“You have to murder your babies,” I told Roisin. She looked perturbed. “Drown your darlings, especially the little Chinese boy.” She opened her mouth to object. But I was not advocating racially motivated infanticide, I was just applying an old writing adage to the first draft of Roisin’s novel. The initial inspiration for her panoramic drama set in China had been an incident in which an old peasant woman, motivated by hopeless poverty, tried to give her grandson to a Western tourist. It was a poignant, unforgettable scene but it was not pivotal to the story. In fact, it played very little part in the chain of events, which change the central character’s life.
Understandably, Roisin was very attached to the incident that had precipitated months of writing. Her main character frequently referenced it; the central image recurred; she rewrote and re-jigged events to keep its prominence but it was holding up the momentum of the story. In fact, the demanding infant was sapping her narrative drive, making her perform structural contortions to satisfy its needs.
“Does the heroine take the child?” I asked,” Does she go back for him? Search him out? Adopt him? Take him home to London?” No, none of the above. She just thinks about him a lot and the desperate poverty that leads his grandmother to dispose of him, the polarity of life in the East and the West, and in the meantime the story gets slowed down; it’s condemned to look back forever with regret.
Writers often do this. We love a dialogue, a scene, a particular minor character and we go out of our way to keep them, however detrimental they are to tone or plot. We work round our darlings, bend over backwards to retain them. Then one day we listen to our heads instead of our hearts; we press the pillow down on their self-satisfied faces until their little legs stop kicking and – hey presto! – the story gains energy, the plot problems resolve themselves.
Wise woman Diana Athill applies the same principle to style and imagery, “You don’t always have to go so far as to murder your darlings – those turns of phrase or images of which you feel extra proud when they appeared on the page – but go back and look at them with a very beady eye. Almost always it turns out that they’d be better dead. (Not every little twinge of satisfaction is suspect – it’s the ones which amount to a sort of smug glee you must watch out for.)”
I explained the principle to Roisin who looked pained; it’s a difficult step for a mother to take but a week later she was back in class with an evil, smirk on her face, “You know what you said about drowning your babies?” she said, “Well, I’ve had a bloody massacre. The boy’s gone, the school’s gone, the story starts much later and it’s all flowing better.”
So remember when your story is stalling or stuck never rule out murder; it’s foul but effective.