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Thou Shall (Not) Kill Your Darlings

23 March 2015 | 4 Comments » | Kristin Luna

Don’t you do it, George.

There is a popular piece of advice that has gone around (and around) writing circles since William Faulkner said it: “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” Joss Whedon has since advised writers to cut what they love most from their manuscripts or screenplays if they’ve come up against a serious case of writer’s block. The advice is, succinctly: take out what you love the most to get “unstuck.” And writers have agonizingly cut their beloved characters and scenes out of their first and second drafts, thinking they are heeding valuable advice.

While I personally think authors like George R. R. Martin kill off beloved characters particularly well in order to elicit emotions from the reader, that’s not exactly what we’re talking about. I mean when a writer gets some alpha or beta reader’s feedback suggesting they cut a character or scene the author particularly loves. Forcing a character out of a first or second draft can be devastating to a newer writer. Sometimes, it might be necessary. But other times, it’s important to recognize when you have something special.

We can safely assume Joss Whedon has been stuck on many occasions because he’s a writer and that’s in the job description. Let’s imagine Whedon came down with a serious case of writer’s block while working on episodes of Firefly. Following his own advice, what would he take out? My favorite part of the show is Malcolm Reynolds, the captain of the firefly ship Serenity. Now let’s just imagine Firefly without Malcolm Reynolds for a minute. I can’t help but ask myself… What’s the point, anymore?

Would the show have reached its famed cult status if Whedon replaced Mal with a different, less Han Solo-esk character? Perhaps, but an absolutely vital piece of what makes Firefly so memorable, part of its magic, would have been buried in old drafts, never to see the light of day. Mal is special. He’s important to the story, and the story would be weaker without him. Imagine if we never knew Nathan Fillion as Mal because Whedon was under a deadline, or had had a bad week?

Put down the knife; back slowly away from the computer. Before immediately killing off your favorite character or deleting your favorite scene, I offer you an alternative: questions.

1. Did I develop this character to his/her full potential?

2. Is there something buried in my character’s past that could be vital to this story and increase conflict?

3. *Gulp* Is there a conflict?

4. What about my character could cause conflict with: a. others, b. his/her surroundings, c. his/her culture, or d. him/herself?

5. Did I outline this story? (Most writers report writer’s block when they skimp on pre-writing and outlining)

6. Am I holding back, or waiting to reveal something pivotal until the end? What if I put it near the beginning instead? How would that change the story, and could it make the story stronger?

7. What would make my side characters more interesting to play as a foil to the main character? Are the side characters just as developed as my main character?

8. Would taking this character out of my story make the story stronger or significantly weaker?

9. Pretend you have cut the scene or character in question. Are you just as enthusiastic about the project as you were before?

10. Are you willing to put in the time and work to fix the issue, deepen the character, conflict, or scene, in order to keep it in your project?

When it comes down to it, writers either run on enthusiasm or discipline. Ideally, at least a little of both. If the character or scene you love is giving you trouble, ask yourself if you’re still enthusiastic about the story, and committed to telling it. If it’s one of your first stories or drafts, you may find it’s better to cut your losses and either begin again or start a different story entirely. But if you love the story and are committed to telling it, there is always a way to fix the problem without resorting to cutting or killing your beloved darlings.

Knowing When to Break the Rules

20 March 2015 | No Comments » | Leigh Galbreath
I had a government teacher in high school that had a motto: Only by learning the rules can you figure out how to go around them. Rules are, by and large, a fantastic way to learn the craft, but at some point, we all learn that, as the man said at the beginning of the month, they are not really rules at all, but guidelines, and one of the most difficult things to learn isn’t so much how to break the rules, but when.

No one breaks the rules just to break the rules. We do it because it fits the story and helps us manipulate the reader into feeling or seeing or knowing something that would not be expressed as well any other way.

As an example, the James Joyce’s short story “The Dead” starts a tale of a Victorian Age party by jumping from one person to another as they arrive. Now, technically, this is what we term “head popping” and can easily get confusing. Yet, instead of being confused as to who you’re supposed to be following, or feeling distanced by the omniscient 3rd person viewpoint, Joyce quite literally introduces us as if we’re one of the attendees. The first time I read it, I was strongly reminded of the cinematic “one shot”, where the camera follows one person only to be smoothly handed off to another, and then another, without cutting. Think of the opening scene of the film Snake Eyes or the Syfy miniseries of Battlestar Galactica. Joyce, of course, stops the the shifting POV once everyone’s been introduced, and we settle on the main character until it’s time to leave, and we’re shifting around again as we chase after a departing carriage. He effectively sucks the reader in, makes them comfortable, and then lets them go in a whirl.

In “A Rose for Emily”, William Faulkner completely stops the action of a story that’s moved a pretty good pace, to give us a long, extremely detailed description of a room that is being viewed for the first time in forty years in order to help us feel the shock the characters feel as they take in the room and lastly, the forty-year-old corpse contained within.

Stephen King likes to do much the same when characters are heading into danger by adding long, detailed descriptions that pull the tension of a scene taut and deepen in the dread factor when other writers might play it safer by dropping the details and sticking to the rule that pacing should move faster as the character runs headlong into action.

Yet, when we see the experts do it so well, we tend to forget that these guidelines, after all, are there for a reason. For the most part, they are bits of wisdom that writers over time have learned readers react well to. When you go against that, there’s always a risk. Breaking one rule or the other can be a tactical gamble. For writers like King, Faulkner, and Joyce, it seems an effortless gamble. But not every attempt is as effective.

A rather popular YA series that I greatly enjoy follows the POV of one character in third person exclusively, until the tenth book of the series, when we suddenly get an italicized, first person, present tense POV of a completely different character. Sure, the author marks these shifts by making them separate chapters and putting the name of the POV character as a heading, but still, it was jarring the first time I read it. As a writer, I get it. First person, present tense, causes an urgent immediacy that highlights the dangerous, violent and unstable situation the character is in. But really, was the italics necessary? And it’s introduced after nine books of straight 3rd person. Is it something that would lose readers? After sticking through nine books, probably not. I kept reading. But still, it was a little weird, and I’m not altogether sure that the result outweighed the initial annoyance.

The point is, breaking the rules is fine, but as with everything else we writers do, it has to serve the story above all else. It’s good to experiment, to test our craft and expand our use of language, and often enough, for the nuanced writer, the rules can actually get in the way of a good story. But everything has a time and place, and knowing when to break the rules is just as important as how to break them.

When Rules get you into Trouble

19 March 2015 | No Comments » | Jace Killan

The_Book_Cover_Of_The_RacketeerA great writer once told me that to be a good writer, I needed to learn all the literary rules and then forget them all.

I remember the first time I shared my craft with a crit group. I remember thinking how lucky they all were to discover my talent. The session didn’t quite go as I thought. They tore apart my writing for one fundamental flaw—Point of View. In the chapter of about fifteen hundred words I switched POV at least seven times. I wrote as if I were watching a movie, each POV a different camera angle. This of course is amateurish and makes for rough reading.

In another crit group, I shared a new piece, expecting agent referrals and publishing contracts. Instead I received fantastic feedback on the concept (new to me at the time) of Showing vs. Telling.

So I upped my game. I avoided any word ending in “ly” and the word “felt” so that I could show instead of tell. (There was a great post on adverbs earlier this month). I wrote much more dialogue and I put my main POV character deep in the scene. I thought that I needed to keep reminding the reader of where my POV character was, how his/her hands were positioned, and where he/she was looking.

Instead of writing, “I picked up the phone.” I might have written something like, “I picked up the phone with my right hand while using my left to shuffle through some papers.

I’d use filtering phrases like “I could see the light glistening through the window from the outside.”

Rather than “Light glistened through the window.”

This type of writing really messes with pacing. I had written a scene as follows:

“Lenny grabbed the back of the trailer with his right hand and while running along he reached as far as he could with his left hand grabbing another part of the trailer and jumped at the same time pulling himself up though he got stuck part way but soon pulled himself up and onto the trailer. “

Rather than, “With some effort, Lenny managed to pull himself into the trailer.”

Also, I failed to give any backstory in my novel for fear of telling rather than showing. So I would get it in by an incredibly long discussion that didn’t quite work. I left my readers with a bunch of questions, because I was too afraid to “tell.”

It seemed as if I swung on the pendulum of poor writing from inappropriate use of POV and too much telling, to the other side of overuse of POV and obscurity.

To address my problems I’ve read, a lot. I take notice of when authors use “ly” words and when they use filtering and why it works or maybe how it could be better. I’ve paid attention to how an author shows a story, how he/she sets it up and establishes setting while still revealing back story, and I think I’m getting it. Maybe those publishing contracts are right around the corner or maybe I’ll have another opportunity to learn and grow or both.

I’m learning that good writing is just one element to a good story. I’ll endure page after page of telling backstory in The Rackateer by John Grisham, because the story is intriguing. I’ll ignore Larry Correia’s overuse of adverbs in his work Monster Hunter International because his story is extremely exciting and funny. I’ll overlook Michael Chrichton’s abundance of point of view filtering in Prey because the story is full of nail-biting suspense. Hopefully someday I can have the privilege of someone critiquing my work after they’ve paid for it.

jace 1I think that it is very unlikely that a person just wakes up one day and realizes that he/she is a fantastic writer. Great authors learn how to write great stories well. It takes time and lots of practice.

I think maybe I’m starting to forget some rules.




Authorial Foreshadowing

16 March 2015 | 3 Comments » | fictorians

A guest post by Lou Berger.

As Emily Godhand’s post Friday discussed, writers are, in the course of their tutelage, exhorted to show their story, not tell it. As you read this post, however, you‘ll learn a specialized form of how to break this rule and do it well.

See what I did there? I gave you some insight about what’s to come! If you were paying attention, Gentle Reader, you’ll be able to guess the rule I’m about to teach you how to break. And that’s exactly the point.

Authors, including Stephen King and Jane Austen, make frequent use of the literary device known as authorial foreshadowing. Thing are bopping along, you’re getting great dialogue, great scene descriptions and a general, friendly backstory of the folks you’re about to spend time with in the story you are reading. Then, ruining your day, the author intrudes on all this happiness and beauty with a huge revelation.

“Little did Jimmy know that this was his last morning of sunshine. A late-model Buick with fishhooks welded to the grill barreled down the interstate, driven by an unshaven man hunching forward to peer through the cloudy windshield.”

Gives you shivers, don’t it? And the unshaven man probably won’t, prior to his smashing into poor little Jimmy and his friends at the bus stop, pull over and shave or, God forbid, clean the damn windshield.

The author has interrupted the story to tell you that something dire is approaching. Now you can’t see Jimmy in quite the same way, can you? You’re already discounting what he says and does because he’s gonna die. Oh, it will be a splendid death, for sure, with young bodies cartwheeling through the air, perhaps a mangling or two, maybe even a severed head bouncing through the school zone, coming to rest against the curb, eyes clouding over as the mouth works soundlessly.

But I digress. That’s coming up. Right now, Jimmy and his cohorts are sniggering about something the teacher said. “The beauty of art,” she announced, but the boys can only parse that she said “The beauty, uh, fart.”

Boys, right?

Authors foreshadow to build tension, to keep you engaged in the story.

Also, if they know that something unbelievable is about to happen, a good author will break the “show, don’t tell” rule with authorial foreshadowing to get your mind working on what is about to take place. Call it, if you are so inclined, a way to get you thinking about something improbable way ahead of time, so that when it comes up, you were expecting it and you’re not so unwilling to believe that it is possible.

“When Georgette woke up that morning and stretched in the early Kansas sunshine, she had no idea that she’d be barreling toward Pluto in a stolen alien spacecraft by mid-afternoon.”

See? Now she can munch Wheaties, dress for school in a smock and Mary Janes, then skip her way to the bus stop where Janice is waiting with the latest dirt on the new boy that moved into the Johnson house. WE know that aliens are a’comin’. So we mentally prepare for that and anxiously await learning how the author will make it happen.

Georgette, on the other hand, is clueless.

And we turn the pages rapidly, racing toward the abduction . . .

There. I told you you’d learn something!


About Lou Berger:Lou Berger small

Lou Berger is a Denver-based writer. He’s published several short stories in magazines and anthologies, and is a member of SFWA. He’s currently working on a middle-grade novel set in 1978’s Franklin, North Carolina. His website is



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