Thursday, August 6, 2015

Kill Your Darlings...Just Not All Of Them

Stephen King famously said, "Kill your darlings."  This is a reference to finding a way to shake things up.  When King was writing The Stand, he discovered that he'd written himself completely out of control and had no idea how to get things back on track so the plot could move forward.  In a sudden burst of inspiration, he decided to have a bomb kill half the good guys, and thus gave the rest a mission to take out their arch-nemesis, Randall Flagg.

Many writers have taken this advice to heart and use it, or a similarly dramatic event, to turn a story upside down in order to move it along.  The Walking Dead is notorious for this, but other stories and shows use it as well.  Unfortunately, this can lead to the means being an end unto itself.  I know because I've fallen into that trap.

The novel I'm currently working on, Fight Or Flight, is an epic novel, spanning more than 70 years and will be almost 240,000 words.  There are two main characters, but in a novel so expansive, I've introduced a large number of minor ones.  I've also discovered that I seem to be killing them at an alarming rate.  In fact, at this point, I'll rank among the most prolific serial killers of all time.  I needed something stirred?  Kill someone.  I needed an emotional moment?  Kill someone.  I needed filler material?  Kill someone.  You get the point.

I started to notice this was my default setting.  Sure, a novel set in a post-apocalyptic world where aliens have killed over 7 billion people will be rife with death, but it doesn't always have to be the focal point.  This recent revelation has forced me to be more introspective with what I write.  I will need to be much more careful with character introduction, and even more so with their deaths.

The key question when deciding whether to "kill your darlings" is to determine if the death has meaning and will move the plot forward, or if it's just death for the sake of death.  Writers who default to death are as lazy as those who write clichés about thunderstorms during times of tension.  Writing needs to serve a purpose.  Otherwise, why write?

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