Credit to Kool With A K on YouTube for inspiring this post!
“Kill your darlings” is bad writing advice because it’s sloppy. Since nobody ever specifies which darlings to kill, the heuristic becomes, “If I care about something in my writing, I have to delete it.”
No wonder so many of the writers who take this advice to heart end up burning out before they can create their best work. That, or they end up bitter and resentful later in their careers.
Writers usually start as readers, and readers seek out things they can fall in love with and keep and cherish. Why should we expect the mature writer to have the exact opposite instincts as the reader?
“Kill your darlings” is a bad rule but, nonetheless, it tries to correct a real problem. Namely, a story needs to earn the agreement of many different people to survive out in the wild. This includes editors, agents, publishers, other creators, and most importantly, readers. In most cases, this means compromising.
Our “darlings” make for the most difficult compromises, since they are the parts of the story that feel precious to us but are too weird, too specific, too flowery, or too anything else for most people’s taste.
When faced with these compromises, the amateur folds their arms and says, “No.” There are a million potential excuses they can offer, everything from, “I’m not good enough to fix this,” to “You’re an idiot, I’m a genius, and one day the world will see I was right.”
Whatever their excuse is, the underlying logic is the same each time: “This is too precious for me to change.”
The professional does make these compromises, one way or another. “Kill your darlings” is one way, but there are many other, healthier ways (and, for that matter, some even more destructive ways).
“Kill your darlings” is a way of trying to avoid the difficult compromises altogether by cutting out the controversial bits ahead of time. Come to think of it, it’s a rather paranoid and selfish rule in addition to being sloppy.
Let me offer you a more mature and useful rule, one that will allow you to sharpen your craft while still chasing the things you love:
“You only get one darling.”
That darling could be a plotline, a character, an image, a metaphor, a theme, or any other element of your story. Whatever it is, it’s the one thing you’re going to guard with unwavering devotion.
And then you’re going to compromise on everything else.
This a many-splendored rule. First, it gives you a sense of deep confidence, because no matter what changes may come, you always know that this is your story. Second, it doesn’t turn you into a bitter old jackass like Norman Mailer. Third, it forces you to dig deep and really understand what your story is ABOUT.
Because your story is not ABOUT its premise, or the things that happen in the plot, or your cool hero. It’s ABOUT something deeper. Any project that’s worth sweating through to the end is ABOUT something, and figuring that something out is the most important thing you can do to grow as a writer.
Now, let’s look at two recent movie examples, starting with one that fails to follow this principle: The Mummy, 2017.
The Mummy is a stunningly bad movie for far too many reasons for me to list here (for one, Set is the Egyptian god of storms and chaos, not death). Still, there are many elements of its story that could have worked wonders in the context of a different story.
***Spoiler Warning for The Mummy, 2017***
For example, having Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as the head of the secret monster hunting society Prodigium is a great idea, but since none of the other characters are as developed (or as campy) as those two it feels like a waste.
And for that matter, “Prodigium” probably could work as the name for that monster hunting society, but it feels like it belongs in a more serious, academic universe than the (intentionally or no) campy, B-horror fun of the Dark Universe.
Even the concept of a forgotten Egyptian princess making a Faustian pact with Set could’ve worked if the writers had actually understood Egyptian mythology and found a smoother way to integrate their invented character.
***End of The Mummy, 2017 Spoilers***
Seeing the pattern yet? These good ideas don’t get a chance to thrive because none of them are the central focus, and the writers somehow missed the fact that none of them harmonize with each other.
The funny thing here is that many critics are chalking this up to laziness. That’s entirely possible, but it’s equally likely that the filmmakers were passionate about the project but just couldn’t bring themselves to find the one darling of the story and kill the other, unnecessary ones.
Now let’s look another recent movie that does follow this principle: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
First off, if you haven’t seen this movie, go watch it immediately. It’s wonderful.
Now, this is a perfect example to use here because Guardians 2 sounds like, on the surface, a chaotic kitchen sink of a movie. The main cast includes an Earthling dude raised by space pirates, a talking racoon, a sentient tree baby, along with a host of other aliens, and the genre is somewhere between a space opera and a crime caper.
Yet, the movie is ABOUT one very clear, specific thing. It has only one darling.
Of course, I do want to take a moment to credit all the crew members, CG artists, actors, editors, managers, and so on who worked hard to make the film look and sound so delightful…
…but still, none of that would’ve added up to a memorable film if the script didn’t provide the one darling.
So what’s the one darling?
I can illustrate it with a single, pivotal scene.
***Spoiler Warning for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2***
Over the course of the film, our hero Peter Quill discovers that the evil quasi-god-figure Ego is his father, and that he himself could attain god-like power by joining his side. Instead, Peter decides to destroy Ego to stop his plan of killing all life in the universe by replacing it with himself.
During their final battle, Ego restrains Peter and warns him that if he dies, Peter will never again have access to his god-like power.
Ego’s exact words are “You’ll be just like everybody else.”
Peter then has a flashback to all the people he’s felt close to throughout his life, including some of the very people who have sometimes harmed or disappointed him. Yondu, for example, has alternated between hunting down Peter and acting as his father figure. In this sequence, Peter remembers the latter—the very moments when he and Yondu felt most connected.
Then Peter says the most important line in the film (and I start openly weeping with joy):
“What’s so bad about that?”
THAT is the one darling of the film. It’s the core theme: no matter how imperfect people are, the connections they form between each other are the real meaning of life. With that question, Peter shows that he’s rejecting godhood because it would mean abandoning the flawed, real people who matter to him.
With that one darling in place, all the other subplots of the film make sense. Gamora’s arc involves learning that her conflict with her sister Nebula was never really about jealousy; it was about a lack of genuine sisterhood. Yondu was willing to risk banishment from the Ravagers because of his fatherly connection to young Peter, and the Ravagers posthumously accept him back into the fold once they recognize the heroism of his sacrifice.
By the end of the film, even Rocket is starting to learn that he doesn’t need to wander through life nurturing his feelings of isolation. As weird as his story is, there are still others who relate to it.
***End of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Spoilers***
I can almost guarantee you the filmmakers had to make a lot of compromises along the way to get Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 finished and out to the public. At each of those moments, I’m sure they thought back to their one darling and asked themselves which decision would best serve it.
So remember: You Only Get One Darling.