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The blog of Stephen Arnott (aka S J Arnott). Writer of the Leofric Dark Age adventures and Jack Bleacher.

Murder You Darlings

Stephen Arnott

“On the third or fourth draft, pencil in hand, I reread my test, by this point practically a fair copy, and eliminate whatever can be eliminated, whatever seems useless. Each deletion is a triumph…It gives me great pleasure to get rid of what is futile.” Marguerite Yourcenar

It’s astonishing how so many cherished scenes, lines of dialogue, descriptive passages, even characters, can survive every edit but the last. 

I’m sure we’ve all had a niggling feeling about text that, while having the superficial appearance of being solid and needful, has often given you second thoughts. You might have considered getting rid of the text many times, but you liked it for whatever reason, and you’d become used to seeing it on the page, so it stayed.

That is, until you reach the closing drafts. You now have a much better idea of what’s working and what’s not, and some of the clever lines and daring twists you were so proud of in drafts one and two are now looking more than a little shaky. You hit the delete button to undertake some drastic surgery and, when it’s over, you find that the patient has not only survived the operation, they're positively thriving.

This kind of hatchet job is often called ‘Murdering your darlings’, and it can be a disturbing process for two reasons. Firstly, there’s the regret and angst over the wasted effort involved - the effort of writing the stuff in the first place, then the effort you went to in carefully working round it in every subsequent draft. Secondly, you wonder at your own critical faculties. How could you not have seen it as lousy from the get go? If you had, all this unpleasantness could have been avoided. Though that’s a little unfair. Quite often the text isn’t bad in itself, there might be nothing wrong with it at all. It could be just that it no longer fits – the story has outgrown it. Sometimes it helps to think of your darlings as pieces of scaffolding; you need them while you need them, but once their work is done, they can go.

I guess all writers go through this process, though it’s hard to tell since we very rarely get to see early drafts of books. We do, however, get to see the early drafts of movies. These drafts are called shooting scripts. In a perfect world, the shooting script would represent the final cut, the finished movie, except that there’s one more stage to go through, because the real final cut belongs to the editor, and it’s in the editing suite that the real murdering goes on.

Take the film Nightcrawler. If you read the script (you can find it online at Go Into The Story) you’ll find a long scene near the beginning where the anti-hero Louise Bloom ‘romances’ a middle-aged nurse in a diner. The scene helps to establish Bloom’s character, but is unnecessary to the plot, slows down the action, and distracts us from the main story. Not surprisingly, it was cut and doesn’t appear in the movie. However, the cut wasn’t made in the writing stage, the entire scene was shot, then dropped in the edit.

Think of all the work that went into shooting that scene: the casting, rehearsals, lighting, location scouting, set design. And it may have taken a whole day or more of camera time to get it on film. Shooting that scene was an expensive proposition, and all that effort was for nothing, it didn’t even make it as a DVD extra (I only know it was shot was because it’s mentioned in the director’s commentary). That scene was a darling that almost made it to the very end.

Take another movie example, this time from Whiplash. [Mild spoiler alert] Towards the climax of the movie, our protagonist, Andrew, who is performing at Carnegie Hall, suffers a terrible humiliation on stage and runs into the wings where his father has fought past security to see him (this all happens around page 100 of the script). The father tells Andrew that he loves him, only to have Andrew disown him before turning away to return to the stage...Except that very little of this action gets onto the screen, mainly because, as written, the scene makes Andrew seem like a complete ass. The whole scene was shot, but it was edited around so that we see only the brief reunion of father and son and the expression of affection. It’s a good cut that keeps Andrew sympathetic and maintains our focus on the drama of the drum-kit. Another last, last minute decision that really helped the movie achieve its potential.

The moral of all this being:

Don’t be afraid of making last minute edits, they're often the most valuable. And don't feel too bad about them afterwards. Perhaps you should have cut this stuff earlier, but even the best of us have blinders on (note examples above). Kill, kill kill.

If you've enjoyed this post, take a moment to check out some of my books.

(Image: Alex Malikov c/o Shutterstock)