Don’t have a love affair with your words — it might end tragically
I wrote a scene for our TV show, and it was lovely. I built it on a brilliant idea. It ran smoothly and had perfect pacing.
And it ended with a genius, heartfelt dialog. I felt so proud for coming up with that final touch! Maybe it was slightly too long, but every word deserved to be there, so I was confident.
The scene came back from my supervisor with a note: “Great scene! Cut the last dialogue and we’re good to go!”
WHAT?! That dialogue was the best thing in the scene! It was a clever metaphor! Didn’t she get it? Why would she want to cut that? I could cut a few words from here and there to shorten the scene, but that last dialog had to stay!
“No no no no,” said the supervisor, “We don’t need that line. We totally get the point. It over-explains and ruins the beauty.”
I understood her point, but I was in love with those words so much that it still hurt to cut them out. “Will I ever have another chance to use them somewhere else? Extremely unlikely.” Press delete.
I must add that the same thing happened to me more than once or twice. I was asked several times to cut the best bits out of my writing. I felt betrayed and undermined. I even thought people were jealous of my beautiful words. If it happened to you, you know what I mean.
The reality: You have to murder your darlings
When you research who said the famous quote about the darlings, you first come across William Faulkner. Then you quickly find out that it was Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. In his book On The Art Of Writing (1916) (you can read on The Project Gutenberg for free), he wrote:
‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it — whole-heartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’
We get that. It means everything you put on paper should serve the text. Anything that is ornamental should go to heaven. But why does it have to be the “darlings,” right? Why do you especially have to give up on the best bits?
It’s all about your ego
When a piece of writing is your “favorite” there is something else at play: Your ego. Your obsession is not for the good of the story. You like it because it is clever or beautiful. You think people will recognize your brilliance and you will win star points.
But what you think is genius rarely resonates with others. They don’t see what you like about it so much. But then they read a less shiny sentence that you’ve written and applaud that.
Readers and viewers enjoy whatever they enjoy. It always stunned me to hear praise for ordinary, functional and boring words I had to write. I hadn’t even paid attention. On paper, they didn’t look interesting at all.
But within the context of the big picture, those simple words put on a breathtaking meaning. There were instances I realized I had captured a gem only after they shot the episode and screened on TV!
So how should we go with our murders?
Murder your ego first
If I tried to build a gem with clever words, I probably would have failed. But when I wrote it naturally following the story, it materialized without me realizing.
If you are going to have an affair, don’t have it with your words. Fall in love with the story. With the overall meaning behind the words. The words will have to obey the circumstances.
Pay attention to structure and know what your story needs. When your ego decides to wander and fill your story with flowers, you’ll spot them more easily.
Don’t get in the way
Best writing leaves the audience with the story alone. The writer doesn’t get in the way and explain things.
This is where “show, don’t tell” comes into play. When we “show,” the audience experiences the events by themselves by getting into the minds and hearts of the characters. The most famous quote about the topic is from Chekhov:
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
― Anton Chekhov
When we start telling, our language loses the natural details, color and texture. Then we try to make it up by using flowery language. Those words are the ones that need murdering most.
Instead of going that path, get out of the way and show whatever is there to your readers. You will be less attached to the words and more to your story world, characters and plot.
Make peace with feedback
As you see, it’s incredibly hard to assess one’s own writing. That’s why we need feedback and take it seriously, without thinking someone is jealous.
It doesn’t mean feedback is always right. Especially when the owner of the feedback tells you how to solve a problem in your text, they often have no clue. But if they spotted a problem, you must look into that. You will find a solution in your own way. You will know whom to murder.
Language is a beautiful thing. It helps people communicate while entertaining. However, the power of language doesn’t always come from words themselves, but from their absence. Best writing is clean and concise. Thus, murder is in the job definition of a writer.
When we love our words too much, we tend to use them without necessity.
In your first draft, write whatever you feel like. Enjoy it and take all the risks. However, as Quiller-Couch suggests, delete them before you push the submit button.
Let’s murder our darlings!