Why You Need to "Kill Your Darlings"

It's time to shape that raw inspiration.

“You need to let go of the bits of your writing you are holding onto selfishly. Those words, side plots, characters or turns of phrase that you personally love but, if you are being truthful, don’t really advance your story in any way.”

One of the best bits of writing advice I ever heard found its way to me in the editing suite of a reality TV pilot presentation. The show was about women working on Capitol Hill. I was an unpaid intern working at the production company that was producing the pilot presentation, which they then planned to take to networks to try to sell the concept and turn it into a TV show.

The presentation was to be about 10 – 15 minutes. The producer had offered me a chance to sit in on the editing process, to which I’d eagerly and immediately told her, “Yes.”

Some people look back on internships with malaise, because often, you work long hours and you are not paid. These things are true, and I won’t deny that some internships are grueling. I happened to never find myself in one that was grueling, and in retrospect, I can see that I was a good intern, because I knew that although I wasn’t being paid, I was being afforded access to spaces that I had no real business being in, and that in those spaces, I was being given the opportunity to observe and absorb experiences that I had not worked my way up the ladder enough to have myself.

And so, I spent about a month or so with Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn in a tiny editing suite with the producer and editor, absorbing their every interaction and watching their creative process unfold.

There are many different ways to edit something that has been filmed, but the way that this particular project was edited was that the producer, who herself had gone to DC and shot all of the footage, was crafting the end product with the help of the editor. The producer had a story she wanted to tell, which was a dramatized version of the moments that had unfolded in real time. The editor had the technical skills to take the footage that had been shot and use it to tell that story. The producer and the editor were to sit together for many weeks, and he was to help her achieve her goals with his skills.

Some editors, I think, would have simply done that – use their technical skills to help build the story. After all, the editor had been hired by the producer. She was his client, and he’d had nothing to do with shooting the project, nor would he have anything to do with its sale, if that happened.

But this particular editor was a storyteller himself, and the editor and the producer had hit it off personally. He “got” her in that way that friends “get” each other. He could tell when she was unsure of a direction she was giving, or when she wasn’t paying attention. And he’d call her out on it. Over time, they developed a shorthand with each other that made the editing process feel extremely creative, collaborative, and alive.

"I think we should just cut this."

There was one day that sticks out in my mind – and it’s where that good piece of writing advice came from.

They were editing a scene that just wasn’t landing. The drama wasn’t coalescing. They spent a lot of time tweaking and trying, and then the editor said, “I think we should just cut this.”

The producer’s mouth tightened a bit, like she was clenching her teeth behind closed lips. And she said, “No, we have to make it work.”

“Why?” The editor asked. No “higher ups” in the company had ever popped into the editing suite. It didn’t seem that there was particular pressure on this producer to deliver any one particular scene. It seemed the sole objective was to create a 10 – 15 minute piece that felt dramatic and exciting enough that a TV network might buy it.

She hesitated and then said, “Because. It took forever to shoot this. We spent the whole shoot making sure it happened, and then it was one thing after another.”

The editor shrugged. “No one knows that,” he said. A beat of silence passed. “Or cares.”

The producer eventually agreed to cut the scene, but I could see that it pained her a bit. To her, merely shooting that scene had been a triumph. Having produced films myself, I know the feeling of “I DID IT!” that comes with coordinating something that is really tough to coordinate. It’s like fitting a wriggling, screaming monster into a container and closing the lid. You feel like you’ve done something amazing.

But the editor was right, too. If the scene wasn’t working no matter how they tried it, that probably meant that, well, the scene wasn’t working. The overall piece was not going to be any stronger by having a bad scene in it. And no one watching it would say, “That scene was not great, but I bet it took them a long time to shoot it.”

To me, this experience is closely tied to the oft-delivered writing advice: kill your darlings.

The example from that editing room involved someone being attached to a scene because of what it took to film it. The logistics – the blood, sweat, and tears. Logistical attachment is something that may ring true for producers of reality TV pilot presentations and narrative filmmakers alike. When you’ve sat through a grueling shoot, you aren’t about to just throw a scene away without a fight.

“Kill your darlings” comes into play in other ways, too – not always tied to logistics. For a writer, it may be that a piece of writing felt particularly enlightened, or that it was emotionally difficult to arrive at (more on that later). No matter how you arrive at the impasse, the nugget of wisdom is the same: if something isn’t working for the piece overall, the no matter how much you hold it dear (and no matter why you hold it dear), it may need to go.

And letting go can be hard.

Letting go can be hard.

Kill Your Darlings

It’s a creepy phrase, isn’t it? Another version of it is “kill your babies,” which is even creepier. In my opinion, it’s a purposefully provocative phrase. It’s meant to make you take pause, it’s meant to disarm, and it’s meant to make you admit that you’ve become super attached to something, and now you need to let it go.

Here’s what it means in practice:

Naturally, writers and filmmakers (and all types of artists, really) tend to create things in their larger works that they love. They may love these things for a variety of reasons. For example:

  • They think the phrasing is just beautiful
  • They think it’s very clever that they came up with it
  • It reminds them of something else they love in life, such as a person, a place, or a thing
  • It was difficult to write, shoot, or otherwise create
  • It was challenging emotionally and led to some sort of breakthrough for the artist, and thus it became emblematic of his or her own growth

As you may have gathered, these things are all pretty internal and personal. Such is art, right?

So, let’s say you wrote a screenplay. About a third of the way in, there’s a half-page scene that took you about a day and a half to write where one character tells another something very private. Perhaps, as you were writing, you felt really emotionally challenged by getting into the minds of your characters here, and you felt almost a cathartic release when you finally figured out how to let them express themselves in this moment in the story.

By going through something so challenging in the writing process, you developed an affection for the scene. You’d been on a journey together, you and that scene, and you’d both come out better for it. And I should note that it doesn’t necessarily have to be that it was tough to write the scene. It could be that it flowed out of you and onto the page with such fervor that you thought to yourself, “Yes! This bit of the writing is so natural and so pure – it’s why I write!” Whatever it is, it’s probably giving you positive feelings. You think that piece of the writing is wonderful, and you think that you will never let go of it.

It makes sense, then, that when your producer gives you feedback on the script and suggests that you cut that scene out, it stings a little. Depending on your personality and how much you love whatever’s being suggested you cut, “sting” may be an understatement. You may find yourself clutching to the scene – and perhaps to your pride – saying, “No, that can’t go. Not that scene.”

Speaking for myself, personally, I can say that when I feel that feeling – that “No! You can’t have it!” feeling – that’s when I know it is precisely the time when I need to take a step back and ask myself: am I hanging onto this piece for the right reasons?

The phrase “kill your darlings” is, in essence, an actionable version of that question. It’s asking you to be honest about why you’re holding onto something. Is it because it’s what’s best for the piece overall? Or is it because you, for whatever reason, really love it and want to hug it and never let it go?

Often, it’s the latter. And in the realm of creation, loving something so much that you stubbornly never want to let it go deserves a closer inspection. Because it sometimes means that you aren’t thinking about it in context of the piece overall, which may well be better off without it.

"Kill Your Darlings" | Sony Pictures Classics, 2013

Kill Your Darlings | Sony Pictures Classics, 2013

But why?

Why have advice-givers been asking people to kill their favorite bits of writing for decades?

To put it bluntly, oftentimes, those bits are indulgent. As artists, we all like to indulge ourselves from time to time. To create a piece of writing that has poetic flourish, or to film a scene that doesn’t quite fit in but feels alive. The truth is that it’s not uncommon for these bit to feed our creative souls but not actually benefit the piece as a whole.

“You have to get rid of your most precious and especially self-indulgent passages for the greater good of your literary work,” explains Forrest Wickman in an article concerning Kill Your Darlings, a film about Allen Ginsberg and Lucien Carr, both of whom sometimes have been credited for coming up with the phrase (although the concept was around long before Ginsberg and Carr).

“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,” pronounced Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in 1914, in his Cambridge lectures On The Art of Writing.

In fact, an anecdote about the writing process for the film Kill Your Darlings is a nice example of the concept in action. This account of how to fix a scene that wasn’t working, written by the film’s screenwriter Austin Bunn, is a bit long, but stick with it.

“I remember listening to the first read-through of the script, four days before we started shooting, and thinking, We have a serious problem. Scene 45 – the dead center of the story, the moment when the young Allen Ginsberg reads his first poem from a boat adrift on the Hudson – was not working. More specifically, it wasn’t doing anything, and for the midpoint of a script, which is ostensibly going to propel the next 45 minutes of drama, that was a terrifying prospect.

 

While Daniel Radcliffe admirably worked his way through the dense stanzas of “Hymn to the Virgin” (“Thou who are afraid to have me, lest thou lose me, Great anodyne, thyself compound of pain … ”), I realized I had no idea what he was talking about. It sounded like a stuffy Victorian sonnet straining to impress. All those thous and lests and thyselves… There’s even a “sans” in there at one point. And just what who or what was “The Great anodyne”?

 

Part of the failure came from a sense of duty. I wrote the film with my college roommate John Krokidas, also the film’s director, about the Beat Generation artists we adored. In the research, I’d come across “Hymn to the Virgin” as the first complete Ginsberg poem, which he wrote days after the murder of David Kammerer in 1944 – the subject of our film. In fact, the subhead to the poem is “[David Kammerer to Lucien Carr].” It seemed ordained that we’d use it.

 

Except when you actually read it aloud – when you require a seemingly endless minute of everybody’s attention on it – it doesn’t seem to communicate much, and definitely not within our story of obsession, unrequited love, and the “uninhibited expression of the self” (or so says their manifesto).

 

Playwrights like to say that every scene needs an “event” in it – a pivot for the plot and for the characters’ development. This brief reading was supposed to be the proof of Allen’s talent, the origin point of what would become a lifelong friendship with Jack Kerouac, and his best shot at impressing the boy he’s in love with, the one sitting in the bow: Lucien Carr. What the hell would we replace it with?

 

That night, I dug through the Ginsberg journals, digging for a poem that we could get behind. And while the early work has strong sections, nothing felt quite right or relevant. And then it occurred to me that the poem couldn’t just be in there to win us the merit badge for accuracy. It needed to do some work dramatically.

 

There’s an adage about poetry by Marvin Bell, “A good poem listens to itself.” When I came across the line “You are not in wonderland” in one of Allen’s first pieces, I remembered we’d used the line “Allen in wonderland” earlier – credited to Lucien Carr – and suddenly an idea lodged in me: What if the poem Allen read echoed the world Lucien had introduced him to and refracted it? He would be a magpie, gathering up charged language and shaping it into art. Isn’t that what we loved about Allen to begin with? And what if, best of all, the poem was a chance for Allen to say to his best friend, “I know who you are”?

 

I pitched the idea to John, who was in rehearsal with the actors, and went about grabbing powerful phrases from several early poems, inserting the language earlier in the script to set it up and then knitting together what we now deemed a “first draft” Allen Ginsberg poem. Art gods, forgive me. I wonder what Allen would have made of our remix, but I think he would have appreciated the challenge. One of the most frustrating aspects I think of biopics is that too often a protagonist’s greatness is a given, what John always called the “greatest hits” version of history. We wanted to make the opposite: a film about young artists when their talent was raw, their futures uncertain, and the courage it takes to stand up in front of strangers to say something true.”

Two phrases in Bunn’s words here really stuck out to me. “Part of the failure came from a sense of duty,” and “It seemed ordained that we’d use it.”

Though Bunn doesn’t go as far as to say it, if we put ourselves in the position of writing a film about figures like Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Carr with our own college roommate, we can imagine reading that poem and feeling a heightened sense of gratitude for the works of those people and what they might teach us about our own relationships to our work and to each other. We can imagine feeling the excitement of embarking on a new project. We can imagine feeling inspired. We can imagine feeling as though it was “ordained” that the poem be used in the film. We can imagine becoming attached to that idea, and feeling affection for it, and feeling like it is at the heart of our work.

To be clear: it may very well have been at the heart of the creative process. As we read in the Quiller-Couch quote: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – whole-heartedly.” Writing, and filmmaking at large, are driven by a fire that is fed through inspiration. If you are feeling inspired, follow that impulse. Let it create what it is going to create. But be prepared, down the road, to reevaluate, as Bunn describes.

"Killing your darlings has to be done wisely and somewhat sparingly."

Don’t kill everything.

It’s worth pausing to say that this phrase, “Kill your darlings,” is intended to stab at your most precious bits of writing. Simplified definitions of it may say “You need to kill the pieces of the writing you love the most,” but that can be, well, overkill. This phrase means to get at the scenes you’re holding onto stubbornly – the ones that aren’t working.

As author Bethany Cadman puts it:

“In reality killing your darlings has to be done wisely and somewhat sparingly. If you simply decide to hit ‘delete’ on all the best bits of your book the chances are you’ll end up with gaping holes in your story and, actually, some of the best bits should almost certainly stay.

 

What Faulkner meant was you need to let go of the bits of your writing you are holding onto selfishly. Those words, side plots, characters or turns of phrase that you personally love but, actually, if you are being truthful, don’t really advance your story in any way.

 

You might, for example, have thought of a killer line that just perfectly sums up an emotion or scene, it might have come to you in the middle of the night and you might have written it down with such excitement you couldn’t wait to get it into your story the next day…

 

However, when you tried there just wasn’t a place for it, you wanted to make it fit, but it didn’t. It couldn’t work.

 

Don’t force something no matter how much you love it. If it is not meant to be in your current story simply save it for the next one, and then let it go.”

So when should the killings happen?

Considering that this “kill your darlings” business sounds emotional and tough, you may want to know when to expect it, so that you can figure out when you’ll be through with it. Unfortunately, “kill your darlings” can apply at any stage of the game! For example:

  • You may be forced to face the music after receiving a note from a friend or trusted colleague who read your piece and told you something wasn’t working.
  • Or perhaps it’s your producer, who is giving you notes on the script before it goes into production.
  • Maybe you’re on set, filming a scene, and your actor says “Ya know, I’m just not sure this is working…”
  • Or maybe you’ve made it all the way to the editing suite before the note makes its way to you.
  • Worse still, perhaps the film has been edited, and before you lock the final cut, a higher-up at the studio tells you, “You know that scene….? I don’t think it’s working…”

Though it may be safe to assume that it’s most likely you’ll come face to face with the decision to off one of your most precious creations early in the game – say, a first draft or first cut – your darlings may not really be safe until the project is complete.

Have you killed?

Have you ever had to kill a darling? We’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below. Since this is something that nearly every writer and filmmaker has faced or will face at some point in their journey, it’d be fun to trade tales from the crypt!

 Lauren McGrail, with


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