Why We Named Ourselves the Darling Axe
By David Griffin Brown
Origins of a Workshop Maxim
The counsel to "kill your darlings" has been repeated many times by many editors, writers, and writing instructors. It’s often attributed to authors like Faulkner or Ginsberg, but in fact it was Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch who, in 1916, advised writers to be ruthless with their most cherished lines:
“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”
Since then, the meaning of a darling has evolved beyond only those cherished lines. A darling includes any element of a narrative that does not serve the story: a sentence, a character, a scene, a subplot.
Here at the Darling Axe, we are editors of fiction and narrative nonfiction. Our editorial philosophy is twofold: first, that great books are honed, not hatched; and second, that all aspects of a manuscript should not only serve the story, but also and more importantly serve the reader’s experience.
Killing Darlings—Pro Tips
Transforming a draft into a polished manuscript requires both discernment and decisiveness. Here are some tips on how to bring a keen eye and a firm hand to the task:
Evaluate POV characters for necessity. Each point-of-view character should offer a unique and indispensable perspective to the story. If two characters provide similar outlooks or their narratives don't drive the plot forward, consider consolidating them or shifting their roles.
Amplify stakes to ensure engagement. Low stakes mean a lack of tension, which can make a story fall flat. At every stage, ask yourself, "What’s at risk for my protagonist?" Ensure that the consequences for failure are always clear and compelling, and that you bring your protagonist closer and closer to failure with each step toward the climax.
Use foreshadowing to counteract coincidence. Coincidences to resolve conflicts can feel contrived and unearned. Instead, plant seeds early that bloom into inevitable, yet surprising, outcomes.
Reassess the function of your prologue. Is your prologue attempting to compensate for a slow Chapter One? Or is it a vehicle for setup and context explanations? If so, then your story may not be starting where it needs to.
Ensure your scenes are causally linked. When it comes to story structure, intentionality is key. Ensure that in every scene your protagonist takes action or makes a decision that in some way determines what will happen next.
Scrutinize subplots for their impact on resolution. If a subplot can be removed without affecting the main storyline’s conclusion, it may not be necessary. Ensure that each subplot intertwines with the core narrative to contribute meaningfully to the story’s climax and resolution.
Consider the indispensability of relationships. Treat relationships as subplots. They should transform the characters and propel the plot forward. If a relationship can be removed without altering the protagonist's journey or the story's outcome, reevaluate its presence and purpose.
Streamline exposition to preserve momentum. Backstory and world-building are crucial but can become burdensome when presented in large quantities. Distribute this information in small doses through action and dialogue, ensuring it enhances rather than interferes with the protagonist's present experiences.
Revisit every descriptive passage. Ask if it enhances the setting, mood, and/or character development, or if it merely indulges in picturesque but purposeless writing. Descriptions should always work double-time, contributing to the atmosphere or shedding light on the narrative or characters.
Inspect dialogue for efficiency and necessity. Dialogue should reveal character, serve the plot, or ideally do both. If a conversation doesn't add new information or tension and doesn't reveal character in a meaningful way, it's a candidate for cutting or revision.
Get Feedback. Third-party feedback—whether from critique partners, beta readers, or professional editors—can illuminate what may be invisible to the author. This external perspective is essential in identifying and excising unnecessary writing.
By Kill, Do You Really Mean Kill?
Killing a darling doesn't always entail its complete removal; sometimes it means transforming it. Revision can sharpen a once meandering element into a tool that carves deeper meaning and resonance into the narrative. The act is not one of mindless pruning but thoughtful sculpting, ensuring every piece left behind is vital to the story's living, breathing whole.
Also, there is nothing wrong with creating a “darling folder” where you save scenes, characters, and subplots to be recycled in future manuscripts.
Need Help Killing Your Darlings?
The Darling Axe editorial team is here, hatchet in hand, to help you hack and hone your manuscript on its journey toward publication. The end result should be inspiration. Our ideal outcome of a developmental edit or narrative assessment is a client who is fired up with excitement and a solid blueprint their next revision.
Want to learn more about how we can help? Click here to arrange a free sample edit.
David Griffin Brown is an award-winning short fiction writer and co-author of Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. He holds a BA in anthropology from UVic and an MFA in creative writing from UBC, and his writing has been published in literary magazines such as the Malahat Review and Grain. In 2022, he was the recipient of a New Artist grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. David founded Darling Axe Editing in 2018, and as part of his Book Broker interview series, he has compiled querying advice from over 100 literary agents. He lives in Victoria, Canada, on the traditional territory of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations.