Notes From the Writing Abattoir

Love of writing is a very peculiar kind of love. We spend hours alone, putting imaginary people through the paces, forsaking sleep and mental health in favor of coffee and scrawled character charts. We construct entire imaginary lives and then end them, in a way designed to upset those real people who have spent their time and money for the privilege of being upset.

But we love our characters, and that’s why, when we unleash some hellish fate on them, we’re polite enough to sigh and say “oh, you poor bastard” before picking up the knife again. And sometimes those characters and subplots and brilliant passages have to leave the story entirely.

Angela Goff (via @sirra_girl)calls this “stabby love,” and I think it’s a proper term. We hold knives to the throats of our characters, daring them to get out of the situations we’ve put them in. Challenging them. Be more interesting. More exciting. Be vital to the story — or you die.

If this seems a bit morbid, well, I guess it is. I don’t think dropping entire characters and storylines is a pleasant task — but it’s a necessary one. When it comes to editing, you can’t be a loving mother or father. You’re a narrative hitman, and your mission is to root out everything that isn’t the story.

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one, as Kirk said in Star Trek II. In that movie, Spock died so the rest of the crew could live. In your writing, sometimes characters and subplots must die unmourned so that the rest of your story can live.

They don’t get any heroic speeches — they’re simply gone, perhaps to live again in some other story. Perhaps not. Writers are constantly making compost heaps of their own work, and some of those old ideas will thrive in new soil. But not everything returns, and that’s as it should be.

This is rarely easy. A beloved character can seem vital even when they’re not. It’s very easy to rationalize their existence, to alter the story to keep them around, when you need to just cut them. A great subplot or even an eloquent passage can be a liability if it drags the rest of the story down. It is a hard heart that kills.

But remember that you only kill out of love. Yeah, okay, that’s fairly ghoulish, but that’s the writing abattoir for you. You’re serving the rest of the story — trimming away dead material so that the rest can thrive.

So raise a toast to your brave, unnecessary characters, and do what must be done.

12 Replies to “Notes From the Writing Abattoir”

  1. You are so sweet to quote me – although I did not invent the term #stabbylove – that is courtesy of @sirra_girl on Twitter, although I have certainly taken up the rallying cry and made it my own mantra as well. I’ve had to cut entire characters before, and am currently weighing what scenes to cut from my WIP; so the stabbylove really is never ending, in an odd way….but o so worth it if we are willing to endure the literary pain.

    Great post!!

  2. Ahhh, killing off and erasing characters–I’m not entirely sure which is more difficult. On one hand it’s painful to grow attached to a character only to have him die mid-way through the plot, but it’s just as painful to erase a character entirely so that it’s like he or she never existed. I’ve had to do both and it’s not fun, but in my experience our stories benefit from tough decisions.

    1. For me, I think it’s easier to kill off characters than to edit them out. At least the dying characters get some kind of narrative. Editing characters out is harder for me because I spend all this time and effort on them, then have to admit that they don’t actually matter. Thanks for the comment, as always, Ava!

      1. That’s true–at least if a character dies they were somewhat important to the narrative. Both are pretty painful decisions, though.

        And of course! Thanks for the great post, as always. 🙂

  3. This is one of the hardest things a writer can do, particularly if you’re attached to the character in question. But you’re right, you need to consider what they’re bringing to the story’s table, and if it turns out to be a meatloaf instead of a savory steak or delicious chocolate cake, then you need to kill them. (I’m not this hard on dinner guests in real life, honest.) Like you say, you can always keep them for future work. I’ve got a folder on my computer called CuttingRoomFloor where I put all those snippets, just in case.

    1. Yes, but what if your character is the performer Meat Loaf? Dear god, what then?

      The “cutting room floor” file is a great idea, and one I use myself. You never know when you’ll go dredging the river of old writings and come up with a gem. Thanks, Nicholas!

  4. You should write a book with all of the characters you’ve erased from other books. That would be awesome. Or horrible. Or horribly awesome. Or awesomely horrible. You get the picture.

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