phrase–your “come to Jesus” writing moment. That’s the best. *grins*

    I feel like I’m the opposite, almost??? I start out trying to write a story that’s sooooooooooooooo stripped down there’s almost nothing there, and I have to learn how to beef it up. My first draft of “Gold” had way too few characters and no real action. I’m having to add the meat now, in Round Two.

    YES. THAT. EXACTLY THAT. That’s what’s been holding me back from reading the HP series, even though I really do want to learn more about her world: I go to the library and look at the copies of her books, and they’re so long. I just. I can’t. Somehow, I have even less-than-normal tolerance for long and detailed and ponderous stories. They make me cringe, sort of like baking soda makes me cringe (uhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. Weird simile. Sorry. I just freak out at the feel of baking soda on my fingers. 😉 )

    I really like all things that are stripped down and sparse, and I don’t like their opposite . . .

    1. What you reference seems to be a pattern between Ne and Ni writers — one having too much, one not having enough, and having to work in opposite directions — taking out and adding in. (This is why I don’t think Rowling uses Ni. 😉

      Most novels are too long. There, I’ve said it. Almost all of them could be cut down to make a stronger central story. But… I will say this. Rowling’s HP books are worth it. She really builds a world that you fall in love with — or at least, I did. A nuanced world full of magic, and dragons, and wizards, and house elves, with layers of stories and terrific character development. Yes, her stories got away from her in the end. But I mostly do not mind, because by the time it happens I’m invested. She wrote a beautiful love story in the last book — a love story better than the entirety of Twilight, which was ONE CHAPTER LONG, a back-history. And I cried. 😉

      I don’t like things that are too thin, too stripped. They feel like an echo instead of a yell.

      1. Noooooooooooooooooo . . . I don’t think she does, either. 😉 I’ve heard it argued that she does but I really doubt it.

        Completely agree, most novels ARE too long, even after being edited and published. Especially fantasy novels, for whatever reason.

        Maybe I should watch the movies first so I’ll have the plots memorized?? I might feel a little less overwhelmed/suffocated/drowned if I approached such a huge stack of books with a clear map of what’s going to happen.

        I don’t like yells! Yells are scary! Echoes, on the other hand, are fun 😉

        1. I have argued myself blue in the face about her typing. It’s not about WHAT you write, but HOW you write it. She seems to use a Si and Ne process — a lot of details which enrich her world and make it seem real, but also an expanding wizarding world that gets a lot of characters and motivations going.

          Harry Potter is actually fairly easy to read, because you’re never away from him as a main character. It’s third person “first,” which means you’re always with him / in his head, so all the subplots go through / around Harry. I never forgot who anyone was, because she gradually introduced them … and although her books did get longer as the series progressed, she always has terrific — and I do mean terrific — main plots. And, wonderful characters. Like Professor Lupin. His arrival in the series in Book 3 made that my favorite book. So, I would recommend them, but yeah… watching the movies first might help. (Cough… do it when you come to visit me… cough.)

          I’m not sure editors are … being as stringent as they used to be, because I read everywhere to write tight books and then I go to B&N and see a “debut” novel of 900 pages. And I almost never pick it up to read it, because my brain just goes: NOPE.

          That’s one reason I’ve sort of committed myself to keeping all my Tudor novels about the same length — around 95k words. Always manageable. And it forces me to be “tighter.” Even when characters try and run away with me. 😉

          I think one of the few Ni-dom writers I’ve truly enjoyed despite the sparseness of the writing is C.S. Lewis. As a kid, I never realized he never describes the children or their surroundings that much… they were so vivid in my imagination, it didn’t matter to me.

          1. Right!!! An Ni user and a Si user can both write fantasy–they can both invent new worlds–but the Si’s worldbuilding is just gonna be more detailed than the Ni’s. That’s the way it IS.

            That’s what I’ll do! 😀 We’ll watch the movies together when I come visit, and you can Fill Me In on stuff, and then I’ll read the books when I return home, armed with my newfound knowledge. I do love me some good characters and good plots.

            NOPE NOPE NOPE. Not happening for me, either. People, please learn to trim your stuff down–I promise, it’ll be worth it in the end!!

            Good choice 😉 I expect “Gold” will be around 50K to 60K.

            Me too!!! My imagination filled everything in so richly, it never occurred to me how SHORT the books actually are until much later. The side effect of that, of course, is that everybody’s ‘mental’ Narnia is very unique and very personal–we all see the world differently, cause he didn’t tell us what it looks like.

          2. Yes. Rowling is more comparable in her worldvbuilding to Tolkien (SiNe), in my opinion, than Lewis (NiSe), but she’s also more adept with emotional dynamics as a feeler. And yay for watching HP together. I hope you like the movies. 😉

            I cut out an entire subplot on the weekend — as in literally removing chunks of test and it took 10k words off my novel. I am now a chapter and a half into rewriting and it feels so much more streamlined and focused. It’s great.

            The one thing I do think I remember about the Narnia books is Jadis having long black hair. So when Disney made her an albino I was like ?????. (Maybe Netflix can rectify that.)

          3. I think I will 😉

            AWESOME!! Ah, that is the best feeling–where you finally know Where the Story Needs to Go and you can just focus on getting there.

            I do remember that, too!!!! I was soooooooooooo annoyed as a 10-year-old or something when I saw promotional material for the movies and Jadis was super blond . . .

          4. I mean, Tilda Swinton is awesome in a totally weird kind of way but she does not fit my mental image of Jadis. In any way.

            (I kind of hope Netflix starts with The Magician’s Nephew in their new Narnia series. Technically, it’s the “first” book.)

          5. Nope, me neither.

            That would be COOL. I dearly love The Magician’s Nephew. Also, starting with that book would ensure that we actually *get* to it, instead of them starting with TLTWATW and then getting burned out three movies later before they can get to the Really Awesome Stuff. *coughs pointedly*

          6. YES. I LOVE LWW with the fire of a thousand burning suns, it’s my favorite (along with the Silver Chair) but can we please start at the beginning of the story and go in sequence?? I want to see the moment they drag Jadis into Narnia and THEN move into Lucy’s adventures!

      2. That’s an Ni vs Ne problem? That actually explains so much- everyone always talks about going way over a word count, but I’ve always fallen under (Ni user here). And yeah, I have too much ‘padding’ to my stories, even the too short ones, but it’s more of the ‘fat’ rather than the ‘meat.’ I have to strip that away, but then add a LOT. I’m jealous of you, Charity- I wish I could come up with subplots and a billion characters and enough of a plot to make a full novel 😉

        I agree- I don’t think Rowling is an Ni user either. I haven’t seen Fantastic Beasts 2 yet- is it worth it?

        1. Yes, it seems to be a Ne problem. The higher the Ne, the more characters you wind up with — but don’t be too jealous. After awhile, I become overwhelmed by them all, anxious about tying them all together into the main plot, and start deleting them left, right, and center — which means way more work for me, in terms of rewriting a novel six times. 😛

          For you, novellas may be the way to go. In my opinion, you should use enough words to tell a story — and no more. Fitzgerald wrote rather short novels (“The Great Gatsby”) that have become classics, unlike his contemporary, Thomas Wolfe (an ENFP, probably) who dumped entire trunks on his poor editor’s desk, full of reams and reams of paper. (Have you seen the movie about him and his poor editor? It’s called Genius and it’s good. Jude Law plays him.) His poor editor had to fight with him to “delete the damned flowery prose.” Ha, ha.

          Rowling… is either an INFP or an ISFJ. Her writing style and approach seems more INFP, but how she guides her readers into taking specific sides seems more FJ.

          Overall, I did enjoy Fantastic Beasts 2. I thought the opening scene and the end were especially good, with some spectacular moments in-between. So yes, I would say for me it was worth seeing. And I’d watch it again, especially knowing where the plots were going — I might be able to follow it better the second time. Just… pay attention. It moves fast and hops around a lot for the first half.

          1. I have considered novellas, it’s just hard to break into a traditional market with them 😛
            I’ll have to check out Genius- I like movies about writers.

            Good to know about Fantastic Beasts- I’ll have to make time for that.

          2. That’s true. Do you run light on description? It’s been hard for me to learn a balance (and I still tend to go light on it :P) but sometimes adding how things look / smell / taste can up your word count without actually over-complicating the plot.

            Me too. “Genius” is fun but also sad. You’ll see why.

            And, if you go see “Fantastic Beasts,” I hope you enjoy it. 🙂

          3. I do run super light on description- I need to go through and add several paragraphs to almost every scene, because readers have no idea where the characters are (stupid low Se). 😛

  3. I’m sorry to hear that part of you is frustrated, but I’m glad you’re able to better develop the characters and plot! I know it will turn out well, so keep it up. I’ll be looking forward to the book. 🙂

    1. Thank you. I took out 10k words from my novel yesterday, just removing one subplot. And my worst fears were confirmed — it’ll take almost no rewriting to cut that subplot out. Oops.

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