Wednesday’s Rambling Writer – Why You Need to Kill Your Darlings

Hello all and welcome to the first edition of Wednesday’s Rambling Writer. Today we are going to discuss Murder – don’t panic as far as I am aware no one has ever served time for killing off a fictional character but sometimes doing just that can take your book (or movie for that matter) from mediocre to outstanding!

So, why is killing your darlings so important? I hear you cry. Well, think of the question from the other perspective. Imagine if everytime you picked up a book you knew that every character was going to survive. Kind of puts a dampner on your climactic scene where the protag has a gun held to her head doesn’t it? As the reader, nothing increases the tension better than knowing that there is every chance that someone might not make it through the scene, particularly once we have come to care about the main characters.

Don’t get me wrong – I am not saying that you should immediately go and rewrite the happily-ever-after ending of your novel and kill off your protag. Rather I am saying that it is important to leave all options available and not rule out murder as a possible outcome.

How do we know that Killing Your Darlings works? Well, let’s think up some examples shall we?

My first example comes from the world of film. It is a movie that most of your have probably watched (or if you haven’t you have probably seen the parody take-off version) and it has one of the most memorable opening scenes of all time. The movie is ‘Scream’. [If you haven’t seen it be warned the following contains ‘spoilers’]

If there is one thing that we all know it is that main characters don’t die in opening scenes. Not even in the opening scene of a horror movie. For younger generations, who didn’t see this movie when it first came out, the opening scene probably didn’t have the same impact as by then you knew that Sidney was, in fact, the main character. When the movie was first released, however, Drew Barrymore was given top billing and when she died in the first twenty minutes of the film we were all gobsmacked. It completely rewrote the rules. If the top-billed actor dies at the start, obviously anyone can die! (even the sequel wasn’t afraid to kill of recurring characters). It’s why the movies worked (and spurned an entire new genre of parody films!)

As for books. Here I am again going to use my favourite author as an example. Matthew Reilly has no problem Killing his Darlings and openly admits if you want your readers to believe that the characters are in genuinely in peril then occasionally you have to kill one of them off. [Warning the following contains spoilers for the book ‘Scarecrow’]. Scarecrow is the third book in the ‘Scarecrow’ series. By this point we are attached to the main characters. We have followed Schofield, Mother and Gant into numerous battles, watched them lose numerous friends, welcomed new members to the team. We know these characters, and we don’t want them to die!

For those of you not familiar with Matthew Reilly I will give you a quick run down of his style – he loves to leave you hanging. His chapters always end on a cliff-hanger – a bullet heading straight for someones head, a person literally falling from the sky, a nuclear weapon a second from detonation – always with no seeming method of escape. You get used to this style and the characters incredible escapes from the inescapable. So when the chapter leaves us with a guilotine blade falling towards Gant’s neck we expect escape. When the next chapter reveals her head rolling across the floor – shock sets in. OMG he just killed Gant – without exageration I must have reread it 10 times thinking I was missing something. But no, she was dead.

Did I like the fact that Matthew killed her off? NO! Did it take the book to a whole new level? YES! Did it give Schofield a whole new level of emotional depth that could be delved into now his lover was killed? YES! Did it change the way I read the rest of that book and subsequent books by that author? YES!

(by the way I highly recommend Matthew Reilly to anyone who likes a good action book – in particular if you want engage teenaged boys in reading – these books would be a perfect choice!)

Killing Your Darlings is a powerful tool that can be used at any point to increase the tension in a book and sometimes it can make a book truly Great!

Are you afraid to kill your darlings? Are you too attached to them? Do you have a favourite book/movie that follows this simple rule? As always let me know.

Jody Moller

(The Exasperated Novelist)

[Yes I have stolen William Falkner’s quote which refers to not getting too attached to text that you are unwilling to edit it out – but I think it works for the more literal sense as well. And before you get uppity at me for stealing someone elses ideas just let me say that Falkner stole the idea from someone else in the first place – apparently theft and murder go hand in hand!]

6 responses to “Wednesday’s Rambling Writer – Why You Need to Kill Your Darlings

  1. Another thoroughly enjoyable post. A classic example of killing off a ‘Darling’, is in Little Women. We are following the lives of the four March sisters and low and behold, one of them is killed off during the story. It is tragic. Granted, as an early teen when I read the book for the first time, I didn’t quite understand the statement “Beth was well at last”, it was only that she then didn’t appear throughout the rest of the novel, I actually comprehended what happened. This however, added to the reality of the storyline, and made the book all the better for it. It must be difficult as an author to kill of one of your beloved characters, however, I agree, it certainly has the ability to make a novel brilliant.

  2. “Did it give Schofield a whole new level of emotional depth that could be delved into now his lover was killed?”
    You must be joking ?! Matthew’s characters are all one dimensional. How on earth does killing off one of his main characters add to the character of Scarecrow ?

    • okay. So I will give you that one. Reilly certainly doesn’t create the most complex characters in literary history. Perhaps it would have been better to say the death of Gant allowed Schofield to display AN EMOTION for the first time…

  3. I have been thinking about this lately too. I was thinking about killing off one of the smaller characters though. I don’t really know if killing off a main character in the first book of a series makes sense. Maybe in book two or three.

    Nice post.

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