Murder Your Darlings

Quick update – I’m pleased to say that she’s okay. The mild fever passed. No major symptoms. Thank you to everyone who checked in. I don’t want to talk about this more, it’s too painful. Let’s move on to the business of storytelling.

This week, Mesh received frank, direct feedback that targeted the entire structure of the story: Should Roman be a victim of a spinal cord injury (SCI)? The ensuing discussion and resolution to the problem highlights one of the most important and yet painful rules of storytelling: Murder your darlings.

It’s an important issue. When I first considered the idea of making Roman disabled, it received some resistance. Why does he have to be in a wheelchair? I thought a lot about this question – essentially Roman’s story is the story of anyone who got screwed over by life before they got started. I was that kid, in my own way, but I wanted to discuss it from a different view point. I’m also inspired by a teen with spinal bifida but I didn’t want to appropriate his story.

As a means to resolve all potential problems, I settled on a spinal cord injury as the reason why the protagonist of Mesh would eventually find himself with a set of cybernetic legs. It didn’t occur to me that the solution to this problem was a problem unto itself.

And thus, Jackson embarked on a voyage of self-discovery and awareness, as well I should. I’m not a member of that community, and I don’t live their lives or feel their feelings. The idea of a person with SCI being ‘fixed’ is boring to them. It doesn’t represent their experience. To oversimplify the issues of SCI would come across as disrespectful, and aggravating.

So in the end, the choice was painful but clear. I’m embarrassed to admit, being a person with disability, that I was so ignorant of this important issue. However, now that I knew the truth there was no question. I needed to change this central aspect of the story out of respect for those who live with SCI every day. I needed to abandon the idea that Roman was a victim of a spinal cord injury. So that’s what I mean when I say ‘murder your darling.’ I thought I knew what I was doing, using that story element. It turns out that I didn’t. Learning that about yourself is always painful.

The idea behind this rule is simple: sometimes you have to get out of your own way. As a story evolves into its final form, you’ll always find things that need to come out. It might be something simple like a name, or something big like an entire subplot. No matter what it is, when you find that an initial element no longer works, it has to be changed or retired.

That’s when a writer’s ego leaps into the fight. How dare you, it screams. This has to be a part of the story. You can’t take this out! The rule is really about being prepared to kill those darlings, those story elements you held so dear, in pursuit of the final goal: the real story you were meant to tell. Or maybe it’s about killing your darling ego, when its clear it doesn’t know what is best for the story.