Murder Your Darlings: Backtracking Your Fiction

I’m sure we’ve all been there with our fiction, we’ve started on a great premise and tried to take it to a certain point – maybe a clear idea of an ending of a central and pivotal point. Perhaps you know where you want to be but don’t know how to get there. Like going for a long walk, you plan your route and set out on a trek but you get to a certain point and hit a dead end.

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It’s frustrating when you know where you want to be but can’t quite figure out how to get there. No matter how many different routes you take, you keep hitting that wall. You end up getting frustrated and leaving it for a while might seem the sensible option. You Have Two Options.

Stick with it

Just keep trying. If you stall on one part of the story, then keep trying alternate pathways to take you forward until you’ve found one that works. This can be frustrating as you are likely to try many different things until you find one that is satisfactory to you. The whole course of the story might change, you might end up in a completely different place from the one you imagined. Writing is never set in stone and this is what we mean by “murdering your darlings”. No part of your writing should be sacrosanct, no part of your writing should be protected.

Go back to a point where you feel the story started to go wrong

It’s possible that the corner you were backed into happened earlier in the story and not at the current point where you are stuck. If this is the case then I recommend analysing each scene, each component of the story. What was the last part of the text with which you were completely happy? If the events after this didn’t feel quite right, then is it possible you could remove it? Start again from that point? No, don’t look at me in horror at the prospect of cutting out everything after that point, you might find the text is strong afterwards for having done so.

This is one the difficult sides of murdering your darlings but potentially the most rewarding. Sometimes we simply must let it go for the greater good – it might change everything you thought you knew or thought you had planned for the story, but that is when writing becomes exciting, that is when it becomes an adventure, that is when we explore the art of writing whereas editing – the problem solving, the piecing it all together in one coherent whole, is the science.

When I look back at some of my own fiction, the one example where I did the most backtracking was with my Christmas ghost story, Angel’s Mass (available in my volume Herrenvolk & Other Stories here).

SPOILERS FOR THOSE WHO HAVE READ IT: The story is about a medieval monk woken in the small hours of Christmas Eve by the call of a mystery voice carrying across the complex from the church. He enters the church and finds a mysterious man lying at the intersection of the transept. Initially, the Abbot could also see the ghostly man and I couldn’t quite figure out a reason for why (they were the only two at this point). I tried to do a simple tale of murder, that the Abbot killed the man and was appealing to Edmund for an unspecified reason. I decided eventually that perhaps if it was only the monk, then there is better scope to develop the story without having to draw a link between the three men that would make sense. The resulting change, simply that only Brother Edmund could see the man, took the story in a direction I did not expect. I felt the story became stronger because of it even if the vision I had at the start didn’t match the final product – and that is one of the great strengths of our art.

Put simply, never be afraid to backtrack. Your writing is fluid and subject to a lot of change as it is and it is senseless hamstringing yourself for the sake of vision.

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