On demolition and darlings . . .

Alicia Finney

Alicia Finney

Every writer has heard the advice about killing your darlings.  How important it is to know when to let go, be it an idea or a beautiful passage of prose, a turn of phrase.  There is a maturity in sacrificing a small jewel in a project for the betterment of the story itself.  But let’s face it.  It hurts.  Like re-breaking a misaligned bone so that it can be re-set.  You are clearing something good to make way for something amazing.

I recently heard a somewhat extreme version of the killing your darlings concept.  It’s for those that are caught in a quagmire and cannot seem to move forward, or just those daredevils that want to see what other options might be out there.  The concept is this.  Take your best idea, or a couple of your best ideas, and throw it out.  Then dive back into the project and see what shakes loose.

Well, I tried it, and that risky proposition is what got my book going again.  It’s not the only thing, but it was the start.

It turns out, even in the outlining stage, there are some ideas for our books that we writers cannot fathom the project going without.  Oftentimes we consider these things the heart of the story.  Or maybe, as in my case, the idea is so cool we just have to keep it in.  These things we subconsciously cement in place.  Immovable and unbreakable, they are the pillars of the story, and we structure every other idea, character, and plot point around them.

Now, if you give this a try, and it turns out that thing you took out really was the heart of your story and, without it, the whole thing collapsed like a soufflé.  By all means, put it back in and go find another tool to fix your problem because that’s all this is.  A tool.  If every piece of your story is falling into place nicely with this great concept or character, just keep going.  This may not be the time for you to try this admittedly drastic measure.

But what if the other pieces are not falling into place?  Or, worse, what if your great pillar of a thing is getting in the way of all the other important pillars?

In my case, a side character had come up and said, “There’s this really cool thing that can happen in my personal story.  It would be awesome!”  And, folks.  It was awesome.

It was also in the way of the main characters and the main story.  It was time for some demolition.  I did not just re-plot this side character’s story.  I removed him from the book entirely.  I removed his beloved from the book entirely.  And I changed the ultimate fate of one of my very favorite characters, and not in a positive way.  It was a drastic change overall.

The result?

With that stray pillar out of the way, I could suddenly see the real story.  What my main character needed.  How to push her and call to her and even break her to get her there.  The more vital secondary characters, who had mostly been silent to date, suddenly started speaking.  Twenty-four hours later, I know their voices and their stories.  I found an outlining technique courtesy of one of my favorite authors to pair with this grand shaking up, and between the two things I have a clarity about story I have never had before.

It might not have worked.  In other projects, it probably won’t.  In yet others, it will, and it will be amazing.  But if I had not tried, if I had not been willing to let go of that awesome thing that was so important, that seemed so important, I would never know.

So if you’re stuck, or you just want to see if you can shake a better story loose out of your project, maybe it’s time to take out a few darlings.  It’s time to consider a little demolition



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