“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
– William Faulkner
It hurts to kill those darlings! But if they serve absolutely no purpose in the story, they indeed have to go. I learned this lesson the hard way while writing my debut novel, I Loved You Yesterday. It’s now a three-time national award-winning novel—but it definitely wouldn’t have been had I not learned this lesson early on in my writing journey.
For the last week, I’ve been knee-deep in developmental edits, paying meticulously close attention to the scenes in each chapter. Just last night, I looked at a full scene in my latest novel, Trusting Love, and hit the DELETE key.
Because it didn’t do anything for the story. Not one thing. Hitting the delete key didn’t impact the outcome of the book. I had to in fact… kill my darling. But my full story is now better for it. So, with my brain in scene editing mode, I started jotting down a few tips about writing better scenes. Here are my top five while they’re fresh in my head:
1 – Stick to one point-of-view. No head hopping! As an avid beta reader for other romance authors, I consistently have to point this out. Always stick to a single point-of-view per chapter. Even if you decide to split the chapter into multiple scenes, the perspective should always remain consistent. If you head hop, your reader will walk away confused (rightfully so!). Stick to a single point-of-view, no matter what.
2 – Establish where and when the scene is happening from the start. Help your readers along. If they’re spending time guessing where your characters are or trying to work through when a scene takes place (has a week passed since the last chapter?), you’re not doing your job as a storyteller. Make it clear how much time has elapsed since the last chapter and always identify the location of a scene in the first few sentences.
3 – If the scene does not advance the plot, it’s not needed. Read that again (because I often need to). Like I mentioned in my short story above, each scene must serve a purpose—even if it’s minimal. Ask yourself: If this scene did not exist, would it change the outcome of the story? If you answer yes to this question, the scene has a purpose and can stay. But think critically. If there’s even an inkling to answer “no” to this question, I would challenge you to revisit the scene and dig deep to find the true purpose of why it’s there. Kill your darlings when you need to.
4 – Each scene must advance your character’s arc. I could write an entire blog on building a character’s arc (I’ll tackle that one in the future!). But in the short sense, a character’s arc is how they grow throughout the story from start to finish. It’s often balanced between internal and external conflict, but each scene must advance the character’s arc is some way.
5 – Balance emotion with exposition. This tip applies to the entire story, but it can also be valuable from the perspective of a single scene. 50% of your scene must explain what’s happening and move the story forward. That’s the plot. That’s the purpose. But the real magic of storytelling happens in the other 50%. Balance the scene with the emotions your characters experience. Emotions strengthen your character’s arc and guide the reader on a fulfilling journey well beyond the plot.
There’s a strategy behind every scene. Write with purpose. Write with intention. And kill those darlings when you need to!
***PRO TIP: Even when you find yourself needing to hit the delete key, save the scene in a different file. Deleted scenes make for great social media content, newsletter subscriber incentives, and oftentimes you’ll find a way to repurpose the information in a different way within the story.