We’re all acquainted with the phrase, “Kill your darlings.” It’s something every writer has to do eventually if they are ever going to improve their craft.
But that doesn’t make it any easier.
Sometimes, though, what a story needs is not for your precious darling to be cut but for it to be made more important. I’ve often received the following editorial comment from my agent. “Either make this more important or cut it.” (I’m summarizing, but that’s the gist.)
Sometimes, the answer really is to just kill your darling.
But sometimes the answer is to make it more important. Let’s talk about how to do that with the following story elements.
It’s pretty standard advice that every scene should be accomplishing two or three different things. If your scene is only accomplishing one thing, then it’s probably not pulling its weight. Now if you really love this scene, or if you know it’s important but maybe everyone who reads it doesn’t understand why and is getting hung up on it, try adding some of the following.
Characterization: Don’t just have the scene move the plot forward, make sure it is giving us insight into a character’s motivations, flaws, etc.
Foreshadowing: A little bit of foreshadowing goes a long way in making a scene more important.
Symbolism: Add a touchpoint/objective correlative/symbol for some part of your theme.
A Hint: Do you have a big twist at the end of your book? Maybe you should add a breadcrumb to that scene.
Backstory: Just a sprinkling. Not an info dump. 😉
If you can meaningfully add at least two of those to a scene, you have gone a long way towards justifying keeping it.
There are a couple different ways you can tackle this edit note when it’s about a character.
Combine and Conquer: I’ve had to do this one. I had two characters that really played the same role in my story. I had two for comedic effect. But they weren’t there in a way that both of them were truly important to the plot. I ended up combining them into one character. Sure, she wasn’t quite like either one of the original characters. But I got to keep certain traits and lines and scenes from both because of it.
Give them a secret: It’s amazing how much depth you add to a character by giving them a secret. How much you discover about them, and how much their actions either change or begin to actually make sense once you know what their secret is. Make sure this secret either acts as a similarity or contrast to the problem in the main characters’ life or an obstacle to their goal.
Give the character an important role near the climax or end of the story. It took me until the third round of edits with my agent to really, truly make one of my character earn his place in my story. Oh, through the edits I’d given him more backstory, a problem similar to my main character’s, more dialogue, more scenes. But he still wasn’t quite pulling his weight until I changed one of the really nice finishing touches of my story from something that was totally my main character’s idea, into something that was made possible because of the thoughtfulness of this character that I’d been trying to make “more important.” Once he actually instigated this moment that was so important to the ending and the theme, he had earned his place there, without having to rewrite the whole story.
This one is tricky. In the early version of my last WIP, my agent pointed out a specific plot element and said that she didn’t feel it was bringing enough to the story to justify the amount of words I was spending on it. And she was right and I cut it and replaced it with something that worked so much better. But if that is not an option for you (or if it’s a last option and your heart isn’t there yet) then try this.
Analyze Your Theme. For me, most of the time when a plot element or subplot isn’t working it’s because it is not playing into my theme, or it might even be undermining the truth I’m trying to get at in my theme. Really sit down and analyze what the theme of your book is. Write it out as a single sentence, and then determine if that subplot it helping or hampering your theme. Change accordingly.
Make the Subplot instrumental in your MC’s character arc. Don’t just tie up that little subplot at the end. Bring it out around the climax and find a way for it to bring about a major realization for your character. Alternately, make something in the subplot an obstacle for your character.
So maybe you don’t have to kill ALL your darlings. Maybe you just need to give them a makeover, turn them around to face the mirror, and tell them how very special and important they are. 😉