Game of Thrones: Murder Your Darlings
One of the most commonly given pieces of writing advice is to murder your darlings.
Murder your darlings sounds like a terrifying Australian horror movie, but it simply means that authors should edit their writing with a willing eye to cutting out stuff that just doesn’t work, even if when they super duperly love it. To paraphrase OJ Simpson’s lawyer, if the words don’t fit, delete that shit. And if you can’t bear that, at least copy/paste the detritus into a separate file to be spun into a different piece. Double your pleasure, folks.
It’s good advice. A desperate need to murder my darlings is something I’ve run into again and again in my writing (and occasionally in real life). Maybe a point I really want to make just does not work where I’ve put it. Or a line of dialogue I adore doesn’t ring true coming from a particular character’s lips. I go over it again and again, eventually realizing it just isn’t gonna happen. Sometimes I can move things around and squeeze it in, or work in a better transition between two points, but other times that sweet little darling of mine just has to GO.
(of course, a lot of people think I should remove stuff from my pieces a lot more often than I do. It’s true. Don’t worry, I’ll be cutting this sentence later.)
But somewhere along the way what was prescriptive became proscriptive. A handy tip about not getting too hung up on preserving everything you like at the expense of your overall flow, has become a “do this or ELSE” guideline. The trouble is, editing too aggressively can even make people’s writing worse, not better. People have taken murder your darlings to a bizarre extreme, and crazily, this advice is coming from so-called experts. Novice writers are being told that their piece isn’t finished unless they’ve gone through and deleted the parts they like the best. Not just the stuff that doesn’t work, the heart and soul of their story!
No matter what you may have read on somebody’s writing blog, murdering your darlings does NOT entail cutting out everything clever, interesting, special, cool, unexpected, or unusual from your writing in order to make it more generic and thus supposedly palatable to publishers and agents. That’s nonsense, and I give you Exhibit A, Quentin Tarantino, and B, Vince Gilligan and crew, and then I rest my case because those guys have already shot murder your darlings in both kneecaps, stuffed it in a car trunk, and left it bleeding in the desert to the strains of Kyu Sakamoto singing Sukiyaki.
You. Do Not. Need. To. Cut. The Good Shit. From your writing. Seriously, I promise you. The world needs more Good Shit. It needs Good Shit desperately.
Now, you may need to cut SOME stuff, and that is ok. Editing – a process in which you remove things that do not work in favor of things that do – is a very important part of writing. But cutting things that DO work to fulfill some ridiculous piece of advice that sounds good on paper but makes no sense at all, makes no sense at all.
Write freely. Keep the stuff that works. Make it work better. Keep it up. You’ll have something good in the end. Submit it at OrdinaryTimes.com so we can all enjoy it.
In many genres, an author’s darlings are of critical import. You can’t have a horse and sword fantasy without hearing the full provenance of various mystical swords, a sci-fi story without investigating the political intrigues of an alien species, or a rom-com without a lot of snappy pointless sexually charged dialogue that does not advance the plot at all.
And you can’t have a Tarantino movie without this:
That beautiful breathtaking five minutes of sheer perfection is not a darling that needs to be murdered. That is lightning in a goddamn bottle. Tarantino could have cut that scene to a minute and accomplished the same purpose in terms of advancing the plot, and retained absolutely none of the magic. Nothing explodes, there is no CGI, no slow mo bullets being fired, but it is fricking mesmerizing. Yet there are plenty of “writing coaches” out there who, if Quentin’s unfamous counterpart had taken the Kill Bill script to them to get their opinion on it, would have been like “WTF, dude? This has nothing to do with the story, get rid of it. You gotta murder your darlings, bro.”
Suffice to say, I’m a huge fan of keeping those precious darlings on life support as often as possible. Darlings are what make writing fun, both for those of us who practice the art of wordsmithery, and also when it comes to devouring the fruits of the process as an audience. Murdering every one of your darlings just means another “Save the Cat” style cookie cutter finished product audiences can predict to the beat, nothing interesting or unique therein. I would rather watch one of Quentin Tarantino’s unmurdered darlings lurching and flailing like an overly bullet ridden corpse even when it doesn’t quite work, than yet another slick, fast paced, boring, totally unmagical Hollywood crapfest.
But all that having been said, this being 2021, a time in which everything has lost its original meaning to take on some other completely different meaning which only those who are Extremely Online are aware of, murder your darlings is not immune to the phenomenon. Murder your darlings is being misused on the Internet damn near as much as the term Mary Sue. So much so that I’m sure there are quite a few of you reading now saying “but that’s not even what murder your darlings MEANS!”
Yes, yes it is, actually, dating all the way back to the 1910’s, but meanings are slippery things, easily corrupted by those who are too lazy to make up their own terms and so prefer to steal an already established one instead.
I am told that Joss Whedon, sticky-fingered purveyor of overrated dreck (and one actually damn fine show) originally bastardized the meaning of “murder your darlings” to explain his propensity for killing off his main characters. And while I can’t find an actual quote from him meaning this is probably an apocryphal story that never actually happened, the dude does kill for shock value, no doubt about it. And while some of his character deaths were well done and incredibly moving (I still haven’t recovered from the loss of Buffy’s mom, all these years later – brilliant) he’s killed off several characters in ways that, IDK, left me a little bit cold. “Oh, you like Anya? Well, hey, let’s let her get her ass brutally dumped, and then she’ll have to sacrifice herself for everyone else despite being drawn as a delightfully selfish person-demon hybrid who would never do such a thing. F*ck you very much!”
I loathe cheap character deaths because there has to be some REASON for a character to die, beyond simply subverting fan expectations. I swear to the ghosts of the crew of Rogue One and all those guys who went to save Private Ryan, you can’t just kill a character to piss people off. It should mean something other than a middle finger from writer to audience. Subverting expectations is NOT ENOUGH of a reason. It just feels like manufactured drama – doesn’t even tug at my heartstrings, it just gets on my nerves.
Killing characters should have a higher purpose or it lacks emotional punch. Killing anyone who is anything more than completely disposable, in a disposable fashion, just feels petty and meanspirited, like the audience and the writer are in a war and the writer is trying to screw the audience without benefit of lube, by which I mean meaningfulness of either plot or theme. Joss Whedon saying “You know what would really burn these people’s bacon is if I killed Wash, but not only Wash, also Shepherd Book, like, just pointlessly, even though this isn’t even a story about people dying pointlessly at all, ” just to be a dickwagon, is, to me, the act of a spoiled brat who deserves to see his career tank.
But of course, when it comes to killing characters for shock value, one man stands above the crowd, eclipsing even Whedon with his darling-murdering bloodthirstiness. That man, of course, is Game of Thrones author George RR Martin. Unlike Joss Whedon, George RR Martin kills off his characters right. The best of GRRM’s major deaths have happened for a purpose – plot, character, or theme.
You see, George is not writing us a space opera that’s supposed to be fun to watch with some popcorn like Whedon. In addition to weaving an intricate tale of swords and ice zombies, he was constructing a larger parable about the fragility of life and how we mere mortals can plan and scheme only to have it all blow up in our face, through our own foibles, the machinations of others, or sheer dumb luck. Unexpected deaths served that greater theme, and individual deaths not only served the theme but affected both plot and character by creating ripple effects through the entire fictional universe. King Robert’s death set up the entire premise of the books. Ned Stark’s death was brutal, compelling, and it advanced the plot. Khal Drogo’s death was heartbreaking and sent Daenerys in a completely new direction as a character. The Red Wedding was incredibly gripping and made perfect sense given the events that had come before. Joffrey’s death freed Sansa from King’s Landing, put Tyrion on trial for his life, and eventually brought about Oberyn Martell’s doom.
Those deaths mattered. They mattered to the story and to the characters and elevated the overall theme of the story to greatness. Mighty George RR Martin looks upon the feeble works of Joss Whedon, trying to mimic all that beautiful complexity of subtext in a shoot em up spaceship story that never WAS that to begin with by killing off a fan fave or two, and laughs whilst rubbing his hands together in a very sinister fashion.
You know nothing, Joss Schmo.
And with that I would love to hereby crown George RR Martin our king of fictional deathblows. Exxcceeepttt…have you not noticed that as the books advance, and as the tv show advanced allegedly based to some extent on plot points from the books, we’re encountering some questionable calls in the GoT character death department. Characters are being created temporarily (and it is ENOUGH ALREADY GEORGE) just to be killed off while good characters are ignored totally or given short shrift. What’s worse, characters are seemingly being killed off to be brought back, so much so that it’s descended into cheap trickery in comparison to how sublime those first few books were.
Whether you watch the show or not, obveeusslee neither Jon Snow nor the Hound are actually dead.1 Dany is wandering in the desert with an upset tummy and a cranky dragon, but I’ll wager she’s not gonna be dead either. Catelyn Stark was resurrected as Lady Stoneheart – I mean, ok, I guess, literally the only person other than Joffrey I was glad to see die, including Tywin Lannister, but whatevs. I don’t even mind bringing people back from the dead (look, I like Supernatural, ok) as long as it improves the storyline to do it. I’m just not sure that was much of an improvement.
It seems better for an author to let his or her characters exist under the protection of some sort of plot armor even if the audience is no longer constantly on the edge of their seat concerned by their imminent deaths. Shocking plot twists are SO 2003! What are we, M. Night Shyamalan here?
I’d take a slightly more predictable story any day over “they’re dead, no they’re not, yes they are, oh but wait look they’re back” and/or pulling the bait and switch, killing off some relatively disposable person like Myrcella or Thoros of Myr instead just because the alarm went off on your phone and it’s time for someone to die.
There’s a huge gulf between killing off characters for a valid reason and pulling wings off a butterfly just to watch it squirm. At some point don’t some of these people have to actually survive to the end, even if the fans feel complacent about it? Killing people just cuz is the way Joss Whedon writes, Georgie Boy.
The irony about George RR Martin is he should have probably paid more attention to the original definition of the term “murder your darlings” than the new and improved one. Now, I obvs love Game of Thrones in both its incarnations but the truth is George RR goes too far in terms of adding these absolutely insane and mind-numbing details that no one can possibly care about. I love a good darling, truly I do, and as established, I don’t want to see all the darlings go by the wayside. As a lover of fantasy, I appreciate the GRRM’s dedication to creating this entire elaborate mythology of this fictional world but dude, HOLY HELL.
My man, what you are doing is NOT the equivalent of Beatrix meeting Hatori Hanzo. It’s mental masturbation that detracts from the finished product. There’s a reason why Tolkien’s editors shoved this shit in The Silmarillion, ok? Most of us are reading Game of Thrones to enjoy a story about games and thrones and not follow you down some bizarre rabbit hole of fictional genealogy. It’s enraging when I have to wade through entire paragraphs if not chapters about the sexual exploits of So-and-So of Dorne and the inner motives of Whoseit Whatsit of Mereen and the sordid history of one of the far-too-many Aegon Targaryans, and in the meanwhile I get maybe ten lines about the characters I actually want to hear about. Those are darlings you needed to fucking strangle with your own two hands, and probably gouge out their eyes while you do.
Other pieces in this series:
Winter is Here
Game of Thrones IS the quintessential program for 2020. No toilet paper at all. Only the burning rage of a million irritated a-holes
Game of Thrones: The Cool is Not Enough
There were several fascinating arcs of both plot and character the writers of Game of Thrones sacrificed at the altar of The Rule of Cool.
- And thank Christ for that. I am warning you, George, if you actually kill the Hound in some meaningless fan-service-y way a la Cleganebowl, I’m gonna go Misery on your ass, and I am from the Annie Wilkes school of author motivation.