There’s a phrase in the writing community: “You have to kill your darlings.”*
The gist of the phrase is that, when we author a story, we may come up with moments, scenes, plot twists, dialogue, characters, or any of a host of things that are, taken by themselves, absolutely perfect (at least to ourselves). They are so damn inventive, clever, emotional, poetic, powerful, or poignant that by the gods, those are going to be the shining keystone and/or the golden pillar of our story. They are the masterstroke.
And maybe they are, indeed, great. In evoking something. In their singular glory. In their isolated grandeur.
They are not, however, isolated.
They are moments within a larger arc, a larger narrative, a larger story. They need to work within this larger story. And quite often… they just don’t. And while at best they can turn out to be a dud within the larger whole, more often they instead end up being downright detrimental and counterproductive: they push the story into convoluted knots, they place limits on where the story can go, and they force the introduction and inclusion of elements and passages that are downright poor. They can even subvert the very thing we hope to achieve with them. Far from being the shining moment, they instead make the whole endeavour crash and burn.
And that’s why we need to kill them.
It can be so hard though! Those darlings can be downright seductive… look at them, they’re so perfect!** We want to hold onto them, we want to make it work, we feel that without it our story will be nothing but a hollow shell. Those darlings are the heart and soul, they give things meaning.
But that’s not accurate. We do need to kill them. ***
Because, once liberated from their leaden weight, the story is free to journey to new places, to take on its own identity, to fulfill on its intentions. Setting the darling aside is what lets the story soar. It lets us see new avenues, lets our creativity back into the game, and gives us freedom to write and fulfill on our, and the story’s, intention.
Rather than a singular moment, the whole can become a masterpiece.
Never can this be more important than when we look at the story we all have, and are, writing called “my past, my present, my future, and who I am.”
For there are moments from our past that we cling tight to, events and decisions that are so foundational we can, without a moment of preparation, tell a grand story around. Wild, raw, powerful, stories, filled with pain and despair and loss and love and triumph and a definite understanding of the world around us.
As short stories, they are compelling.
As a chapter in the long unfolding story of our life though, they can be huge impediments to achieving all those things we actually want in life – being related, making a difference, fulfillment, self-expression, and peace of mind.
Sometimes those darling to which we hold so dear and so foundational do not, in actually, serve us. Sometimes we need to kill those darlings, those truths we cling to, in order to let ourselves and our story grow, expand, reconfigure, and get better. To broaden and lighten ourselves, to unleash our abilities, to expand our experience, our moods, and our place, and to re-guide our path forward.
And then, within that freedom, we can write our lives into our personal masterpiece.
* For the longest time I thought the phrase was “You have to murder your babies,” which, while similar, is a bit more, shall we say, macabre and dark? A writer friend fortunately set me straight on what is the actual phrase…
** I think this is totally why the Zootopia story writing team held on so long with the taming collar idea/version of the script. The (deleted/tossed out) scene at the taming party is bonafide pure powerful stuff, landing with a masterful one-two stroke of the pain the young polar bear’s eyes followed immediately with Nick’s forcibly placid expression, the light on his collar glowing yellow. It’s a masterpiece. There’s no way they wanted to get rid of that scene. But it destroyed the movie as a whole. They tried five full screenings to get it to work, but it never could. Everything around it that needed to be in place to lead to that scene brought the story and the viewers to places that could not be recovered from. It didn’t do what they wanted to do. And that’s why they made the crazy, nearly last minute (just over a year from release!) choice to kill that darling, throw out that script and two+ years of work, and start writing anew. And with that, they gained way more than they lost in setting aside that one scene.