Your darlings may not deserve to die

When Arthur Quiller-Couch lectured on the art of writing at Cambridge in 1914, he uttered a phrase repeated frequently among authors today.

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.[i]

This phrase has been transformed into, “kill your babies” or “kill your darlings” by authors more famous than him. Few aspiring writers today would pay attention to his advice if it had not been repeated by these people. But, this almost forgotten author and academic lecturer still deserves the recognition for originating it. Although Quiller-Couch was a prolific writer in his day, the transcript of his Cambridge lectures is one of his few books that is still in print. If you desire to read his brand of fiction, you will have to hunt down used copies.

I’ve heard many authors interpret this phrase as referring to writers who cling to their creations as if it were their child. The writer is told to sacrifice the most excellent part if it doesn’t serve to further the story. However, as most authors aren’t reading Quiller-Couch currently, do we really know what he meant by “Murder your darlings?” If you look at this phrase in context you will find he criticized a writing style which contained “extraneous ornament.” He described it as inauthentic, like a man who hires someone else to write an exquisite love letter for him. His point was that beautiful and expansive writing was not necessarily good writing.

If you want to understand Quiller-Couch’s advice, look at the lush descriptive writing of Pat Conroy’s novels The Great Santini and Prince of Tides. Now, compare Conroy’s work to the sparse, lean prose found in the works of Ernest Hemingway and the more recent author, Tove Jansson. Aspiring authors should look at their own work critically. But they don’t need to rip their best work from the novel. It should remain. However, they need to remember that the ornate writing style prized at the beginning of the twentieth century is not widely valued among readers today.

Do recent authors who repeat their own version of “Murder your darlings” mean the same thing? Let’s look at the context of their comments. Stephen King insists that writers:

Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.[ii]

This does not refer to the use of an ornamental or expansive writing style. Stephen King’s work actually contains many digressions and doesn’t always emulate the direct style preferred by Quiller-Couch. In this context the quote seems to deal with authors who hold their work above criticism.

King apparently disapproves of amateur authors’ egotistical attachment to their “scribbling.” Maybe it also concerns their reluctance to dispose of well written characters who need to die to keep the story traumatic (at least if you write horror). However, it should not be aimed at the amateur author but the professional one. Unfortunately, those who can write what they want based on sheer reputation must be careful about producing florid or meandering writing and actually having it published. Few people are willing to mention such faults to a famous author.


[i] Quiller-Couch, Arthur. On the Art of Writing, Lectures delivered in the University of Cambridge 1913-1914

[ii] King, Stephen. On Writing (A Memoir of the Craft) 2000

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Showing too much

Carefully polishing my piece for a writing critique, I attempted to picture every detail of a tense scene. Two indigenous boys scavenged through a village ravaged by mudslides, only to encounter unscrupulous men searching for labors to conscript. The boys hid in a half collapsed structure. The large one was strong enough to move rubble, but he had to depend on the small one. The small one was smart enough to cover their tracks, but fearful of burrowing into confined spaces. Of course, I did not tell any of this. All of the tension was shown through description of characters movements, facial expressions and snippets of conversation.

 The self-appointed expert in this critique liked to harp on “adding more details” and “showing not telling.” What was his response to my work?  “This is confusing, and I cannot figure out what is going on. Can you rewrite this and explain what is happening?” He wanted the events of the story to be told and not shown.

 Does any of this sound familiar? When a person says, “show don’t tell,” what exactly does that mean? Writing is very abstract in itself, so providing this kind of instruction requires bringing the abstract to a more concrete level. When authors give examples of this kind of writing they often demonstrate a fifty/fifty approach. They intersperse detailed descriptions and realistic conversation with exposition that simply tells the reader what has occurred.

Writers who show more than tell lose the ability to convey subtlety in their work. Often a reader will not comprehend what is occurring when a character shuffles his feet in the dust or makes a gagging noise. For actions to be easily interpreted they have to be dramatic enough for some readers to pick up the meaning. Facial expressions must be exaggerated to ensure that the reader detects the happiness, anger, or fear. However, characters should be able to display subtle emotions, too—anxiety, restlessness or boredom. Showing lets us know what a character does; telling makes us aware of intentions and interior feelings.

A novel that is pure showing, such as La Jalousie by Alain Robbe-Grillet, describes every detail: the light through the blinds, the scent of the lilacs, the indolent movements of the people outside. It takes keen perception to realize that the unnamed viewpoint character who perceives all of this may be imagining part of it. Many readers will simply give up as they are unable to deduce what is occurring.

The majority of readers really want an author to tell them what is happening but include enough description of a scene so that they feel they are present. “Show not tell” should be used for key scenes. However, when a scene seems to drag on and become boring, this may be a sign that you should truncate this information and simply tell the reader what has occurred. Telling takes far fewer words than showing. As you write you have to learn the balance between explaining what is happening and displaying events through description of sensory details.

When unsure, write the scene in question in two manners—one that shows the action, and one that tells what is happening. As you review your writing, choose the one that works best.

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Did I Miss Something?

Decades ago, in a high school English classroom, one of my better students sat reading Bear Island, a thriller by Alistair MacLean. He asked out loud, “Why can’t we read books like this rather than the stuff we read in class?” This particular class focused on American literature, including short stories and novels by  Hawthorne, Twain, Poe, Steinbeck, O’Connor and Bradbury.

I could have responded “Alistair MacLean is Scottish.” However, a number of American authors had written works in the same vein, readable thrillers with action beyond the probable. Instead I replied, “Bear Island is fine to read when you choose books on your own. But, we read works from different periods and viewpoints that require you to think and interpret the story. That way you gain a greater understanding.”

What more did the students want? They could choose what they liked during independent reading. (Well, that wasn’t completely true as I had to remove a copy of Hustler Magazine that one student was attempting to pass to classmates.)

Decades later, when I am no longer teaching high school, preference in reading is still a concern. This is especially true when I expose my writing to critiques from others. I’m not necessary bothered by the fastidious followers of rules of punctuation and usage. Although, die-hard supporters of certain ones can be irritating.

For example, I’ve had critiques in which one person changed the ending punctuation within the quotes from commas to periods, and another changed them back. My decision was to use the comma when the dialog tag used a verb referring to speech, and a period when the verb described the character’s action. A problem occurred when punctuating “You wish you were my boyfriend,” she giggled. One person critiquing assumed a human either giggles or speaks. I’ve taught high school and seen adolescent girls combine these frequently.

I can take that kind of critique. However, feedback from a person who reads a few kinds of easily consumable writing creates the greatest challenge. For example, if the person were a fan of Alistair MacLean, they might accept the flat characters (macho warriors and cardboard females) and impossible plots in exchange for the high melodrama and exotic settings. But, if this person read about war from Stephen Crane’s or Ishmael Beah’s viewpoint, the result would be confusion. The action is not all laid out simply for them to digest.

Words that tell what is occurring in an edge-of-the-seat exiting manner are more acceptable than showing through description. The high school students didn’t know how to point out what confused them in The Red Badge of Courage. Perhaps most disturbing to them was the lack of clear cut heroes and villains. Complex characters and a story shown through descriptive passages require readers exert more effort to understand.

Reading MacLean’s account of war is entertaining; reading Crane’s is thought provoking. During a critique the hardest comments to deal with are “I don’t understand what is happening!” or “Did I miss something?” If the person doesn’t choose to read that which requires a lot of thought for interpretation, is it worth the effort, or the possibility of insult, to explain it?

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Don’t ignore response to a tragedy

Anyone who sees or hears a tragedy cannot remain untouched by it. They can attempt to stifle or ignore it, but there will be subtle signs. When that tragedy strikes a person directly, the signs will be even greater, and stress will continue to crop up over an extended period of time. However, some authors forget that.

Their character loses a close friend, a dear family member, or their great love. Yet, after this heart-breaking moment the bereft character returns to carrying on as usual within a short time. The shock should not evaporate so quickly. Understanding how to describe the signs of distress will keep the disaster fresh in the mind of the reader.

Characters should respond to the calamity with mental, emotional, and/or physical signs. The one that they exhibit the most is often a challenge to the area of their greatest strength. The mind can play games on a character after a loss. Difficulty concentrating, making mistakes completing simple tasks, being easily startled, or having flash backs or nightmares in which they “relive” the event all point to the seriousness of the tragedy.

The character should show emotions other than the typical sadness or frequent tears. The result might be anger and rage which often flare up after the loss of a loved one. Although anger is frequently used as a male response, do not overlook it in a female. Conversely denial and guilt can crop up in either. After a time of mourning, numbness and feelings of detachment or vulnerability often occur. Having the character’s daily life interrupted by these errant emotions remind us that the loss was severe in a more potent way than dialogue discussing it.

Describing a character’s physiological response is one of the keys to keeping a reader on edge. These are the outward signs of heartbreak:

  • A racing heart
  • Unexplained bodily aches
  • Confusion
  • Insomnia
  • Constant exhaustion
  • Appetite changes (no appetite or binging on comfort foods)
  • Excessive alcohol and drug use

Actually, stress is exhibited by any excessive, compulsive action, such as constant social media scrolling, TV binge watching, always being preoccupied with a book, or listening to podcasts and music because the silence is unbearable. However, the drug and alcohol use compound the problem quickly. It a sign of a pain that creates another challenge for that person to overcome.

Now, if exhibiting these signs seems to create a weak character, you must remember that not exhibiting any of them results in a heartless character.

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Pulling new genres out of the hat

The nineteenth century witnessed the birth of the sensation novel. It drew on melodramatic writing about the insane and the criminal elements in society as well as gothic and romantic genres. Romance and realism, which had been opposing types of literature, were combined in this new genre. Common elements of the sensation novel were characters unaware of their true identity, important letters misdirected, a character resorting to disguises, a heroine in physical danger, and an aristocratic villain. However, sensation novels often contain elements that were allegorical and abstract reflecting social anxieties in uncertain Victorian times. If this piques your interest, you might enjoy The Woman in White and Lady Audley’s Secret.

Sensation novels illustrate how a new style of storytelling is replicated until it becomes genre. Writing in a genre typically means following rules and conventions. In return for submitting to these the author is allowed to make particular illogical leaps. For example, romance novels often assume that soul mates exist so finding that person is the key. There may not be a need to come up with astounding actions to demonstrate how much one person loves another. Rather love is measured by amount of desires and longing for the other. Romance writing is also based on the supposition that there is a turning point beyond which the couple will remain in love forever. However, romance can be one of the more restrictive genres.

Perhaps, I have an idea for a romance novel, but the pair is not going to meet on the first page and there will not be love at first sight. Instead each of them will be distracted by other possible lovers. After my main pair finally join together and the romance really begins, one of them will stray from the relationship. My novel no longer fits the requirements of a romance.

So, I play with the idea of changing the genre. I add trappings of new technology and place the story on another planet for a sci-fi space opera. Maybe, I research a past period with societal rules similar to this one. Then, I rewrite my novel into an historical one. Or, I just leave it in the current time frame and make the story a bit more introspective concerning the role of a woman in society. Now, I have created a piece of women’s fiction. Finally, I could condense the time frame and redo the major characters as seventeen-years-olds. Often, this is all that is needed to transform a novel into a YA book.

However, I could be brave and leave the book as is. If enough similar works are written, it will morph its own new genre.

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The key to polite introductions

The first chapter described a woman, now alone, returning to a memory-loaded place. As I read I could easily absorb the environment and still have the mental capacity to consider her conflicted feelings. Would her journey bring healing or more heartache? She waivered as she viewed the wild landscape that held deep meaning for the person no longer there. In the second chapter I was tossed in the middle of six conspirators; their names and relationship were listed in one long sentence. As I read their argumentative dialog, my head spun. Was it really important to the plot that I recall who said what?  

The author who knows their own creations intimately will struggle to view them with the new eyes of a reader. This task is more than difficult. It is impossible. So, here are some techniques to consider with introducing new characters.

  1. Introduce each character by having an existing character observe them or talk with them. What is seen or heard should at least hint why the new character is important to the plot.
  2. If the new character is already known by the protagonist or antagonist, they can discuss the character before their appearance. This conversation should imply, if not outright state, how the new person fits into the conflict.
  3. Bring in new characters as a pair. It is not much harder to absorb two new, closely connected people than it is to remember one new character. This will also allow you to have dialog between the two instantly.
  4. Pace the introduction of characters. Give each one their own five hundred to a thousand words before dragging in another person that needs to be added to the reader’s memory. Use these words wisely and avoid describing a list of attributes and achievements. Instead stay in the present and show the character’s current actions and attitudes.

Does slowing the pace of the story so that the reader has time to become acquainted with each new character’s personality bother you as an author? Then, consider the possibility that some of your characters should be combined. It’s your best option if they are contributing to the same goal in the plot. Having one of your characters meld with another will take careful attention as you clean up the story to remove all traces of the deleted person.

If you find the need to combine characters in scenes that you have already written, their dialog and actions become truncated. If they are the only two in the scene, spoken words will be translated into internal thoughts. You may go through this procedure more than once, if you have really overloaded the story with characters. But, the other option is to have reader’s head spinning, which makes it hard to read–hard enough that they may simply close the book and never open it again.

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Remember me?

In the attempt to make characters memorable, some authors make them unreal. Sometimes bizarre to the point of being incomprehensible, and sometimes too talented. The complexities of real humans might overwhelm some readers but that is exactly where to start. It is more difficult to make up your character’s personality than to copy it from someone that you know. Combining two similar acquaintances will also work. Basing characters on two or three real people helps to prevent possible trouble if people recognize themselves in your work, and realize that they have been depicted in a less than flattering light.

However, all characters need obvious flaws or areas of incompetence. When people (fictional or real) make mistakes and get things wrong, readers are more likely to remember them. Weaknesses make characters memorable. Flaws are frequently more unique than strengths. Positive traits tend to be similar; such as intelligence, idealism, beauty and physical strength. Another “flaw,” which may not be seen as one, is a trait that prevents a character from fitting into society. This provides an instant conflict if the difference is well-defined. The inability to fit in must create real confrontations that result in suffering to keep the readers wondering how your character will cope with this challenge.

The unlikely strengths are the ones that gain attention. For example, let’s look at the intelligent but uneducated person. They will have gaps in their knowledge, and obvious ones due to a deficit in schooling. The intelligent but uneducated person won’t use fancy words, historical references, or literary allusions. They will be able to describe what they have observed in simple terms and make reasonable guesses as to the cause for events. They’ll avoid making superficial comments without real meaning. Their higher intelligence will allow them to group different distinctions together, or separate ones that other people lump into a single pile.

Finally, memorable characters have an arc and change over time. For example, they may have to deal with a particular flaw of rudeness or arrogance, or overcome a fear and develop a new strength. Even characters whose arc is negative, so they spiral downward rather than grow, are remembered more than characters who do not change at all.

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Writing rules to break

First write for yourself, and then worry about the audience.

The best writers often had to transitioned from one culture to another. The discovery that their own world was not the only one provided them with a more unique voice. They learned to express what they experienced so that people half way across the world would understand. However, they also had a depth of insight, so peers growing up in the same time and place noted in the author’s writing what they had not noticed before. When you write you must consider how to express ideas to an audience so your words still ring true to readers from another place or time.

Don’t use passive voice.

The passive voice would not exist if it did not serve a purpose. If an important act has occurred and you do not want to reveal who did it, use the passive voice. For example, “A beat-up package had been shoved between the holly shrubs and the house.”

Your character discovers a crucial package and needs to uncover who left it there. Of course, you do not name the person who shoved the package into its hiding spot.

Remember that using forms of to be (is, are, was, were, be and been) does not always make a statement passive. Often the use of to be verbs indicates a continuing action or one that is occurring when another event happens.  Such as, “I was walking down an alley when I spotted my coat running away from me.”

Avoid adverbs, especially after “he said” and “she said.”

Delete adverbs from language and it becomes impoverished. It may be redundant to say “She smiled cheerfully.” However, it is difficult to get across the sense of “smiling bitterly” without an adverb.

Take the adverbs out of all dialog tags and you limit the subtlety of emotions that people show when speaking. Not everybody uses extremes, such as whispering or screaming, to exhibit feeling. When creating a conversation I attempted to find a verb meaning to moan softly. There was none. Whimper did not convey the same idea. Stripping moan of the adverb weakened the meaning. So, sometimes adverbs are needed in speech tags. Just don’t over use them.

But don’t obsess over perfect grammar.

Rules of grammar and usage are ones that you should follow. Otherwise you need an ironclad explanation of why your writing is stronger if you choose to ignore them. If you are an unknown person submitting a manuscript and it contains grammatical or spelling errors, you’ve lost credibility with most publishers instantly.

You must find a way of not letting the need for perfect grammatical construction get in your way when writing. However, it is necessary to find and fix the errors before someone else reads your work. Too many people cannot forgive a mistake in punctuation, usage. or spelling.

Read, read, read and turn off the TV.

Reading excessively can be as much of a distraction as watching TV. Reading books that are not well-written will only inflate your view of your own writing. You need to read and watch what is excellent. However, limiting both will help you to write more. The reasons some authors read massive amounts is to find a source of plots from other books.

Show don’t tell.

Showing, or revealing the characters and story through description and actions, multiplies the number of words. If descriptions become too long, readers will struggle to place all the pieces in order. And, they may also become bored. People give up reading novels that only show because it is too much work to understand what is occurring. As the author, you must determine how to balance these two ways of writing.

So, stop obsessing over the rules written by other authors, especially if these authors break the rules themselves. Write to express your best ideas in a creative manner that is still accessible to others. Put your recent writing away for a while and see if it still works when you review it later. However, you’ll still need feedback from readers who don’t know you and are willing to be honest. Writing occurs when alone, but critiques that improve it cannot.

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I’d like you to meet my newest character

What do you really need to know about me?

Are you tentative about introducing new characters? Afraid that too much attention in creating newcomers will allow them to overshadow your main characters? A variety of decisions must be made: How fast to introduce characters, how much detail to give, and which techniques work best for seamlessly bringing newcomers into the story without slowing down the action. The answers will depend on point of view and the role this new character will take.

How fast can new characters be introduced? Think about characters in the same manner as digits in a telephone number. A seven digit number is fairly easy to remember. However, within this telephone number, the digits are divided into two groups: three and four. If you have a number of characters that must play a role early in the story (i.e. first and second chapter) it helps if these people are introduced as part of a group. Three to four is a good size.

Trying to bring in more than seven named characters at this point is likely to overwhelm your audience. However, during the remainder of the story, you probably don’t want to introduce any more than seven more named characters of secondary stature (unless your name is J.R.R. Tolkien).

Next, comes the question of appearance: Is age, hair and eye color enough? How about height and weight? Remember, this is a character intro and not a driver’s license. Only enough physical description to distinguish this person from other major characters is needed. That might not be any of the attributes found on a driver’s license. The shape of their eyebrows, the manner of their smile, or ever gait of their walk can be the memorable trait.

If the point of view is first person, and the narrator already knows this person, no physical description may be necessary. The narrator’s relationship to and opinion of the character should take center stage in the introduction. Whatever the point of view, boil down the physical details to the few most important ones. The reader needs to know about characters through their actions, how they relate to others, and through their interior thoughts or other’s opinions.

Most important is how to introduce new characters. Their backstory is of negligible importance. The reaction of the protagonist or another character who encounters this newbie is what inserts them into a story in the way that readers will sit up and notice. Your main character doesn’t need to have a conflict with everyone that crosses their path. But, disagreements need to be more plentiful than in real life.

The new character should arrive with an agenda that puts them at odds with a character that the reader is already invested in. A conflict or misunderstanding with the main character is the strongest way to introduce this person. Even if the two are going to become blood brothers or the devoted lovers later on, the new person should pose a problem which the protagonist needs to overcome. Imagine how short Pride and Prejudice would be if Elizabeth Bennett had not misread the character of  Mr. Darcy.

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Color coding characters

Try this short cut to creating memorable characters.

Physical appearance descriptions are only superficial. Describing hair, eyes, skin or clothing colors tells the reader nothing about internal motives. However, assigning specific colors to important characters is a good shortcut for coding their personality. You can remember what major motivation you gave each character by using the color associated with it for a physical feature or possession the character wears.

To connect traits to colors, I’ll refer you to the work of Swiss Psychotherapist Max Lüscher. I used the Lüscher color test as a kind of party game in college  (Even though the Amazon site discourages that.) I’d ask the other students to put the eight colored cards in their preferred order. Then, I’d read directly from the manual about their overarching goals, what they used to achieve goals, and what they were suppressing. The traits associated with colors are generic enough that many different people can see themselves in some of them. So, the other students generally agreed with my observations.

For example, blue stands for “depth of feeling,” evidenced by a desire for peace and tranquility. Depending where this blue card is placed, peace can be the goal, or peace can be used to achieve another goal, or it can be what the character is willing to sacrifice. You do not have to choose a color for each of these positions. You could use two colors for this first position. However, the more work you are willing to do, the more depth your characters will have.

These are the eight basic colors and their interpretations:

Blue: The character prizes tranquility and exhibits a calm, tender behavior. Being passive is their weakness.

Green: Indicates an elastic will. The character is persistent, confident and in control. Their weakness is being over controlling and assuming possessions equal success.

Red: Action, excitement and sexuality are the goals. This character is competitive and aggressive, sometimes extremely aggressive with little care for how this affects others.

Yellow: The character seeks exhilaration and expects the situation to get better. They can be spontaneous, or launch into action with no planning, or run around and achieve absolutely nothing (like a chicken with their head cut off).

Violet: Identifies esthetic values. The character prizes being charming, enchanting and culturally sophisticated. Their weakness is being unrealistic and depending on wishes to come true.

Brown: The character is sensitive to bodily senses. They prefer simple comforts. They may be in touch with nature and their natural side. They may also be lazy.

Grey: This color indicates non-involvement and concealment. What the character conceals may be based on another color in the list of motivations.

Black: If this is a character’s first choice of color they seek to fade into the background and hope to achieve this by renunciation, surrender or relinquishment of valued things. You must also determine what these are.

In conclusion, don’t expect the reader to guess the traits of your character just because they always wear a necklace with a blue sapphire or have baby blue eyes. The colored item is there for you to recall the traits.

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