How Distance Kills a Darling

Post Date: October 24th, 2011


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Alysse Finkel sees me do it but doesn’t say a word. She’s thin, pointy, and gray like a mouse, but she ripples all over like a cat resisting a rub. I think it’s a giggle. 
This one might be Good People.


— Wendy in draft #7 of my novel, How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought

I thought I’d never give Alysse up. Never. But now she’s dead.

Don’t worry: she’s only a figment, a former character in my novel who’s now a killed darling. She was a weirdo and I loved her, a lot.

Through conversations with my agent, I’ve realized that I need to streamline. Fewer characters allowed to develop fully leads to clarity of structure and robustness of storyline, never mind better momentum.

What’s hard is when one of those characters was “there at the creation.” Alysse did kick the whole show off, rescuing Wendy at a key moment.

“This act will cost you your soul,” says a voice.Everyone turns. It’s Alysse, steps away to my right.Koyt says, “What the hell?”Deanna says to her girls, “Who the hell’s that?” like they’re Wiki Wenches on demand. They shrug, like, We didn’t authorize her existence.Alysse Finkel’s eyes burn like hot coals. You can’t call her pretty, but she’s incandescent, she’s about to burst into flame. I swear Deanna backs up a step. 

But that’s my illusion. I was there at the creation, as was the heroine, Wendy. Wendy is the catalyst for her triumphs and total fails. When I look back to see whodunnit in the first 10 pages, Wendy is the star. And that’s how it should be.

Which is one reason why Alysse needs to go. If she’s there at the creation but not there for the clean-up, but not part of the crew who brings things home–then sorry, she just needs to go. She can’t light up things like a torch and then fade away with weak flickers halfway through. That’s what I allowed when I couldn’t quite cut her from the beginning. But then I figured out who might take her place.

The frame of your story–first and last pages–tell you who matters in your story. If my ending got rewritten to remove Alysse, then the beginning must also be rewritten without her. That’s the demand of this particular story. I can’t sew things together like a crazy quilt, hoping that the mix with her still in it is going to match the rest of the changed manuscript.

Once I got brave enough to let go, a road opened up. All of sudden, the way got wide and I began to see new scenes. That solution to the problem is worth its own blog. In this one, I just have to bemoan the emotional impact, the wrestling I had with it. My agent advised, Take her out, but I couldn’t listen. I had to go through with one draft with Alysse still stuck there until the next round of comments showed me it really was time for her to move along.

Have you had to be similarly brave, or have fictional deaths and disappearances gone easier for you?

Writing Prompts

  1. What’s the harshest cut you’ve ever made to your manuscript? The kindest cut?
  2. What is the hardest thing you’ve wrestled with during revision?
  3. Create a character. Give this person a full profile–personality replete with quirks, enough reality to walk this earth, a family and history, total physicality. Write 10 scenes with this person. Have him or her make friends, lose friends, fall in love, triumph with a dream, and fail miserably.
  4. Now kill this character. Design his or her demise or make him or her a missing person. 
  5. Just kidding. Don’t do #3 or #4 unless you absolutely have to.
  6. What novel or story have you read where a character might have been “streamlined out,” thus improving the story? Why?
  7. Rank your top three favorite characters in a beloved novel or story and argue why an author could never remove them from the tale.
  8. Now do the same for one of your stories. Look at the top three and ask yourself about numbers 4, 5, and 6. Why might they be able to leave the tale and no one’s really worse for wear?

1 Comment

  1. Bob Mustin says:

    My favorite exercise is to take a 2500-3000 word piece and cut it to 1500 words. You get rid of “fluff” and, if you have several characters, you find out quickly which ones matter.