Monday, February 4, 2013

Don't Just Kill Your Darlings... Hurt Them

by Mindy McGinnis

Writers are told often to kill their darlings. This doesn't mean we all need to end our novels with planet-enfolding nuclear holocausts. It means that you have the bollocks to cut the scenes you love, but don't need. Slice the dialogue tags that make you smile, but aren't necessary. Exsanguinate the paragraph you feel is the perfect zinger, but all your CP's are saying is dead weight.

It's a hard lesson, killing those darlings.

Here's a harder one- hurt the people you love.

Yeah, that's right. Hurt 'em. These fake people that live in your head who you've nursed to life and massaged dialogue into for months (possibly years) need to be in pain every now and then. Let them step on the glass on the kitchen floor. Make them burn their hands on the stove. Allow the water to boil over and scald that first layer of skin off. Slide that knife right through their thumb. (Can you tell I'm not so good in the kitchen?)

Beyond physical pain, if you want a truly realistic and moving story arc you are going to have to allow bad things to happen to them. Their husbands cheat. Their moms die. Their kids get sick. Their cat eats their guinea pig (I have a big cat). Their dog gets hit by a car. Their car gets hit by a dog.

You name it. Make it happen to them.

Of course, not all these thing at once. That would be one hell of an odd story. But you get the drift.

Don't step back so far from your perfect shining character that you don't want to make them suffer. Suffering is part of life and part of their journey, if you aren't willing to convincingly hurt them in order to sell the story then you're not the writer for this story.

Don't go easy on them just because you love them.
Don't pull the punches because you care for them.

If you're crying when you wrote it, chances are a reader or two will tear up as well.

And that's awesome.

Mindy McGinnis is a YA author and librarian. Her debut, NOT A DROP TO DRINK, is a post-apocalyptic survival tale set in a world where freshwater is almost non-existent, available from Katherine Tegen / Harper Collins September 9, 2013. She blogs at Writer, Writer Pants on Fire and contributes to the group blogs Book PregnantFriday the ThirteenersFrom the Write AngleThe Class of 2k13 and The Lucky 13s. You can also find her on TwitterTumblr & Facebook.


  1. Excellent advice!

    I also think that it needs to be a part of characterization. If you have a character who truly honestly to the bottom of his heart believes in doing things for the greater good, then he's going to leave people behind and hurt people in the process of helping the greater good (see also Harry Potter). Sometimes I read a book where I totally buy that this character is occasionally a callous jerk and does things I don't LIKE but I accept because yes, that's him. If he's going to break from his characterization up to that point, you have to set it up REALLY WELL, that he's been changed enough, for better or worse, into the person who would do something for a single person at the expense of the greater good or whatever his schtick is. I need to believe it.

    So even if you think this scene where he stops what he's doing for the love of his life is really romantic and beautifully written, if it's outside his characterization and you haven't set us up well enough, it has to go. Kill the darling.


    1. Yep, very true, Katie. Characterization is key. If we don't believe a motivation for a character, it can pull the whole plot down around the author's ears.