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Separating Genius from Inspiration

I'm writing a story. Maybe you are, too.

Something sparked that story: an idea or a conversation in your head. Perhaps it was the look of a character, a dangerous setting, or an epic action sequence. Whatever it was, some droplet splashed in your imagination and a story crystalized around it.

That spark is a very particular form of genius we call "inspiration." It's an idea, a starting point on a bigger narrative, sometimes the key to a whole adventure!

Once we've started building our story around an idea, we engage a more conscious process to advance the plot. We build fictional people, drop them into settings that highlight their strengths and weaknesses, and direct them through some relevant action. Coordinating these three complex variables is the perspiration versus the inspiration. It is a more traditional form of genius.

After we've finished our latest draft, and switched to editor mode, we sometimes discover one of those sparks of inspiration doesn't fit anymore. We go to remove it and find... we just can't do it. We've identified a "darling."


Anything we love that no longer fits – but we just can't get rid of – is a darling.

Even finding a darling requires looking at our work from the point of view of a reader. That objectivity alone can take an Olympian effort. Further, there's no one-size-fits-all criteria beyond some point being obsolete against the overall journey.

A darling could be as small as some clever turn-of-phrase, or as large as a whole scene or setting. The critical part is recognizing that the story grew and that point became irrelevant, maybe even destructive, to the rest of the narrative.

It's doubly difficult when the point was one of our original sources of inspiration. We pour our heart and soul into these moments, building personal attachments that often go far beyond what the reader will ever see.


A point needs to go away when it no longer advances the plot. It's that simple.

< Excuse me while I wipe the Coffee-Splatter of Incredulity off my screen >

It's rarely that simple, if only because the emotional investment we make.

The thing we love about some point is often the same thing that blinds us to processing the story "from scratch." As writers, we have a point of view that's steeped in research, backstory and likely countless other points of inspiration. We are insiders to our story.

Your reader is an outsider. Not until your audience has completed your guided journey are they an insider, and even then, the trip they took is only the proverbial tip of the iceberg against what's in your head and on your notes.

There lies the need for separating genius from inspiration: the overall story is your genius, even if you leave some original inspiration far behind.



But should you? Rewrites to preserve some precious passage is often where continuity goes to die. This brings up an old writer's adage: "kill your darlings." That seems cold-blooded, especially to writers overflowing with empathy, but there's a reason: once you recognize a point no longer works, it's safest to make a clean break.

There is, however, another kind of rescue – and I recommend you do so early and often. Keep your darlings safe… in your notes folder. Don't delete; rather copy and paste into a separate document. This is the way where everyone wins. It lessens the pain of editing, and in that respect, increases your courage to cut.

Who knows: in this day and age of turning stories into franchises, those scenes, characters and settings you put in storage could wind up as stand-alone additional content; the spark of a side story, sequel or prequel.


Do you have any stories about killing your darlings… or saving them? Have lost scenes ever returned in another work? Share your experience in the comments below!

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