I love helping writers and one service I offer that’s been particularly valuable is plot consult. Writers who are struggling to finish or who start off with one idea after another only for that great idea to fall flat? They call me. Querying and getting nowhere? Again, contact me.
I’ve busted apart and repaired hundreds of plots. Thus far I’ve yet to meet a plot I couldn’t repair.
But, in my many years of doing this, I’ve seen enough troubled plots to note some common denominators for a failed story. One ingredient for plot disaster stands apart.
As writers, we are at risk of falling in love with our own cleverness. The “cool” idea, the super amazing mind-blowing twist at the end. We get so caught up in how smart we are that we fail to see that we are our own worst enemy.
Yesterday, I spent three hours talking to a new writer who was simply stuck. No matter how he reworked his novel, it was just going nowhere. This is one of the reasons I like to get authors to be able to state what their book is about in ONE sentence. Paring away all the pretty prose makes little darlings easier to spot…so you can then terminate with extreme prejudice.
But, since this writer was 60, 000 words deep into his own woods? He needed my eyes.
Hey, sometimes it takes a Viking to raze a village…of little darlings 😀
At first, I wanted him to explain his story to me…
Ten minutes later…
After listening to his idea, I pointed out the problem fairly quickly. He’d created what he believed was the world’s most interesting virus. Problem was, the only thing his virus killed was all the conflict in his story.
Because he was SO married to this clever virus, he’d built everything around it. The virus was a little darling and needed to go. Once we repaired THAT? The plot fell together effortlessly…and is pretty fantastic, btw. OUCH! I got a cramp patting myself on the back!
Seriously, once he got out of his own way? He had the story. It was there. I just helped him see it.
In fact, my biggest job consulting on plot is to pull the distraught writer off the body of the little darling and offer grief counseling and the assurance it was for the best.
What’s a Little Darling?
Almost any of us who decided one day to get serious about our writing, read Stephen King’s On Writing. Great book, if you haven’t read it. But one thing King tells us we writers must be willing to do, is that we must be willing to, “Kill the little darlings.”
Now, King was not the first to give this advice. He actually got the idea from Faulkner, but I guess we just took it more seriously when King said it…because now the darlings would die by a hatchet, be buried in a cursed Indian flash drive where they would come back as really bad novels.
…oops, I digress.
Little darlings are those favorite bits of prose, description, dialogue or even characters that really add nothing to the forward momentum or development of the plot. They can also look like “never before thought of ideas” and “wicked twist endings that put Shyamalan to shame.”
To be great writers, we must learn to look honestly at all little darlings. Why? Because they are usually masking critical flaws in the overall plot. Why are little darlings so dangerous?
Because th-they come back….but *shivers* they are…different.
Let me explain why it is important to let go. Here are three BIG reasons your little darlings need to die.
#1 We Risk Mistaking Melodrama for Drama
Drama is created when a writer has good characterization that meets with good conflict. The characters’ agendas, secrets and insecurities collide.
As my awesome friend and talented author/writing teacher Les Edgerton mentioned a while back in his lesson about dialogue, subtext is vital. It’s more than what’s said. This can only happen when 3-D characters meet with real baggage that gets in the way of solving a CORE STORY PROBLEM.
In the new book I’m working on, my bike officer Landri had a father who wanted a son. She never quite lived up to his expectations. The need for his approval, in part, propelled her to become a cop. When she is reckless and legitimately criticized by a fellow officer that she should have waited for help, she takes it personally. Why?
She doesn’t hear that another cop is genuinely concerned for her. She hears the old recording from her father that she isn’t enough.
Fiction is a lot like life (only way more interesting). In life, we sometimes strike out at others not because of what they did or didn’t do, rather we are punishing them for unhealed wounds from our past often inflicted by other people. If my protagonist is pushing away the one person there to help her, she is five steps back from solving the core plot problem that’s upended her life.
Since little darlings are often birthed from a flimsy plot, the writer is left to manufacture conflict (melodrama). This weakness often manifests in pointless fight scenes, chase scenes, flashbacks or hospital/funeral scenes.
We are creating bad situations, not authentic dramatic tension.
#2 We Mistake Complexity for Conflict
Complexity is easily mistaken for conflict. I witness this pitfall in most new novels. I teach at a lot of conferences, and in between my sessions, I like to talk new and hopeful writers. I often ask them what their books are about and the conversation generally sounds a bit like this:
Me: What’s your book about?
Writer: Well, it is about a girl and she doesn’t know she has powers and she’s half fairy and she has to find out who she is. And there’s a guy and he’s a vampire and he’s actually the son of an arch-mage who slept with a sorceress who put a curse on their world. But she is in high school and there is this boy who she thinks she loves and…
Me: Huh? Okay. Who is the antagonist?
Writer: *blank stare*
Me: What is her goal?
Writer: Um. To find out who she is?
Me: *looks for closest bar*
Most new novels don’t have a singular core story problem. It is my opinion that new writers, deep down, know they’re missing the backbone to their story—A CORE STORY PROBLEM IN NEED OF RESOLUTION. Without a core story problem, conflict is impossible to generate, and the close counterfeit “melodrama” will slither in and take its place.
I believe when we are new writers, we sense our mistake on a subconscious level, and that is why our plots grow more and more and more complicated.
When we fail to have a core story problem, often we resort to trying to fix the structural issue with Bond-o putty and duct tape and then hoping no one will notice. How do I know this?
I used to own stock in Plot Bond-o :D.
“Complicated” is Not Conflict
We can create an interstellar conspiracy, birth an entirely new underground spy network, resurrect a dead sibling who in reality was sold off at birth, or even start the Second Civil War to cover up the space alien invasion…but it ain’t conflict. Interstellar war, guerilla attacks, or evil twins coming back to life can be the BACKDROP for conflict, but alone are not conflict.
And, yes, I learned this lesson the hard way. Most of us do. This is all part of the author learning curve, so don’t fret and just keep writing and learning.
Little darlings are often birthed from us getting too complicated. We frequently get too complicated when we are trying to BS our way through something we don’t understand and hope works itself out.
Um, it won’t.
Tried it. Just painted myself into a corner. But we add more players trying to hide our errors and then we risk falling so in love with our own cleverness—the subplots, the twist endings, the evil twin—that we can sabotage our entire story.
“Complicated” is the child of confusion, whereas “complexity” is the offspring of simplicity.
#3 We Fail to Spot/Correct Weaknesses
We fall so in love with our fun characters, our witty dialogue, our amazing inter-stellar conspiracy that we never finish. We can’t finish.
Since we aren’t being honest about why the book isn’t working, we aren’t doing the hard work that would make the story publishable and we end up playing Literary Barbies.
In the end, be truthful. Are your “flowers” part of a garden or covering a grave? We put our craftiest work into buttressing our errors, so I would highly recommend taking a critical look at the favorite parts of your manuscript and then get real honest about why they’re there. Make the hard decisions, then kill them dead and bury your
pets little darlings for real.
So what do you do with your little darlings? What’s been your experience? Do you have any tips, tools or tactics to help us dispose of the bodies? I really recommend taking my log-line class that’s coming up. I help you pare your story to ONE sentence and this is invaluable for spotting little darlings, honing your plot and you’ll need it for pitching later anyway. Or if you need a Viking to raze your village? E-mail me at kristen at wanaintl dot com.
I LOVE hearing from you guys!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of MARCH, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel.
Before we go, I want to give you a heads up especially if you are thinking on attending a conference.
I’m holding my ever-popular Your Story in a Sentence class. Can you tell what your book is about in ONE sentence? If you can’t? There might be a huge plot problem. This also helps if you are ever going to query or pitch an agent. The first ten signups get their log-line shredded by MOI for FREE.
Also speaking of FREE, I’d like to mention again the new class I am offering!
Reblogged this on ugiridharaprasad.
Super interesting post. I always wondered why I loved this or that of my stories as opposed to others. I’m a gal who likes elegance, and elegance is in simplicity, so when plot turns complicated I frown on it. But sometimes it’s unavoidable, I guess … Now I realize I prefer some of the stories because the conflict is clearer.
Thanks for the shout-out, Kristen. I have to give kudos to my source about the subtext in dialog–got that from Miles Davis who thought he was talking about music, but was talking about dialog when he said: “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.”
You always have great, great advice in your posts!
I so love it when you stop by. A SINGLE TEAR is COURSING DOWN MY CHEEK *runs away giggling*
Speaking as an unpublished novelist who is also a heartless perfectionist, I first experienced this concept when I opened myself to the possibility of co-authoring my first novel with a friend. Disaster resulted, and the story crept close to the precipice of epic fantasy that I genuinely want to avoid in my first venture. Since it was my project from the beginning, I took back creative control.
On the route to fixing it, I had to eviscerate kidnappings, torture, stereotypical misunderstandings, major wounds (physical and emotional), and, of course, the “fact” that the mother of one of my MCs was an evil woman bent on taking over the world (rather than just an abusive mother.)
I’ve hit a lot of stops on the way to finishing the first draft, the biggest being exactly what you mentioned. No backbone. Finally, this past six months, I reread all my work (as much as could be found) and started tumor removal. Fun prologue with tons of interesting characters? Irrelevant info-dump. Incredible side story about the antagonist’s best friend? Overly complicated and cluttered the manuscript.
The best technique I’ve found is to ask myself this question. If I were my reader, would this kill my interest for any reason? If the answer is even a hesitant maybe, I re-examine. Sure, it’s more work, but in the end, worth it.
Another excellent post!
Always entertaining! And wow, so true. I’ve killed off so many little darlings, I have a bona fide pet cemetery.
Perhaps the “little darlings” issue is the reason my science fiction novels never sold. That you for posting the blog.
This is timely. I killed off several little darlings yesterday. Buried them today. Now I notice the neighbors watch me closely when I come and go.
Truthfully, I’ve been in this terrible place where the melodramatic plot is so complicated I can’t keep it straight and then I keep adding more spice, which makes it worse. Over the last year or two, though, my perspective has been changing. I look at those complications and wonder why they’re there mucking up the story, which is about characters and not all this STUFF. It would seem that when you read and practice and listen that it all starts to sink in after awhile.
There is far too much violence in writing. I refuse to ‘kill’ my Little Darlings. I won’t cut them or destroy them, or obliterate them either. I won’t even delete them. I’ve learned to gently move them out of my manuscript and save them somewhere else, to be admired, enjoyed, and sobbed over at some later date.
Great post! 🙂
What about that murder suicide pact? Will I lose authenticity if I just do the murder?
Great article Kristen! It certainly got me thinking about one of my W.I.P.s. Though it also leaves me with a weird conundrum in regards to application of your stellar advice–because my novel is by its very nature about the interconnectivity of different people and events. And thus HAS to be complicated to some degree. It’s hard to spot what might be melodrama and a darling, and what might be a core piece of the–admittedly odd–backbone of the novel.
Kristen, fab post! I think mystery writers are even more vulnerable to this, since it’s a cardinal sin to have the reader figure out the solution ahead of time. There must be twists and surprises to keep them guessing. After reading your post, I’m wondering if the reason I’m struggling with wrapping up my current novel draft is because I have a couple of those “complicated” darlings lurking in the shadows. Oy, hope I can figure it out! 😉
Thanks for this! I really needed to hear it. Time to euthanize my weredogs . . .
True, as always! I like to say the conflict is the question the clerk at the corner store asks you.
Take the log line class. It will help you define what your story is really about. I ALWAYS write mine before I start anything now. If it doesn’t grab me by the throat, the story is already dead.
Great article, Kristen.
Speaking as a screenwriter, loglines are crucial. They are so much more than a mere sales tool — they are the conceptual nucleus of your story around which all the other particles organize. Details and “darlings” can be cut, added, or rearranged from draft to draft, but the logline is sacrosanct. And it shouldn’t be conceived retroactively to fit the completed manuscript — it should be worked, reworked, and chiseled in stone before Word One of the novel is actually written. I start with a logline, beat out the plot with Save the Cat! software (digital index cards), then commence work on the draft. Loglines are a fine art unto themselves, and authors will save themselves many, many full drafts by mastering how to fashion an effective one (it takes lots of practice), and making their “brilliant idea for a story” fit into a single, compelling sentence before they get lost in a jungle of aimless chapters.
For example, if I tell you my story is about an off-duty police officer who finds himself in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse when his wife’s office high-rise is hijacked by terrorists on Christmas Eve, you’re already on the hook — you already see what’s exciting about that story without any other details or extraneous information. Or if I say my book is about a resort-island sheriff who finds himself in over his head when his beach is stalked by a great white shark over Fourth of July weekend, you can already start picturing the scenes that will grow from that premise — and why it’s such a compelling idea. You’ve got to be able to boil your story down to a single elegant sentence that conveys the protagonist, antagonist, setting, conflict, and general tone/genre. As a screenwriter, this is drilled into your head — the whole notion of the “elevator pitch.” But, it isn’t emphasized nearly to the same degree in creative-writing classes, and it should be. Learning structure, characterization, and genre are steps one through three — and absolutely essential ones, at that — but mastering the art of the logline ought to be a prerequisite to beginning work on any type of long-form fiction. Aspiring writers will do themselves a huge favor by applying this practice to their own discipline.
My little darlings caused my first draft to lie down and die of sheer apathy 30k words in. So I killed off most of my characters (they were just enabling the MC to be totally passive) and started again. I don’t miss them at all. Except for maybe the invisible minstrel, and frankly, this ain’t his story.
Personally, I find I struggle less with plot development and more with character development. Tips?
Thanx. It needed to be said. I cut 20 pages out!
One sentence, “Save the Kingdom by Saving the Unicorns; while doing so, along the way, a king lost in grief, a prince lost in madness, a priestess lost in illusion and a peasant lost in humblenss all meet their true destiny” – – LOL – should I cut the unicorns? 🙂 Seriously – I’ve moved from Word, to Scrivener and backups from 3 computers – and still can’t let it go – though I really ought too – me thinks – cuz I’m not a fantasy/sci-fi or anything else writer – LOL 🙂
Nooooooooo! Don’t kill the unicorns………. er – unless it would make the story better of course – and if you do – please give them a wonderful funeral with a long cortege and much weeping by the fairy world. Sincerely – all the little girls out there who refused to grow up.
Remember the last time I took your log line class? 36,000 words in and I couldn’t get a log line out of it. Well, I changed bits of the plot, wrote an outline, am 34,000 words into my 8th (!) rewrite, and STILL can’t come up with a log-line.
Ah, but now I know the reason.
What will happen if the protagonist DOESN’t help the love interest? In other words, I have to give her a reason to help him and a ticking clock, so if she either won’t, can’t, or fails to help him, something terrible will happen. Easy, right?
I’ve been killing my beautiful darlings all day. I saved them in a separate file so I can read them and mourn them. It is soooo painful. Waaaah!
Love the bit about the core story and cutting out your most fun character. I did this recently. At first there was denial when this feedback was given. Then days later I made a list of all the problems it would solve, which was many. It was very painful but eventually I did kill my darling.
Great words, Kristen. And a great reminder that often the words, phrases, scenes we love most can be difficult to pluck out as they have become narcissistic pleasures. I’ve taken out many darlings on my writing odyssey. Over the course of several years I’ve reduced my manuscript for 160,000 words [1st draft] to 112,500 [final draft, I hope].
Thanks so much for your blog. I’ve learned a great deal! I’m linking this post to my own blog.
Aah! Good advice, as always!
My little darling was my first line. I loved it. I adored it. I couldn’t see why everyone else hated it. But apparently you just *can’t* write a romance where the heroine is “A great fat ugly toad of a woman!” I hate the fact that you can’t. In my mind my wonderful heroine will still have that description applied to her. But – I can’t put it in the book. When I took it out I cried. But my editor and beta readers cheered. That line is decently buried under an oak tree where snowdrops and wild violets grow. Forever it will be something beautiful in my mind. But in my mind alone – dammit! And thank you Kristen. I will download Stephen King immediately.
Great advice, Kristen, and right to the core of the issue. I had a grandmother in my middle grade novel that everybody loved. And, even though she was going to die in the end anyway, it killed me…no pun intended…to cut her out. But I was way over word count so that was the best place to start. My only additional suggestion to your advice is to keep those nuggets of love in another file. They may not resurface in another project down the road, but they can also be fun to think about. And for some of us “overwriting” is what we need to do to get all of the story out and then we can focus on what really rings true and kill those darlings when we revise.
Good advice! Thanks
Painfully good advice. Off to assassinate.
I think it’s of value and helpful to file away the darlings for the future. Sometimes those bits and pieces are better suited for other stories. Sometimes even a line or two from one retired darling can offer potential for a key story component somewhere else.
Good blog and sometimes hard advice to follow, but almost always needed.
I was writing a story with a great ending, but no matter how I tried, I couldn’t get to the end in a rational way. I had to either kill the story or kill the ending. Once I removed the notion that I was going to reach the preconceived ending, the story found its own ending! The amazing thing is, I would have never even written the story because I had the ‘great ending’ in my mind first. It was hard for me to throw it away.
*fist bump* Been there, done that.
Reblogged this on Jeannie Hall Suspense and commented:
Kill your little darlings… That’s right: Kill ’em!
Hey, I’m the writer with the virus she refers to in the beginning of this post. A word of warning about those “little darlings”. I always assumed they were clever little plot twists, characters, or the like. The little darling I had to slay was the plot line I had envisioned. I thought I was simply not developing it properly, but what Kristen made me realize was that the very core of my idea was stillborn. I had a thought provoking clever idea that actually killed any tension that a reader would care about. Little darlings are sometimes the heart of the story. My mistake in looking for little darlings was that I was thinking small. Some can be carved out like a tumor with a scalpel… others require tnt.
Whenever I realize that I need to do something drastic, but not sure it is the right decision, I copy the entire MS and start fiddling (or operating) on a new copy. This gives me the psychological equivalent of holding on to a rope should I lose my way in the dark. I can always go back. I have never gone back. Every time I have set out on that adventure, the book(s) get better.
PS The distinction between drama and melodrama was the first time I really understood the difference, other than instinctually. Thank you!
Reblogged this on Susan Pope Books and commented:
If you are a member of one of my writing groups or just writing your own novel at home – you may find this advice helpful – she’s a little mad but boy, Kristen Lamb knows her stuff!
I just started blogging last week, and it is a pleasure that I came across your blog.
It has inspired me to start my second article.
So much to think about, Kristen. Much to consider before I begin any new story from here on out. Thank you!
I love you and I love my little darlings..who do I “kill”…..gonna have to be my little darlings cos I can make make some more up…there is only one Kristen Lamb!
Hah! Kept avoiding this blog’s link on Twitter ’cause it sounded painful to read.
But in a good way! Glad I made my way here finally.
Kristen, one industry that desperately needs your love is Hollywood! Have you seen Dawn of Justice? Talk about “complexity is conflict” and “can ‘t kill your darlings” –Cheese and crackers!
(Spoilers! SPOILERS ahead)
All three superheroes (Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman) know of the one weapon that could kill the tacked-on CGI baddie at the end–the kryponite spear. So who do they send to retrieve the spear and use it? The only one of the three who can be effected by kryponite, of course! How else can we “kill” him and make all those Superman haters well up with tears.
I could hear every writer groan all over the planet. How many hundreds of millions did they spend making and promoting this movie? Was there a single competent writer on that staff?
I don’t want to live on this planet anymore.
I know this is an older post, but I had to think about it for a while. I agree with everything you said, but…
I wondered. Do these rules apply to genre fiction only? I read a bit of literary fiction and notice that the plot driven: “A CORE STORY PROBLEM IN NEED OF RESOLUTION.” is not there all the time.
We just read “Postcards” by Annie Proulx and there’s no core story problem, but the book was engaging and the (from another post) “darlings” and “purple prose” breath-taking.
I also find this concept confusing when applied to multiple-POV or parallel plot narratives.
So, what do I make of that on my own writer’s journey?
Thanks for the smart insights and advice. I’m not trying to argue, just trying to make sense of it all 🙂
~ Tam Francis ~
Reblogged this on Writer's Treasure Chest and commented:
Kristen Lamb wrote a post about three reasons to kill your “little darlings”. And you will find out when reading her post, what she is talking about. It is such a helpful post. You will see!