KYD: Kill Your Darlings!
by Wulf Moon
The fact that we have a story titled "Kill Your Darlings" and a piece on writing with the same title is pure serendipity.
Of course, they both complement one another by stressing the idea that everything you write and every character you create does not necessarily make it into the final draft!
One of my favorite lines is spoken in the movie Amadeus. In the beginning of the movie, the young composer Wulfgang Amadeus Mozart plays for the Holy Roman Emperor, Joseph II. Later, the Emperor meets with Mozart, commends his playing, but offers a word of counsel. He tells Mozart his work suffers from “too many notes.” As Mozart balks, the Emperor says, “My dear young man, don’t take it too hard. Your work is ingenious, it’s quality work. And...there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Just cut a few, and it will be perfect.”
It’s a humorous moment, a monarch advising one of the greatest composers of all time that he needs to cut notes from his work to improve it. Had this been any other composer, he may well have benefited from the Emperor’s words. But this was Mozart, a composer at the age of five. At six he had already performed before two imperial courts. Musical prodigies are born with a gift, and if they’re as fortunate as Mozart, they have a musical family member to help guide that gift to brilliance.
Alas, few in this world are born prodigies. The majority of us can become masters, but only if we hone our craft through rigorous practice— hundreds and even thousands of hours of training. Butt in chair, fingers on the keyboard, doing our apprenticeship through every word we write, every story we create. If we are fortunate, we will stumble across a mentor, or have the wisdom to seek one out. Hopefully, a qualified mentor that has already put in their thousands of hours, their million words and beyond, with solid proof that they have mastery of their craft. And if we’re in the early stages of our writing, it’s a good bet that mentor will echo those words of the Emperor. “You have too many notes. Cut some words out, and it will be perfect.” 
And because we are not Mozart, we should take those words to heart.
Too Many Notes
A friend of mine, the late Ken Rand, wrote a wonderful little book entitled The 10% Solution. The premise? Any story could benefit by cutting ten percent from it. Makes sense. We all know the saying, “Less is more.” Or take my favorite line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “Brevity is the soul of wit.” The simpler you can explain something, the easier it is for others to understand.
With writing stories, it is no different. Clear tales, clearly written, soar. Bulky tales, densely written, sink. They are hard on the eye, they are hard on the mind, and they are hard to read. Instead of a trimmed path through the plot, the reader must wade through dense undergrowth, a forest of words, hacking their own way through the jungle with their machetes, always wondering where the path lies, and where the trail (if there even is one) is leading them. 
Most aspiring writers suffer from too many notes. They stuff the melodies of their stories with lyrical words, overblown descriptions, complex scenes, massive infodumps, awkward flashbacks, and tedious movement mechanics. I know. Like all new writers, I once did the same, and even after decades of work, I still do careful pruning. You fall in love with your play on words and beautiful descriptions and the wonderful histories and your mysterious world and pretty soon, you lose track of the fact that you’re supposed to be telling a story
I have taught, coached, and edited many aspiring writers. In the beginning, the majority believe they are telling a tight story, and cannot understand why editors and contest judges fail to buy their stories or award them prizes for their work. To cope with the problem, a few take on the mantle of the misunderstood artist. Surely their writing is so brilliant, so beyond the drivel they see being published, the editors must be blind, not ready for their genius. At least they are creating art, and not selling out to the unenlightened masses and commercialism. 
Sadly, I cannot help those writers. They have built up such a fortress of deception to explain why their work is not selling, I can’t get past the front gate. And if I try, I’m told my mother was a hamster, and my father smelt of elderberries. Who likes to be told that?
But you’re not like that. You’re here to learn. You’re humble and realize there’s always more to be learned, especially when we’re new at something. You wisely recognize that those who study hard and work hard get ahead. You don’t expect good things to drop in your lap without working for them.
Good. You, I can help. 
The Problem
Many hopeful writers do not understand the value of economy of words. They love writing and they view every word they write as sacred, because it came from the divine mystery of the creative process within them. Every phrase is a thing of wonder, every story is their beautiful, perfect baby. 
To start crafting professional stories that sell —which means they’ll get published and actually be read— we have to get past this stage and start viewing our stories as a product. “What? How dare he! I am creating art!”
But don’t we say the product of our imagination? We have to recognize that when we start out, we’re in the apprentice stage, not the craftsman and master stage. What we turn from our lathes at first will most likely be wonky. What we chisel from the stone will most likely not be Michelangelo’s David. That first novel we write will most likely not be The Grapes of Wrath. The good news? That wasn’t Steinbeck’s first novel, either. In fact, his first three novels flopped, no doubt because he was still learning his craft. But Steinbeck stayed the course and actually wrote the Great American Novel. You have the potential to do that, too. But first, you must learn to Kill Your Darlings.
KYD: Kill Your Darlings!
New writers try to stuff an oak tree into the space of a bonsai. Instead of The 10% Solution, they need The 30% Solution, The 40% Solution, some even The 50% Solution. They can’t help themselves because they can’t see the issues yet. Their writing runs hither and thither, often including anything that comes to mind. Detailed wake-up scenes, meaningless backstory, endless information on how their science or magic works, the research they did on the armadillo girdled lizard (they’re pretty cool!)— it all goes on the page, for page after page. It’s a plot killer, because readers don’t want to know every minute detail about your world and its history. They came to be taken on a journey, and they expect you to get to the point and tell them a story.
So what are some of these writer darlings, and how can you and I terminate them? Knowledge is power! Let’s pinpoint a few.
1. Driving to the Story
We’ve already covered this topic in DreamForge Anvil, Issue 2 in the article “How Driving to the Story Creates Accidents.”  But it’s such a common issue in the works of new writers, it has to be mentioned again. DON’T drive to the story, which is writer-speak for cutting that opening wakeup scene, the brushing of the teeth, the getting dressed, that look in the full-length mirror so you can describe your character from top to bottom. I know you think it’s needed. It’s not. Trust me on this! Start your story just before the inciting incident, not when the alarm clock goes off in the morning.
2. Purple Prose
But purple is my favorite color! Too bad. What’s purple prose? Overblown, extravagant descriptions that become so ornate, the natural flow of the narrative stops. They’re like a band playing your favorite melody, and suddenly all the musicians stop harmonizing because the drummer decides it’s time for him to show off with a wild drum solo. If you have a vocabulary that can rival the Oxford Dictionary, congratulations on your education, reading, and retention. But the most powerful tales are clear tales, clearly told. Cut excess wordage that is full of itself. There can be places in scenes where it might be fitting to describe the bowed iridescent refraction of the sun’s piercing beams striking water droplets within the brooding atmosphere casting a nimbus across the horizon, but if the word rainbow will suffice, why not use it?
3. Infodumps
The story is hopping along, the game is afoot, and just when you’re getting into the plot and your own world slips away, the author hits the breaks and rains down like the God of Thunder an infomercial upon you. Ever had that happen? We all have, and it’s not fun. Apparently, the author thinks it is, because studying the armadillo girdled lizard has been his lifelong passion, and he’s finally gotten to the point in his story where one appears, and by God, he’s going to share with you everything he knows on the subject, because armadillo girdled lizards are absolutely fascinating! And they are, but it’s not the time for a ten-page treatise on armadillo girdled lizards when we’re reading a novel about a captured ship captain held for ransom off the coast of South Africa! Now if the captain gets an idea about how to defend himself by watching this unique lizard, a little detail on the creature would be appropriate. Just remember the more information you drop in that’s not directly related to your plot, the more your story wanders off course. Be judicious with the details you share, and be sure they are essential.
4. Backstory/ Flashbacks
Just like us, our characters come with a history, often troubled history. It’s what makes them appear real by creating the wounds in their past that gives them character flaws to overcome. Backstory is a principal reason characters seem human instead of flat cardboard cutouts. When the world we design has history and milieu, it enhances the realism, creating a solid foundation in our reader’s mind because we took the time to work out the details. Backstory is important, even if it’s only hinted at. It gives our world and characters depth. 
But how much backstory should we drop in? This is where hopeful writers often err. They don’t trust their readers. They feel they must tell them everything so they understand. The truth is, readers are smart. This story isn’t their first rodeo. You show them the immense Arganoth sentinels —statues of Isuldur and Anárion carved in the cliffs along each side of the river Anduin— and they’ll get the point. Gondor was once a mighty nation of great power, but with every surrounding edifice crumbling in ruins, the nation must be in great decline. We get it, and we thank Tolkien that he did not put the brakes on at that breathtaking point to do an infodump of all the history he had written on Gondor and the Númenor. Instead, he hinted at the past, kept his plot rolling, and the breaking of the Fellowship was not eclipsed by needless information.
Flashbacks can be dangerous darlings as well. Plots become page-turners because the story has tension and it’s moving forward at a goodly pace. Flashbacks mean the story is looking backward, and that always slows the story down because it’s a reverse in the timeline. Like all things, flashbacks are a tool in the toolbox, but be careful of their use, and how long you keep a reader in the past...especially in short stories. 
5. Character Movement Mechanics
I like to call this one unnecessary puppetry. It’s not really a darling, it’s the result of inexperience, but it must be killed regardless. Newer writers move their characters around their scenes like jerking puppets. Often new puppets will appear on the stage from nowhere, and you’re left wondering, “Who was that and how did she appear? Is the Enterprise’s transporter beaming people into this scene?”
A larger problem often occurs in the mechanics of moving a character through a scene. The writer supplies layers upon layers of unnecessary detail as they work out on the page how their astronaut is going to enter their rocket’s capsule, or how their wizard will perform the movements associated with their spell, or even how someone will enter their own house!  
Here’s a slightly exaggerated example of what I often see when editing stories from new writers. Jonas walked up to the door of his three-bedroom rambler. He reached in his pocket and pulled out his key chain. He selected the right key for the door. He inserted it into the lock. He turned it to the left. Hearing the click, he turned it back to the vertical position and pulled it out and put the keychain in his pocket. Turning the brass handle with his right hand, he pushed open the door inward. Fully open, he stepped past the threshold and into the room. He turned around and with the palm of his left hand gently pushed the door until it closed. 
If you’ve done this, don’t feel bad. We all started out doing things like this. But is there an easier way to say that paragraph above with less words? How about Jonas entered his house? Or Jonas walked through the front door? We use such shorthand in our everyday lives. Why not in our stories? Get to the point. Kill those tedious descriptions with smarter coding. Your readers will thank you. So will the editors considering your story for purchase and publication.
Practice Makes Perfect
There are many other ways to streamline a story. Instead of saying a character started to do an action, be decisive, just have them do the action. And why say “he ran quickly” when you could say “he raced”? Some writers believe melodrama adds tension, but continually dropping similes and metaphors like “Her heart pumped like a fire engine at a five-alarm fire!” and “Her blood burned hot as ore in a blacksmith’s fully-stoked forge!” actually diminishes the tension. Sometimes you’ll discover entire scenes can be cut, just like you see in the outtakes from your favorite movies. Many a movie director will tell you that the difference between a box office blockbuster and a box office bust is what is left on the cutting room floor. No matter how much you love it, anything that does not contribute directly to your plot must go.
Stephen King said it best. ““Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” We need to be ruthless with our work— every word we write is not sacred. Get your words on the page, but be sure to go back in and give them a cold hard stare, knife in hand. Writing flash fiction can really help, because it trains you to write with an economy of words. The more you practice clear, concise writing, the more it will flow from your mind on to the page, first time out. 
If you work hard to Kill Your Darlings, one day when the Emperor waves his hand and tells you, “There are simply too many notes, just cut a few and it will be perfect” you can confidently say, “There are just as many notes as I require, sire, neither more, nor less.” 
For then you will be the maestro. Rock me, Amadeus!
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Wulf Moon’s SUPER SECRETS: KYD: Kill Your Darlings! © 2021 Wulf Moon