Home » Sol Stein

Tag: Sol Stein

Kill Your Darlings

Kill Your Darlings

Kill your darlings is another of those oft-quoted pieces of writing advice. It’s sometimes quoted as murder your darlings, but never fear. No actual killing or murdering is required.

No, the saying relates to the revision and editing process. It refers to the need for us to revise or delete (kill) any word, any sentence, any paragraph, any scene that doesn’t add to the point of our writing.

What Are Your Darlings?

These are called darlings because they are often the part we like best as the writer—the interesting word, the original turn of phrase, the scene that makes us laugh (or cry) and confirms we can actually do this thing. We can write. We are writers.

This could be because our darling doesn’t move the plot forward, or because it reveals too much information too soon. It could be because it doesn’t aid in characterisation, or because it is inconsistent with the character as he or she has been established. Or it could be because it takes readers off on an unnecessary tangent, like the time …

Sometimes these are our favourite parts, hence killing our darlings.

But killing your darlings isn’t a bad thing. Done properly, it makes your story better.

Why Do Your Darlings Have to Die?

In non-fiction, you have to kill your darlings because you need to keep your readers on track. You are making a point, and every word, every sentence, every paragraph needs to reinforce your argument. Yes, you can tell stories in non-fiction. But they must relate to your central point. For example, I could add in a couple of paragraphs over the origin of the phrase, Kill Your Darlings, with an in-depth examination of who reportedly said it first. That might be interesting, but it doesn’t add to the central point of this post.

Fiction is similar—we need to keep ourselves and our readers on track. There is an assumption in fiction that everything is important. This is the principle of Chekov’s gun:

If there is a rifle on the mantelpiece in the first act, it needs to be fired in the third act.

(I could now go down any number of rabbit holes expanding on whether it’s a gun, a riffle, a pistol or a sidearm, but again … kill those darlings.)

In fiction, each scene needs to move your plot forward and deepen characterisation. Any scene that doesn’t needs to be strengthened, or cut. Even though you spent hours writing it. Kill those darlings. Take the information the reader needs and sliver it into the plot. Ignore the rest, or turn it into a short story or something else that can be downloaded from your website as a gift to email subscribers.

How to Find and Kill Your Darlings

I’ve found killing my darlings isn’t the hard part. The hard part is identifying them in the first place. Some are easy to find and easy to kill. Others are much harder. Three darlings that need a swift death are:

  • Weasel words
  • Wasted words
  • Writerly words

Weasel Words

Most authors have weasel words—words like just, quite, really, that, or very—which don’t add to the writing. Other overused words include smile and shrug and nod. It’s not that they are bad words. It’s that they are overused to the point they become boring and predictable. And who wants their writing to be boring and predictable?

Kill those darlings.

Wasted Words

Some words are wasted words—words that don’t add anything to the story or deepen characterisation. At best, these are just words. At worst, they are sentences or paragraphs or scenes. Sometimes these wasted words are examples of repetition, where we’ve said the same thing more than once. Where two or three different images are used to give the same effect. Where we’ve repeated ourselves.

Like in that paragraph.

It’s not fun to read. So use the strongest image, and delete the others. Sol Stein has a formula: 1+1= ½ . It means the more different images you use to show something, the weaker the overall writing.

Here’s an example, taken from Stein on Writing:

He had time to think, time to become an old man in aspic, in sculptured soap, quaint and white.

I like the image of an old man in aspic. It’s original, and it gives the impression of someone who is so old they are almost preserved. But the image of soap detracts from the first image. The author also explains the soap image: quaint and white. Stein points out that we usually think of soap as white unless a colour is stated, so that’s redundant. And since when was soap ‘quaint’?

Kill those darlings.

Writerly Words

Fictional darlings can include words or phrases that you like, but that don’t add to the story. Sometimes they are what Margie Lawson calls writerly words. Words that don’t sound natural for your character or story. Words that sound like a writer wrote them. These are often the hardest darlings to kill, because they are the words we struggled to find. But just because we searched three thesauruses (thesauri?) to find the right word doesn’t mean it’s the right word for our character.

Kill those darlings.

But How Do I Find Them?

The best way to find your darlings is to put your manuscript aside for as long as possible so that when you read it again, you read it with fresh eyes. This means you’re better able to look at it as a reader, and more likely to pick up mistakes … and darlings. The longer the manuscript, the longer the time needed between writing and editing.

You may have darlings that serve a purpose—moving the plot forward, deepening characterisation, or both. Great. They can live. But cut what you can. Everything you cut is something your editor doesn’t have to cut for you, which means your editing fees will be lower.

Kill those darlings. Your editor with thank you.

#AuthorToolboxBlogHop: Shaping the Diamond (Showing, not Telling)

Today I’m participating in a new venture: the first Author Toolbox Blog Hop. You can find more post by clicking the link, or find us on Twitter at #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop

Author Toolbox: Shaping the Diamond

Using Show, Don’t Tell to Engage Readers

Last week, we talked about interior monologue—a technique some writers overuse. This affects the pace of the story because it takes the reader away from showing the action into telling the character’s internal reaction. Remember: show don’t tell.

#AuthorToolboxBlogHop

Telling a story is the classic way of structuring a novel, but it is now considered outdated by publishers, and by readers:

There has been a drastic change in storytelling in the twentieth century… Writers need reminding that we’ve all had exposure to movies [and] television … a visual medium. Today’s readers have learned to see stories happening before their eyes. They tend to skim or skip long passages of description or narrative summary,
– Sol Stein, Solutions for Novelists: Secrets of a Master Editor

Therefore you need to show your reader the scene, rather than telling them about the scene.

Our readers want scenes and action, not to be told what happened through description and narrative summary (and narrative summary includes long passages of interior monologue, especially if it’s in the middle of a scene). Readers need to be able to see each scene, see what is happening:

A good scene will enrich character, provide necessary information to the audience and move the plot forward.
– Les Standiford, in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing

Jack Bickham says:

Show, don’t tell. Don’t lecture your reader; she won’t believe you. Give her the story action, character thoughts, feelings, and sense impressions as the character would experience them in real life. There are four essential steps:
  • Selection of, and adherence to, a single character’s viewpoint
  • Imagining the crucial sense or though impressions that character is experiencing at any given moment
  • Presenting those impressions as vividly and briefly as possible
  • Giving those impressions to readers in a logical order

In other words, use deep point of view. Sol Stein gives a useful list of questions to review for each scene:

  • Is the scene described in terms of the action that takes place? If there is no action, there is no scene. The frequent fault of new fiction writers is that they unravel the thread of the story instead of keeping it taut like the gut strings of a tennis racket… Leave the reader in suspense.
  • Is each scene visible throughout so that the reader can see what is happening before his eyes? If the action is not visible, you are probably sliding into narrative summary of past events or offstage events.
  • The reader is not moved by the writer or a narrator telling him what one or another character feels. The reader is moved by seeing what is happening to the characters.
  • Which character in the scene do you have the most affection for? How can you make the reader feel affection or compassion for that character in this scene?
  • Is there a character in this scene who threatens the protagonist subtly or openly, psychologically or physically?

Browne and King apply the ‘show, don’t tell’ principle to the interior monologue and feelings of characters, where authors often use unnecessary adverbs or description to explain what a character is feeling:

This tendency to describe a character’s emotion may reflect a lack of confidence on the part of the writer. So when you come across an explanation of a character’s emotion, simply cut the explanation. If the emotion is still shown, then the explanation isn’t needed. If the emotion isn’t shown, rewrite the passage so it is.
– Renni Browne and Dave King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

Yes, it’s harder to show than to tell. But make the effort. Your readers will thank you.

Balancing Show vs. Tell

Scenes that show the reader what is happening are harder to write, so writers have a tendency to revert to narrative summary, which is telling. That is not to say that authors should eliminate all narrative summary:

Narrative summary has its uses, the main one being to vary the rhythm and texture of your writing … Just make sure you don’t use it when you should be showing rather than telling.
– Renni Browne and Dave King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

That’s not to say we should show everything. Yes, we should show everything that’s important. But not everything is important, and there are some things we don’t want to see up close. This is when we can increase narrative distance.

Using Narrative Distance

Narrative distance is the distance between the reader and the point of view character. There is little distance in deep perspective point of view (which tends to be showing). There is a lot of distance with cinematic or omniscient point of view (which tend to be telling).

Good writers know how and when to manipulate narrative distance to maximise reader engagement and prevent the story getting boring.

Imagine film in which the camera stays the same distance from the characters, never moving back or in. Boring, right? The same is true for fiction.
– David Jauss, On Writing Fiction

For example, a murder mystery necessarily includes a murder. But readers don’t necessarily need to see the murder take place. It might be enough to see the body, to give the reader some emotional distance from the violence, and allow us to focus on what’s most important in a murder mystery: solving the crime.

Handling point of view is much more than picking a person and sticking with it. It involves carefully manipulating the distance between narrator and character … to achieve the desired response from the reader.
– David Jauss, on Writing Fiction

Chekhov’s Gun

We also don’t need to see every insignificant action your character takes, every irrelevant thought he has. This means focusing on what’s important.

The more words you devote to an action (or a speech, or a thought), the more importance that action will have in the reader’s mind. This is the principle of Chekhov’s gun: if there is a gun on the mantelpiece in the first act, it should be fired by the third.

If your character is undertaking some mundane, routine action such as squeezing toothpaste onto his toothbrush, then the reader is expecting this to be relevant in some way. Maybe the maid cleaned the toilet with the toothbrush. Maybe there is poison in the toothpaste. Maybe his wife is being murdered in the next room, and he can’t hear over the sound of the running water.

If you’re mentioning mundane details, make sure they’re relevant to the plot. Give the reader the payoff they subconsciously expect. Otherwise, it’s best to tell:

The key is to show the intense scenes and tell the less important transitions (the narrative summary) between important scenes. As a guide, if what you are writing has the possibility of present-moment dialogue, it is a scene and should be written as such. If not, you’re in summary .
– Renni Browne and Dave King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

Revision and self-editing is about examining our rough diamond and working out how best to shape and cut the rough stone to produce a final product that will shine. How will we manipulate the reader experience through careful use of point of view? How will we get the proportions right in terms of showing vs. telling?

The way we shape our rough diamond at this stage determines the look and value of the final cut and polished product. If we want to maximise the impact of our rough stone, we need to shape to produce a brilliant cut. I’ll be back next week to talk about cutting. I’ll also have a special offer, so don’t miss it!

What’s your biggest challenge when it comes to showing, not telling?

Don’t forget to visit the main Author ToolBox Blog Hop page for more great writing advice.