Killing Your Darlings

In Essays, The Daily Drool on June 10, 2009 at 10:10 am

An ugly term for an ugly practice.

Every writer gets carried away now and then by a particularly poetic description of their novelistic heroine’s last meal, or a cleverly wrought bit of poetry, (or in my case a few spectacular lines of dialogue) that upon second, third, or even fourth glance practically jump off the page with genius, but for some reason wreak havoc on the rest of the pages.  Perhaps it’s because these lines are so dynamic, so perfect, that they simply put the rest to shame by comparison.  Or perhaps it’s so striking to us because it’s a moment where our voice has taken center stage and thus it doesn’t belong on the page.  Or maybe we have struck upon the heart of the scene with an insight rarely seen that it demystifies the rest of the trek…  Whatever the case, these little darlings are sometimes the hardest thing to do away with, even though their demise can be the key to a really great script.

Lately I’ve been wrestling with the second act of a play I started last summer.  The first act just flowed out of me, it was unstoppable, and it was exciting, and it ended with punch!  Aaaaand that’s where it stayed for about six months – until I slowly began to try and answer all the questions the first act had asked.  A dear friend of mine has shaken his head in bafflement at my plight, disbelieving I would head into such treachorous waters without an outline.  I of course had to explain that while outlining makes perfect sense to me for screenplays, it’s hard for me to do with stage plays… and even then I felt the excuse was shakey, for here I was in the middle of a muddle with this one.

In any case, I’ve finally got a completed draft, and the challenge has been to pour over it, chiseling away at the dense bits, sculpting the sequencing, and trying to whip it into shape.  And what I’ve found is that while there are a lot of really great character epiphanies, or some particularly pleasing dialogue here and there – oftentimes these little bits are the bits I need to carve off.  But I don’t want to. (stomp, stomp, huff!)  So I circle round, tinkering with something else, until I’ve the fortitude and distance to be able to come back, re-examine my darling, and cut it’s bloody head off.

It’s a fantastic experience, because its rewards are pretty immediate – a lovely and much relieved “Ahhh, now it’s flowing!” – but it oft leaves me wondering about all the little bits, floating around in the ethers with no place to land.

Poor things.  Perhaps I’ll start constructing a notebook with these bits and pieces – give them a gallery all their own.

Until then, I’ll just keep sharpening the scissors.

  1. Ah, the butchery that we call editing. Nothing worse than trimming away the best-written tidbits to serve the project. If only it were as easy to use that rapier wit in proper context, dripping with theme, and in a way that relevantly deals with character!

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