October 21st, 2020

Dead and Un-dead Darlings

by Barbara Linn Probst

Kill those darlings.

We all know the cliché (actually, it was Faulkner, not Stephen King, who coined the phrase) and, accepting its wisdom, do our best to kill those beloveds no matter how much it hurts. Sentences, paragraphs, whole scenes get deleted, leaving a cleaner and stronger narrative.

These darling are deleted from the story, but not from our laptops or minds. Many of us (okay, me, but I’ll bet I’m not the only one) squirrel them away, hoping we’ll be able to squeeze them into a future manuscript. 

Of course, simply shoehorning them in—because we have to use them somewhere, right?—seldom works. Unless, by some amazing chance, a grandfather scene exactly like the one I just deleted is precisely what the new book needs, the darlings need to stay in their coffins.

However, there are other possibilities for this excised material if we abandon the idea of keeping our darlings intact as chunks of prose and consider, instead, what they indicate, arise from, and serve.  We can explore these “other possibilities” by zooming in and zooming out to consider them from different perspectives.

Zooming in

Just as we do with a camera lens or font size, we can zoom in closer to get a magnified look at a smaller amount of terrain. With prose, that means focusing on smaller units, extracted from their context.

An image, a descriptive detail, a gesture, a sentence or two of dialogue—that may be all that’s worth saving from a passage that otherwise has to be deleted.  Taken as stand-alone bits of language, freed from their context and associations, these small “usable items” might worth saving for use in a new story.

In stockpiling these usable phrases, it’s good to note their referents so you’re clear about how they might be used later. Does a phrase denote arrogance, an emotional softening, a sense of foreboding? Later, you might be searching for a way to convey that very quality, and you’ll have a private dictionary to turn to. Retaining the meaning, along with the words, also helps to check the tendency to insert a phrase where it doesn’t really belong, simply because you can’t stand not to use it somewhere – the hallmark of a soon-to-be-dead-again darling.

Zooming out

In contrast, we can step back from the specific words to their source. What was that “memory of grandfather” scene really about? Was it about the remorse at having taken someone for granted, nostalgia for a sense of safety that’s no longer possible? The yearning to be someone’s favorite again, for no reason other than her existence? A child’s confusion to see someone she thought she knew growing feeble, his presence diminishing? What was the human feeling at the scene’s core, and why did it matter—to the character, and to the narrative arc?

These sensations, intentions, aversions, and desires are only accessible when you zoom out and view the passage from a wider perspective, letting the trees blur so you can see the forest—ignoring the words so you can see their source.

Once you find that, you can change certain words and sentences to fit a new story. Rather than transplanting the passage exactly as written—or, on the other hand, tossing out the whole thing—you can re-use the essence.

To give an example: In an early, long-abandoned novel that (fortunately) will never see the light of day, the adult daughter of my protagonist was writing a master’s thesis on Georgia O’Keeffe.  The “reason” I had her doing that was (ouch) so I could sneak in a backstory scene in which the protagonist had a profoundly transformative experience, years earlier, while viewing O’Keeffe’s masterpiece Black Iris. The adult daughter’s thesis served no purpose in the story, however—nor, in fact, did the museum scene. Both were, appropriately, killed off. I mourned and moved on.

Yet there was something about the O’Keeffe painting that stayed with me—something it evoked that I yearned to express. That “something” noodled around in that murky in-between part of the brain where creativity often occurs, and then burst into life unexpectedly a year later, providing the genesis for a much better story that became my debut novel, Queen of the Owls. I feel safe in saying that without that now-dead darling, Queen of the Owls wouldn’t exist.

Make use of both!

Zooming in and zooming out are inverse processes. In the first, context is discarded, freeing the words from their moorings; the focus is narrow, precise. In the second, words themselves are discarded, freeing the intention or emotion that gave rise to them; the focus is wide, diffuse. In neither case is the “darling” preserved intact, in the hope of shoe-horning it into a new slot. We’ve all tried that, and it doesn’t work.

Sometimes, of course, darlings can and should stay dead. But not always. To delete and destroy all darlings would be a shame since they often contain much of value.

That’s why we love them.

Your turn. Do you have a file of deleted material -- chapters, scenes, paragraphs, sentences? What fresh possibilities might the material offer to your story? How have you been able to use them in the past? Please tell us about your darlings down in the comments!

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About Barbara

Barbara Linn Probst is a writer and researcher living on a historic dirt road in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her novel (Queen of the Owls, April 2020, and the forthcoming novel The Sound of One Hand, October 2020) tell of the search for authenticity, wholeness, and connection. In both novels, art helps the protagonist to become more fully herself. Queen of the Owls has been chosen as a 2020 Pulpwood Queens Book Club selection.

Author of the groundbreaking book on nurturing out-of-the-box children, When the Labels Don’t Fit (Random House, 2008), Barbara holds a PhD in clinical social work and is a frequent guest essayist on major online sites for fiction writers. To learn more about Barbara and her work, please see http://www.barbaralinnprobst.com/.

15 responses to “Dead and Un-dead Darlings”

  1. My bugaboo is my rough draft. There is some good stuff in it. But sometimes extracting the usable bits takes forever, and I'm struggling with keeping any of it - especially the later stuff which is better written - or rewriting everything.

    When my brain isn't in top shape (often), it wants to take the lazy way out, and polish what's there.

    But you may just have given me the key as to why I'm having a hard time with this scene - I used way too much from the Old Text. They are not exactly darlings, but they're not helping.

    • barbaralinnprobst says:

      You nailed it when you said "Take the lazy way out and polish what's there." An alternative is to open a fresh Word document and write the scene from scratch, trusting that what was important in the first draft will appear again, rather than editing the existing pages. I find that this leads to a much more natural and stronger scene. I have a LOT of resistance to doing that, but when I do, it's always worthwhile!

      • I'm going to do that - I have warnings to myself everywhere NOT to let the Old Text have too much power, because it is so seductive. New rule: never copy the OT into the scene and think I'm just going to tweak it! The Resistance is amazing. Thanks!

  2. Julie McGue says:

    In memoir, it is also not possible to use every scene with every darling. Zooming in and zooming out is a wonderful phrase. In my debut memoir coming out in May I have chosen to minimize a key character, but the scenes she appears in are for impact. Cutting out lengthy backstory was inevitable.

    • barbaralinnprobst says:

      Often, we need to write a character's entire backstory so WE know it, but end up using only the parts that really matter. So writing that "lengthy backstory" is not a waste of time at all; in fact, it's often really necessary. But that doesn't mean it belongs in the final version. In a novel, it helps us learn about a character and get deep enough under her skin to know how she will act. Just as you say, what's on the page needs to be there for its impact on the unfolding story.

  3. I often repurpose backstories and cut scenes as standalone short pieces to use as promotional material. After doing this with my fantasy series, I started noticing a trend...put up a worldbuilding set of short stories. Someone buys one of those shorts. Then another. And then...they buy the entire series. It's happened often enough that writing outtakes that I won't include in the final novel is part of my writing process.

  4. Whew! I'm not alone. I loved reading this. What a relief and a joy. There's much that I forget from day to day (hour to hour?), but deleted material stays with me forever. It's keyword triggered, and when triggered leaps before my eyes. Not that I rely on my memory. I have my oldest work stored away. Since 2015, each project developed in Scrivener has a place for deleted scenes. I've used them in other novels, of course, but other times they become a part, or even the key part, of a short story.

  5. barbdelong says:

    Great post! And I did the unthinkable just yesterday! I copied and pasted a scene that needed work onto a fresh page and edited it!! Oh my gosh! I went the lazy route. When I reread the scene this morning, it still was not where I wanted it to be. I kept too much, I'd hardly call them darlings, of the original material. Today, another fresh page and I'll totally rewrite the scene from scratch. I do have a file of outtakes I call them in Scriv for each of my writing projects. Maybe I can find something worth stashing in there from this scene.

    • Barbara Linn Probst says:

      Like you, I often find that when I try to edit an existing thing-that-does-not-work, it STILL does not work! It can be so, so hard to let go of a passage we love that may be well-written but doesn't belong. Sometimes the "outtakes" can be repurposed later, sometimes not. 🙂

  6. jamesr403 says:

    Excellent post, Barbara! I was just reading the Introduction to Robert A. Heinlein's Red Planet, in which the writer, a Heinlein scholar named Patterson, notes that some of the material (a girl carrying a gun! Oh, no!) removed by the publisher was saved and used in Stranger in a Strange Land. Thanks for a great essay.

  7. dholcomb1 says:

    save it for a deleted scene to be shared in promo; if you have several, you can share in several places or make one an exclusive.

    denise

  8. I love the zooming in and out, Barbara. I keep all my darlings, but never organized them. How do you keep your "private dictionary?" A spreadsheet?

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