Flip the Script: What To Do With Your Darlings

(This is the third post in the Flip the Script series: check out the previous installments here and here.)

More so than some other cliched writing advice we’ve discussed in this series, “kill your darlings” sometimes makes sense. It’s dangerous to get super-attached to a character or a sentence or a scene in your book that doesn’t truly belong. If your character who has always spoken in short, sharp declarations suddenly busts out a lyrical soliloquy, that’s a problem. Ditto if you have a gorgeous description of a location that’s not actually important to the plot, or a fascinating scene with a riveting character who then doesn’t make an appearance anywhere else in the book. These are your “darlings”, and sometimes, they’ve gotta go.

But hold on just a sec. As with any rule, an indiscriminate application of “kill your darlings” can hurt your writing more than it helps. So a new spin on the old advice may take you in a different direction. Here are three spins you might try:

Keep your darlings. If you’re getting feedback from an agent, critique partner, or other reader that some part of your book that you adore just doesn’t fit, step back and decide if you agree. Are they right? Maybe you’ve got a showy sentence in Chapter One that your beta reader recommends cutting, but you know it’ll pay off in Chapter Ten. Other people’s opinions are incredibly valuable in the writing process, but in the end, they’re just that — other people’s opinions. If you truly consider the critique and decide you don’t agree with it, there’s no law that says you have to make those changes. (Note: this isn’t always the answer, though, so do make sure you’re giving the critique a fair shake.)

Reserve your darlings.  If the material you love so much really doesn’t belong in the piece that you’re writing, take it out, but set it aside. It could come in handy again later. I had to cut a character — an angry but charming chef named Ruben — from an early draft of The Kitchen Daughter. I hated to do it, but he really didn’t belong in the book, so I pulled all the material related to him into a separate file. Lo and behold, when my publisher and I decided to release a food-themed short-story as an e-book around the time of the Kitchen Daughter paperback release, who became central to that short story? Ruben, of course. This works for characters, sentences, scenes — any type of darling you might need to ax. Kill them, but not dead. Place them in suspended animation, and if you need them later, wake them up for action.

Grow your darlings. Is that fabulous first chapter too far removed from the action of the rest of the story? Or maybe that plot twist you’re so proud of just comes out of nowhere, and you didn’t realize you hadn’t laid the groundwork until your beta reader pointed it out. Maybe the answer is to take out the part that doesn’t fit.

Or maybe the answer is to rework the book until that part does fit. Instead of removing the plot twist, get in there and lay the groundwork, chapter by chapter and scene by scene, so that the reader’s reaction is “Oh wow, of course!” instead of “Huh?” Or restructure the timeline of the book so that the events of that fabulous first chapter happen alongside the rest of the main action. The book that you’ve written is only one possibility, and you have to decide how to take the book that is and turn it into the book you want it to be. Maybe, yes, that means taking out something you love. Or maybe it means taking that part that you love and making more of it — growing it — so it is integral to the book, and not some lovely but irrelevant aside.

So what should you do with your darlings, in the end? Kill them? Grow them? Set them free? That’s totally up to you.


(Image by Kyle May)


About Jael McHenry

Jael McHenry is the debut author of The Kitchen Daughter (Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books, April 12, 2011). Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. You can read more about Jael and her book at jaelmchenry.com or follow her on Twitter at @jaelmchenry.


  1. says

    “Other people’s opinions are incredibly valuable in the writing process, but in the end, they’re just that — other people’s opinions.”

    Agreed, but it’s that ‘incredibly valuable’ part that has me on the ropes. I did a post on slaying my darling opening last week, and I got a lot of very helpful commentary, mostly boiling down to ‘trust your gut.’ It’s the kind of advice I would normally give. And while I appreciate it very much, I think my gut has developed a severe case of shellshocked irresolution.

    Still, thanks, I guess, for giving me even more choices…? Nice post, Jael!

  2. says

    I love this series and the talent you have for taking a fresh look at some of the golden rules of writing. This post for me underscores the need for all writers to be ruthless editors. It killed me to cut whole chapters from my first novel and I lost some strong scenes in the process, but the sober-eyed editor in me knew these chapters didn’t fit or support the story as a whole. As you suggest, perhaps there is a short story in one of thoses chapters. Thanks again, Jael.

  3. says

    Don Maass said something like this at a Breakout Novel Intensive workshop. He said that writers have a great instinct for scene. When these ideas come to us, the story often calls for them. It may take a lot of work to make them fit, but don’t just discard them without a lot of thought.

    I love this series, Jael. Thanks for these insights.

  4. says

    Another great installment in a wonderful series. And like you, I’ve had some decent luck “repurposing” the occasional killed-off darling.

    Kill ’em, sure – but don’t delete ’em. You never know when a resurrection might come in handy.

  5. says

    First off, love a chef named Ruben.

    Second, I agree wholeheartedly with your “cut it but don’t delete it” advice. Time and again I’ve returned to cut scenes and graphs when just the right moment for them appeared out of the ether. Sometimes the girls in the basement know more than we do about our stories during the draft phase.

    So don’t kill your darlings. Just put them in a reversible coma.

  6. says

    Sometimes it’s the post that provides the reward, sometimes the comments. Today, Therese, it was you with ‘the girls in the basement’ and, especially, ‘reversible coma’. Thanks.

  7. says

    I have been the recipient of by the rule writing advice. I’ve always thought that advice was optional and open to interpretation. Thanks for putting it in a post.

  8. says

    Thanks for this. So timely. I’m sitting at my desk trying to figure out how to flip chapters one and two of WIP without some Godawful flashback sequence (they remind me of daytime soaps for some reason, even when done well).

  9. says

    Love love LOVE the “reserve” and “grow” suggestions. Brilliant ways of making darlings work.

    I’m less enamored of the “keep” advice, b/c I think it’s rarely right. Like, if EVERYONE is telling you something’s got to go, it probably does. The exceptions exist, but they are few.

    Still, as others have said, this is a fabulous series! It’s a perfect reminder to all us writers that “rules” are meant as guidelines. We have to learn them, but we also have to learn when to bend or break them.

  10. says

    Great post, Jael. The “kill your darlings” directive has always bothered me in its absoluteness. Love your take on it…which ultimately is a good way to “kiss your darlings.”

  11. says

    Once we’ve accepted the idea that we have to kill some of our darlings, I think some of us convince ourselves that we have to accept every piece of critique and change our novel accordingly, even if the criticism is, as you said, just someone’s opinion and not necessarily indicative of a real problem. It’s OK to keep your darlings sometimes, or to alter the rest of the text to make the darling seem as important as it was in your mind. Like with any major change, I think it’s vital that we wait a day or so before taking action, so that we can divorce our emotions from our logic a little bit and make the best decision for the story, whether it’s killing or keeping.

  12. says

    When a sentence sings, applaud. When it doesn’t, ask it to dance.

    Scenes always have a point, but that point is not always on the page.

    Which is to say, I agree: Darlings don’t always need to be dead, they may only need a shot of life.

    Or a defibrillator, a slap in the face, a talking to, a time out, an hour on the couch, a strip search, a polygraph or whatever else works.

    Capital punishment is primitive and doesn’t actually deter crime as well as corrective detention. Nice one, Jael.

  13. says

    Agreed! I have a healthy “recycle” pile of dialogue, settings, characters, etc. Love the idea of an e-short as a marketing device.

    *putting on thinking cap*

  14. says

    “The book that you’ve written is only one possibility, and you have to decide how to take the book that is and turn it into the book you want it to be” — I love this advice. I’m currently ripping apart a novel yet again to get it to the right place. This is a perfect mantra for me now — thank you!