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.
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.
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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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/.