Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings. – Arthur Quiller-Couch
If you’ve taken a few writing classes, you’ve undoubtedly heard this piece of advice. I heard it many, many times, but didn’t really grasp its application until I started seriously working on novels and short stories a few years ago. I have since learned it well and have files and files of bits of writing that I am super proud of, and yet, for one reason or another, are fatally flawed and won’t ever make it into a finished piece.
Now that I have relinquished the novel that occupied several months of my creative writing time this year, I’m focusing on some of my short story ideas that I’m most excited about. I’ve been going back through old work and deciding what I want to revise and what I have to toss. What is written below was the opening scene from a novel I was working on a year and half ago. I’ve gone back and forth with the plot many, many times, unable to decide if it’s really a novel or better off as a short story. I still don’t know, but what I do know, is that this opening scene has a massive problem. I’ve clung to it all this time, hoping to find a way to salvage it. I spent a lot of time on it and am proud of the language and descriptions, but it will never work in novel or short story format. So I’m murdering it and this post is its funeral. Enjoy!
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The guests shifted in their seats, smoothed their skirts and ties, ran their hands through their coiffed hair, crossed and uncrossed their legs. Some already considered the event a loss and wondered briefly whether they still had the receipts for the gifts they had bought but then let their minds turn to the important matters of their own lives, like softball tournaments, upcoming sales presentations for middling clients, and what they were going to have for dinner now that the glazed salmon they requested would not be served. Others let their eyes drift to the ornate stained glass windows or the murals on the vaulted ceiling as their imaginations churned, picturing themselves in this situation reacting in a way that was decidedly preferably to what was happening in the scene playing out in front of them. Still others glanced at the people around them, hoping to catch someone’s eye to silently communicate their curiosity, vicarious embarrassment, sympathy, or, in some cases, amusement. They could have whispered to their dates, but no one wanted to be the first to pierce the thick silence. Even clearing a ticklish throat seemed inappropriate during those interminable minutes.
So they all waited, waited for one of the figures at the front of the room to speak, but none of them were talking, or moving for that matter. The women who had been standing in their stilettos for over fifteen minutes didn’t dare shift their weight from side to alleviate the pressure on the balls of their feet. Their escorts all remained with their hands clasped in front of their bodies, their expressionless faces rivaling those of secret service agents. The minister must have been reading a fascinating parable because he hadn’t taken his eyes off the page the Bible in his hands was open to for quite some time. He made no gesture of empathy or guidance to the tiny soul in front of him, who, if it was possible, was even stiller and quieter than all the rest. Her back was to the assembled crowd and those who strained to see the first tremble of her shoulders were not rewarded. Her bouquet remained firmly supported at her breasts and beneath the veil that no one would ever lift to kiss the lips beneath, her eyes bore into the minister’s forehead, revealing nothing of the trauma behind them.
After several more hour-long minutes, the maid-of-honor broke rank and approached the bride. The mass of bodies leaned forward several inches, as if on cue, giving the hall the appearance of a listing ship. But the slender, olive-skinned brunette said nothing. She merely placed her arm around the forsaken lover’s shoulder and slowly rotated her toward the door in the rear of the room to begin her withdrawal. As they walked, almost in lock step, the brunette occupying the space that belonged to the groom, the bride’s tearless eyes never lost their connection with the ornate door handle that grew larger and larger with her approach. She didn’t see the slightly upturned corners of the lips of her absent groom’s mother. She didn’t see the glazed, uncomprehending eyes of her own mother. She saw nothing as her companion led her from the voices that had begun to swell, pushing out the pregnant air, the spell broken by her implicit acknowledgment that this would not be the day she married the man who professed to love her.
When the duo was ten feet away from the door, the lady in white suddenly broke free of the substitute embrace. Her childlike hands grasped the weighty handle, pushed, and then disappeared through the aperture, followed by the rest of her body, so quickly that she might easily have gotten tripped up in the folds of her robe had the maid-of-honor not quickly stopped to gather them, anticipating they would be trapped and shredded when the heavy oak door slammed shut behind the fleeing bride. They turned left, into a small room that held the jeans and t-shirt the bride had arrived in earlier that day, along with cosmetic bags, hair pins and styling products, floral stem trimmings, an emergency sewing kit, and remnants of all the other accouterments that had been carefully chosen and prepared in the preceding five months. And there the bride and her only friend remained, holding hands, ignoring the occasional timid knocks on the door, until every last guest had gone home.
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Did you identify the flaw? Share your thoughts in the comments below!