Out of all the different screenwriting maxims there's one that's the most brutal on the heart and soul: The 'Kill Your Darlings' maxim.
This axiom, often attributed to William Faulkner, serves as a stark reminder for writers to let go of personal attachments to certain characters, scenes, dialogues, or even simply words and passages for the greater good of the story.
Let's unpack it together.
What does 'Kill Your Darlings' Mean?'Kill Bill: Vol 2'
At its core, 'Kill Your Darlings' is about sacrifice for the good of the story.
It urges screenwriters to remove elements that they may be sentimentally attached to but don't serve the story's progression or thematic message.
This can be particularly challenging for writers that develop a deep connection with their creations.
It sucks to cut scenes or ideas you love, but you have to do it.
Why Do Filmmakers Need to Learn to 'Kill Your Darlings'?'Killing It'Peacock
"Kill Your Darlings" is a crucial concept in filmmaking and screenwriting that emphasizes the importance of prioritizing the story's integrity over personal attachments.
No matter what, you have to do what's good for the story, even if it is painful to you.
Here are a few other reasons this concept is so important:
- Enhance Story Focus: Filmmakers often have favorite scenes, characters, or dialogues they are particularly fond of. However, these elements might not always serve the overall narrative. By 'killing their darlings,' filmmakers can remove distractions and ensure that every part of the film contributes meaningfully to the story, enhancing its focus and clarity.
- Maintain Pacing: A common pitfall in filmmaking is the inclusion of scenes or elements that slow down the pacing or dilute the story's engagement. The will to cut out these beloved but unnecessary parts gives filmmakers the power to maintain a tighter pace and keep the audience more deeply engaged.
- Objective Decision Making: Filmmaking is often a deeply personal and emotional process. However, personal attachment can sometimes cloud judgment. The principle of 'killing your darlings' encourages filmmakers to look at their work more objectively and make decisions that benefit the film as a whole, rather than holding onto elements for sentimental reasons.
- Balance Vision with Audience Reception: While it's important for filmmakers to stay true to their artistic vision, they also need to consider how their work will be received by an audience. Sometimes, what is meaningful to the filmmaker might not resonate with viewers. Removing these elements can create a more universally appealing and understandable film.
- Resource Management: Filmmaking involves managing various resources, including time, budget, and personale. By cutting out non-essential elements, filmmakers can allocate these resources more effectively, focusing on aspects that enhance the film's quality and audience appeal.
- Enhance Creative Discipline: The practice of 'killing your darlings' instills a sense of discipline in filmmakers. It encourages them to constantly refine and question their work, striving for a product that is not just good, but the best it can be.
- Facilitate Collaboration: Filmmaking is a collaborative process, and sometimes a filmmaker's 'darlings' might not align with the vision of the team. Being open to 'killing' these elements can lead to a more harmonious and productive collaborative environment.
How Do You Know Which Parts to Kill?
One of the things I struggle with time and time again is figuring out what I should kill within the story.
How can you pick between darlings? What if you kill the wrong one?!
'Killing your darlings' does not mean indiscriminately cutting beloved elements—you don't have to hack and slash everything you love in the name of a sterile, uninteresting script. It's about discerning what truly serves the story. This requires a deep understanding of narrative structure, character development, and thematic resonance.
Sometimes the most important asset for discerning victims is feedback from others.
Feedback plays a crucial role in identifying darlings. Screenwriters (including myself!) often become 'blind' to the flaws in their work due to personal attachment.
Constructive criticism from peers, mentors, or script consultants can provide the necessary perspective to recognize what needs to be cut or altered.
Sometimes, you need an unbiased source to tell you what's working or not.
Examples in Film and TV'The Godfather'Credit: Paramount
It's hard to pick examples for this, because you have to find stories where things were omitted. Every single one of the TV shows and movies you've seen have scenes they purposefully leave out because they don't work.
Here are some famous ones:
- The Godfather (1972): In this iconic film, the original script had several scenes that further developed secondary characters. However, during editing, Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo decided to cut many of these scenes to keep the narrative tight and focused on Michael Corleone's transformation. This decision was crucial in maintaining the film's pacing and emotional impact.
- Breaking Bad (2008-2013): Vince Gilligan had initially planned for Jesse Pinkman to be killed off in the first season. However, Aaron Paul's performance was so compelling that Gilligan revised this decision. In this case, the 'darling' was not killed but adapted, showing that the rule is not absolute and can be bent for the story's benefit.
The challenge of 'killing your darlings' is a testament to the complex, often painful process of storytelling.
But it's this process that true narrative gems are forged, and memorable screenplays are born.
As screenwriters continue to navigate the intricate landscape of storytelling, 'Kill Your Darlings' remains a crucial step in finishing your screenplay.
Let me know what you think in the comments, and don't be afraid to share any darlings you've mournfully buried.