Stephen King on Writing: Kill Your Darlings?

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Stephen King on Writing: Kill your darlings is a phrase that has always baffled me. It sounds so, uh, cruel.

William Faulkner is rumored to have coined the literary expression “kill your darlings,” but the expression appears to originate with British author Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch.

When describing “style” in his 1916 publication “On the Art of Writing,” Couch says that “style” is something which “is not—can never be—extraneous ornament.” In an effort to stay on course, he created a practical rule to follow:

‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’

“Murder your darlings” has since become “kill your darlings” as attributed to William Faulkner whose famously quoted to have said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”

Best-seller Stephen King is a big advocate of the “kill your darlings” approach, and discusses it in his book “On Writing,” published in 2000. King advises:

“Mostly when I think of pacing, I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts. This suggest cutting to speed the pace, and that’s what most of us end up having to do (kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings)…I got a scribbled comment that changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this mot: ‘Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.’”


And how about a poet’s take on the same topic? See what you think of Jane Hirshfield’s poem, Character and Life (After, 2006, HarperCollins):

Character and Life

The young novelist held underwater

the head of the character in his book he loved best.

In the book, and as he wrote,

he counted until he was sure it was finished.

So what do you think? Are you willing to “kill your darlings” in order to make your writing stronger and save boredom for your reader? Or are there things in your non-writing life that you need to get rid of but are hanging onto for sentimental reasons? As always, I’d love to hear from you.


  1. From my wonderful email subscribers:

    “Loved this. I never write but I should. I enjoy your blog a lot.
    My poor darlings are pushed off a cliff. I figure that way they’re outta my way and if they live to rise another (appropriate) day, so good for them. Thanks as always! Jan”


    “Hi Susan,
    Haven’t heard from you in a while. Interesting concept. It reminds me of the journalist’s rule of thumb. Brevity. Who, what, where, when and how. Get the “skinny” and then get out of there. “You are reporting the news…not your opinion of it !” If Dickens or Tolstoy had followed this adage, we wouldn’t have “War and Peace”, or “A Tale of Two Cities.” That’s for sure. It’s a razor’s edge, deciding what to hold on to and what to let go of. Whether this is in real life or in your creation, be it written, or sketched or set to music. In the end, with writing, I think everything depends on the whim of the publisher. If you want to be in print, you’ll either make the changes they tell you to make, or try to find one who’ll print it the way you’d rather have it. Screen writers should fare the best under this rule, in my opinion. Dialogue is all that’s required of them. You’d think they could produce better films since all they have to write is conversation. Yet the same clichés and expletives pop up in every film from every genre. Again, evidence that the publisher/producer has the final word, and they will always stick with the flavour of the moment. The writer has to write, it’s in their blood. Guess it’s up to the individual reader how involved they want to get into the characters they decide to read about. I don’t think poets are even in the loop here. They are more like philosophers, prophets and mediums and such. Living in a world, all their own. That’s my, not so brief, take on it all. (smile) Thanks for giving me the opportunity to say something.

  2. Jan, so sorry to hear your little darlings have been pushed off a cliff! I do hope they rise again, if appropriate.

    Also, to Peace, I think it’s interesting what you said about screenwriters. Faulkner was a screenwriter for a while. Maybe that’s where he picked it up.

    I think Stephen King said it best about getting the puffiness out of his writing. In other words, those favorite words and phrases that don’t really support the manuscript but that we love because we think they are clever and maybe even literary or scholarly. I think it’s best to be in the service of the story, instead of ourselves.

    Thanks for commenting, as always!

  3. When I read the title of this post, I thought it referred to killing off favorite characters. This is often a powerfully emotional moment in a book – if done right, of course. (And I have done that, and I think it worked when I did it). But “kill my darlings,” meaning the writing that I think is exceptionally good? Gosh, I haven’t done that. Then again, those bits certainly wouldn’t amount to 10% of my book(s). It’s more like a paragraph here or there. I have deleted passages that slowed down the pacing of my book, but there usually aren’t “darlings” to be found in them…

  4. Hi Sonja,
    It is a provacative phrase, to say the least: kill your darlings. It seems to mean a little something different to everyone. I wonder if the phrase resonates more with male writers. Would a female writer say the same thing in a different way? Who knows….

    Over the years I’ve noticed that my writing has become more streamlined. I don’t know if that has anything to do with killing anything. I think it has more to do with learning the craft.

    Thanks for weighing in, as always.

  5. A better title might have been “A foot off at the top”? :-)

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