William Faulkner said, “Kill your darlings.” What he meant was: if you write something that you love beyond all reason, it is wrong and should be cut from the piece.
It sounds bizarre. Take out the very best thing in the story? “You must be kidding!” I hear you cry. Or I would if you said it and I was standing beside you at the time.
Faulkner really meant it. And he is not the only one. In the deleted scenes from 28 Days Later there is a shot of our hero Cillian Murphy running up a flight of stairs. As he runs, the camera wheels this way, then that as he turns up a bend in the stairs, and because the stairs are lit from below, the pattern of light and shadow through the railings makes a zebra-stripe jungle through which Murphy skitters. It’s gorgeous. So director Danny Boyle cut it out of the film. Why? Because he has a rule that the best shot of his movies always gets the chop.
This strategy is hardly new. Samuel Johnson said,
Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.
How about this from a piece about Dwight Macdonald in the New York Times?
Macdonald … argued that experience had taught him the wisdom of heeding his inner veto power: “When I say no I’m always right, and when I say yes I’m almost always wrong.” [written by James Woolcott]
A wonderful story can be undermined by a single sentence. All it takes is one crack in the foundation and the story will crumble. Among professional writers, glaring errors are extremely rare, partly because most writers of skill simply won’t write a lot of idiotic sentences, and partly because professional writers generally sell to professional editors who go over the stories again and advise corrections. Outright stupidities still creep in from time to time (just read Thog’s Masterclass for examples), but they are if not rare then at least they are uncommon.
The danger comes not from typos, grammatical errors, or slippages of viewpoint. These are all technical errors and easily identified in most proofreadings. The real danger comes from those sentences that aren’t technically incorrect but just plain wrong. And the problem with gremlins that are just plain wrong is that they can hide themselves in a clever turn of phrase or a beautiful juxtaposition of words.
A personal example: I have just finished an edit of a story called “Pheromone Tango” for a new anthology. In the old version, there was this line:
WILD! is free of gluten and lactose, but may contain traces of nuts.
Which is followed by:
At that moment, Dick thought that was about all that was left of him. Traces of nuts.
In context, this is a very strong line. But it’s also too clever. It’s showing off. Worse, it’s showing off with a cheap joke that’s meant to carry a lot of emotional weight. So I cut the last phrase.
At that moment, Dick thought that was about all that was left of him.
This still has the same joke, but now it’s buried deep enough that I can enjoy it without jolting the reader. Of course, if I was to take Faulkner’s advice to the letter, I would excise the whole “traces of nuts” thing in its entirety.
I guess I still find it hard to kill my darlings. Will hiding them in the closet do?