The Killed Darling

There’s a maxim all good writers know, attributed to William Faulkner, that goes a little something like this: “In writing, you must kill your darlings.”

A darling is that piece of writing–a passage, a turn of phrase, a scene–the writer has fallen in love with. The thinking goes that if a writer loves  a piece of writing so much, he may be blind to the fact that the darling does not make the point the author thinks it does. The darling’s actual worth to the story is often disproportionate to the author’s love for it. Thus, it must be deleted. It must be killed.

The early drafts of my memoir, Raised By a Dead Man, included the following passage. No trace of it remains in the current draft. I’ll explain why afterwards. Enjoy.

"What's the Frequency, Kenneth?"

“No, man, don’t kill ‘im. C’mon, let’s just take the money and get out of here.”

“Naw, man. He seen us. Let’s kill ‘im.”

Sometimes I’ll watch movies—bad ones, admittedly—and I’ll think to myself: No way. There’s no way that criminals are or sound that stupid. But you know what? That’s how Dad told the story and I believed him.

It was during his college days, at Fresno State. He was walking home at night and the two desperate muggers pulled him into an alleyway at the point of a gun. They moved Dad towards the darkness and the garbage and told him to hand over his wallet. Dad obliged them, having no movie camera over his shoulder and no cape under his coat. He expected a simple transaction to take place, the sum of his wallet in exchange for his life. But math hard.

“I don’t think we should kill ‘im. All we wanted was the money. We don’t want any more trouble than we got already.”

“I say we kill ‘im and no one will ever know it were us.”

“I say no.”

“I say yes.”

My father, his sense of self-preservation overwhelming his curiosity at the outcome of this intense debate, turned tail and ran for the back of the dark alley and the promise of safety. It took a moment for the muggers to realize what was happening. One of them—presumably the more homicidal of the two—raised his gun and fired. The shot rang in Dad’s ear and his heart skipped a beat. Just as he was turning the corner to make it safely out of sight, the bullet nicked the nearby building, barely missing him. He was home and wallet-free.

I wish I could say it was an atypical day for him.

And that’s how, at one time, my book began. No foolin’. You just read what was once the very first–albeit short–chapter.

There are some things that now make me cringe. And you never start a story with disembodied dialogue. It’s off-putting and confusing. But, reading it back now, there are some turns of phrase I really love and that are quite clever. And I do still love the story.

So, why did I kill it? Well, the only real point being made is that Dad faced down danger a lot. That’s not terribly deep. Sure, there’s a bit of sly meta commentary on the nature of storytelling and memory that serves as a primer for what a memoir is and does, but that’s weak sauce for the beginning of a book. No one but my writer friends would care, if they noticed it at all.

Dad did face down danger a lot, but that’s a bone cold fact, nothing more. The meat on those bones is how he faced it down (without fear) and why (with faith). That’s in the rest of the book, but not here. So I cut it. I killed my darling–the very first thing I wrote and what launched the whole book–and I let it go.

And how do I know I made the right choice? The book is better. As a whole it is better and that, at the end of the day, is all that matters.

What do you think about what Faulkner said? Are YOU a killer?

7 thoughts on “The Killed Darling

  1. Great post Jeff. And will be very helpful to other writers, no doubt. We all cringe when we look back at stuff, but as long as we don’t beat ourselves ourselves and just learn from it, then the cringing is fine.


  2. I agree with Faulkner. I haven’t ever thought of it that way, but it makes sense. Reminds me of Harry Potter and how Rowling felt about Sirius Black. Maybe not the same thing, but close I guess. (Also makes me think of some TV programs. Like LOST and Battlestar Galactica.)

    I don’t think I’m a killer. I have too little experience with prose. And when I think about it, no “killed darling” comes to mind. When I get to prose again sometime, I’ll have to keep this in mind, because I think it’s critical to the kind of writing I appreciate most.


    1. I will say, however, that Faulkner’s advice taken to the extreme–killing ALL your darlings–is a very bad thing. You just have to, at some point, be objective about what you’ve written. Really weigh the value of each and ever passage.


      1. And I kind of think that’s one area where LOST went a little awry. I wonder if the writers became addicted to audience reaction. Not that LOST is the only example of its kind, but it comes to mind.


  3. Brock, I meant to comment on this a while back. I like Faulkner’s idea. I had a professor in college who went through a paper of mine slashing practically every other sentence. At the time, I was shocked. But I started thinking much more carefully about the weight of every word I wrote, and I think it really helped my creative writing in the long run. When I go back to edit pieces, I very rarely add anything– I often always end up slashing. I remember being really surprised once at a writing workshop when I read an essay and the instructor said, “that’s great– just take out the entire last paragraph.” Again, I was surprised at first. But he was totally right.


    1. I’m the same way, Sarah. When I edit, I’m cutting. It’s inevitable, I think. But being that ruthless, it’s difficult. It’s a good writer who can do it. You’re lucky to have had a professor like that. I wish I had a writing mentor to look to. I can see how valuable a thing that would be.


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