Kill Your Darlings–Send In The Man With The Gun

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
This is a reprint from an advice column first posted on May 4, 2007 at the now-defunct Midnight Hour. I’m suffering a bout of stomach cramps and had a semi-emergency this morning, so…a reprint it is for our Friday advice. Besides, I love this piece. Enjoy.

No, I haven’t finally gone off the deep end, despite this being the week from hell. These are bits of advice every writer is given–or should be given, in my ever-humble opinion. These two things will move a story along when all hope seems lost.

Not too long ago Nina Merrill was stuck in a story, and as per usual, we were hashing it out over onion rings (or was it tater tots? I can’t remember.) Anyway, I set my wineglass down and announced, “Send in the man with the gun!”

At the top of my lungs, in a crowded restaurant.

And we wonder why we’re given corner tables back near the kitchen.

Anyway, I had just re-read Elizabeth Bear’s excellent little essay about the middle of the book:

Send in that man with the gun. Kill somebody. Get somebody laid. Hand him the key to the puzzle and then snatch it away. Change it up!

When you’ve reached that place where you don’t know what happens next, start shaking things up. I firmly believe one must mistreat one’s characters. Smack them around. Up the ante, dish out some injury. Plenty of new authors treat their characters like fragile flowers. Don’t fall into that trap. Beat them up! They can take it–they’re tough! Really!

I’ve read plenty of books that fall prey to Teh Boring in the middle, for pages and pages, because the author won’t send in the damn man with the gun. You have to, and sooner rather than later. Conflict is the thing that’s going to keep the reader from setting the book down. Plus, nothing makes the Muse as happy as upping the ante and making the situation more complex, so she really has to exercise her pretty little self to resolve everything.

The only trouble with sending in the MWTG is that you can have lovely little conflicts that you adore, but that do nothing for the story.

Here’s the other piece of advice every writer should have: if it does not move the story along, kill it.

In other words, it may be beautiful, the best writing you’ve done in decades. If it doesn’t move the story along, kill it quickly. Put it somewhere else in a slush pile and use it for another work. These little bits that you love so much are your darlings, and you must ruthlessly excise them in order to keep the story going.

Stagnant story is an abomination. And it makes it easy for the reader to set the book down and walk away to fix dinner. Which can be the kiss of death for a story.

In my writing classes, I’m famous for getting out the red pen. A student is never required to submit their work for an in-group critique, but if they do they must expect no mercy. The catchphrase my students love most is, “I know you love this…but it has to DIE.” Dead weight in a story, unless it’s slowing down the pacing for a good reason, must go. No matter how beautifully written dead weight is, you’ve got to get rid of it. You don’t have to delete it–many a good book has been spurred by a choice nugget in the slush pile–but you can’t afford to weigh a good story down.

Don’t ever think your characters are immune to misfortune or injury. Don’t hesitate to mistreat them. I’m not sure how much of an enjoyable reading experience is schadenfreude, but I’d be willing to bet it’s a large chunk. Get ruthless, my dear fellow writers. Kill your darlings, send in the man with the gun.

Not only do readers love it, but it’s a heckuva lot of fun.