By Lu Anne Stewart
One of the most famous quotes about writing is the dark advice, usually attributed to William Faulkner but echoed by many other authors, that you “must kill all your darlings.”
While it’s a tad dramatic, I think this somber directive gets right to the heart of what the craft of writing is all about. The need to strip away everything that is not essential, everything that doesn’t contribute to advancing the story.
Darlings that must be ruthlessly eliminated can include gorgeous passages of crystalline prose that are irrelevant to the storyline, plot twists that initially seem exciting but ultimately feel fake, and sometimes, sadly, whole characters that must be sacrificed for the greater good.
Such was the case with my very favorite darling, Elayna Ténébreaux.
Elayna was to be a major character in the novel I’m currently writing about journalists in the 1970s. She was a classmate and best friend of my protagonist, Meg Sullivan. Fearless and ambitious, Elayna would serve as a flashy foil to the earnest, idealistic Meg as the two women set off on separate paths as reporters but find their lives intertwining.
Elayna had an exotic backstory, which I enjoyed the heck out of creating.
She was born and raised in Paris. Her father was a French foreign correspondent who died covering the Vietnam War when Elayna was 9. Her mother was a Turkish aristocrat, and Elayna grew up spending summers in the Turkish coastal resorts of Bodrum and Marmaris. As the novel opens, the adult Elayna is on her own, living on her inheritance, enrolled in a U.S. university to study journalism so she can follow in the footsteps of her father.
I spent many months with Elayna, even digging out my old high school French dictionary to pick out her last name (Ténébreaux means obscure, melancholy and potentially sinister in French). I wrote pages of backstory and description, like this paragraph where Meg recalls their first meeting:
The first time I saw Elayna Ténébreux in class I guessed she was French before I ever heard her speak. Tall and lean, effortless in the way she moved, her frosted blonde and mahogany hair swept up in a perfect, messy twist.
I developed an outline with alternating Meg and Elayna sections that would eventually bring the two women back together for a climactic finish. Finally I was ready to start writing.
As I got close to the end of Chapter 1, I had a realization. This was not the book I wanted to write. In sending these two women friends off into the world, I had set up a dynamic where the friendship was becoming the central theme. It was starting to sound a little like Beaches. Now, I loved Beaches, but I didn’t want to write that kind of story. I wanted to focus on the idealism of journalism in that era, and have Meg be a hero who holds to those ideals despite the world’s attempts to corrupt her. In truth, I was afraid that the glamorous Elayna might outshine Meg.
And so, I made the tough choice. Elayna had to go. I tossed the pages of character study and the first draft of Chapter 1 into the bottom drawer of my file cabinet. Removed all of the Elayna chapters in the outline, including the one where she has a lapse of journalistic ethics and lands in a Turkish prison. (OK, that might have been a bit over the top and deserved the axe!) I started fresh, refocusing the story on Meg and the small New England town where she will make her mark.
I still think about Elayna and wonder about my choice. I hope she may be reincarnated someday in my writing.
What do you think, readers? Have you ever read a book and wished the writer had dispatched a few darlings to make the story better? And what about the exotic Ms. Ténébreaux? Should she come back in a novel of her own?