‘Murder your darlings’ to better engage readers

To engage your readers – whether writing fiction or nonfiction – you’ll need to be utterly ruthless with your own words. In short, you’ll need to “murder your darlings.”

You’ve probably heard the axiom before. Though promoted by science fiction writer James Patrick Kelly, the advice is often given to writers of all genres, and for good reason.

Here’s the problem: Writers fall in love with their words. Like their own children or lovers, a writer’s words can do no wrong. And if they do, the transgression is highly forgivable given the surrounding words’ beauty.

But some words in our stories are “precious freeloaders who are too busy looking good to do any work,” as Kelly points out. He recommends eliminating those words, or to “murder your darlings.” (A side note here: The phrase actually is borrowed from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who wrote, “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate of piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – whole-heartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” But who remembers Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch?)

Such freeloading words actually slow your story. They distract from the action, which in turn keeps readers from remaining focused on how your main character faces his central problem – and that latter conflict, after all, is the heart of the traditional story.

Beginning writers often make the mistake of trying to fix wordiness by adding words rather than cutting them. That’s like adding more fatty meat to the plate rather than trimming what you’ve already got, however.

What are some darlings that ought to be excised? Kelly identifies six “darlings” that can be killed:
• Adjectival and adverbial leeches – Descriptive words should be selected very carefully. They ought to create atmosphere and offer insights into the character, not decorate a paragraph.
• Clumsy entrances and exits – Too often stories contain “here to there” action that shows how a character got from one place to another. Providing that info typically is irrelevant to the story.
• Unnecessary scene or time switches – Many stories can take place in a couple of locations or during the course of a few hours. Switching the when and where of a story often forces you to waste words to re-establish the setting and mood as well as explaining why the change occurred.
• Overpopulation (extra characters) – Limit a story (especially short stories and novellas) to a few characters – the main character, the villain, the sidekick, a couple of background characters. Each additional character requires some description and takes attention away from the main character.
• Overdramatization (too much “show” and not enough “tell”) – In fiction, exposition kills a story. If readers wanted to read an encyclopedia, they would have grabbed a Compton’s from the bookshelf, not your book.
• Arriving early, staying late – When and where stories and scenes start and end is vital. Think of “The Iliad”: Homer doesn’t begin with the war’s start 10 years earlier but begins the tale in the days leading up to the final battle.