One of the first pieces of advice you’ll ever get when you set out to be a writer is to ‘kill your darlings’. It’s a phrase that refers to the practice of getting rid of passages, phrases, characters or subplots that you really like when they’re not serving the story properly. Generally speaking it’s a good rule; every storyteller will sooner or later find themselves in a situation where the only justification for including a certain story element is ‘but I really like it!’, which, simply put, isn’t good enough.
Bad stories come in many forms but the worst offenders tend to be stories that force the audience to put up with things that aren’t necessary or entertaining. It’s in these instances that ‘kill your darlings’ might have saved the narrative, as a writer who seriously interrogates the worth of every aspect of their story tends to tell a story worth hearing.
Which brings me to Windmills. For those unaware (and I can’t imagine you’re reading this if you’re unaware), Windmills has long been the love of my storytelling life, a psychological thriller I first wrote in high school that I’ve never quite been able to leave alone, whether I’m adapting it into a play, self-publishing it as a novel, adapting it into a TV screenplay or, as I currently am, reworking it as a novel again. Windmills tells the story of Leo Grey, a teenager who makes a terrible mistake that haunts him for the rest of his life as his continued failure to do the right things leads to his moral decay and causes a domino effect that destroys the lives of those he cares about. The process of revisiting Windmills again and again over the last eight (!) years has been at times frustrating but ultimately satisfying as bit by bit I’ve gotten closer to what I think the story has to be.
Of course, over such a long period there have been characters and plot elements added and detracted from the first draft. Some of these have helped while others have slowed down the process, but one character has managed both. Charlotte Laurent was never present in the original draft; in fact she first came into being as the protagonist of a companion novel I tried to write immediately after the first draft. Charlotte was the girlfriend and eventual wife of Dominic Ford, the drug lord antagonist of Windmills, and the companion book would have depicted her corruption in a way that paralleled Leo’s, leading up to a showdown between the two. The more time I spent on the novel however the more I realised it wasn’t working, and Charlotte’s arc ended up predominantly as backstory for the next version of Windmills, in which Charlotte herself became a supporting character.
Maybe in part due to the fact that Charlotte was meant to be a protagonist but ended up being more secondary, she’s always been a big favourite of mine. As a character she’s innately fascinating to me; younger than the rest of the cast, she basically gets dragged into a world she doesn’t fully understand which proceeds to twist and change her until she is finally forced to decide where she stands. Charlotte is one of the few Windmills characters who eventually got a happy ending because she was one of the few I really felt didn’t deserve to suffer in some way.
However, after Windmills won the Ustinov award and I started developing it as a TV series concept in earnest, some darlings faced the chopping block and Charlotte was chief among them. The reason for this was simple; Charlotte’s role in the story took place entirely in the extensive part of Windmills that followed the central characters out of high school, and the TV version of Windmills, tweaked in the interest of making it an easier sell as a young adult story, only leaves high school at the very end, meaning there was very little room for Charlotte to appear in any way that felt natural. I tried really hard but in the end the best I could settle for was a brief cameo at the end that didn’t touch on all the backstory or relationships she had originally had with the other characters. And with the new version of the novel closely following the TV series outline, it stood to reason that Charlotte’s role would remain unfortunately minor.
Weirdly, however, for a character who never existed in the earliest versions of the story, the loss of Charlotte was something of a fatal blow. Try as I might, the story just didn’t quite feel like Windmills without her. Charlotte is so central to so much of the mythology that without her it felt somewhat like I was working on a high school drama that included some of the elements of Windmills without ever getting near the soul of it. Because, as I slowly learned, Charlotte, like Leo and Lucy and Dominic, is now part of the DNA of the narrative and without her it could never quite feel complete.
So what do you do? Logic dictates you kill this darling, and yet instinct begs you not to. I struggled with this for a while but in the end I decided that I just had to persevere and try to ignore the gaping hole left by Charlotte. I couldn’t, after all, twist the entire structure of the story just to include one character whose role in the narrative wasn’t all that important.
The funniest thing about writing is how often you don’t recognise the obvious. Plot points can hit you in a wave of glorious inspiration that of course this is how the story is supposed to go, how could you have been so stupid? And once that realisation hits home, it becomes clear just how flawed the story was before, how this new development actually solves several issues you didn’t even know were there.
For context, I’d planned the new version of Windmills to take place in six parts, each of which focusses on a different character (kind of like Skins with more murder and suicide and… well actually, just like Skins). The final part would come after a time jump, but the preceding five all took place in close succession, predominantly set in and around a school, starting with Leo Grey’s mistake and following the repercussions. But one issue I was finding was that the time jump, on paper, was a little too abrupt and jarring. Characters would be in one place emotionally at the end of part five and then turn up in part six having made major decisions or forged important new relationships off screen. What I needed was a way to show the passage of time, to set up the choices of the characters that would lead to the finale, to illustrate the changes so essential to the way it all wrapped up. What I needed was a fresh perspective to provide a new context to what we had already seen and what we were about to see, a new character who could raise the stakes and through whose eyes we could see the resetting of the board in time for the endgame. What I needed was Charlotte.
Within minutes of this realisation the plan changed and Windmills went from six parts to seven. And suddenly issues I had had with the new version seemed to melt away. Plot points were set up more effectively, characters could be developed more thoroughly and suddenly the novel I have been working on feels like Windmills in a way it didn’t quite before, because a character I underestimated the importance of has finally come home, taking her rightful place among the rest and, in the way all the best characters do, shining a light on the obvious in order to allow the story to take the right path forward.
Eureka moments like this make writing worth it for me. It often feels like there’s some magic at play, something beyond you just coming up with an idea in order to entertain people. I guess if there’s a moral to the saga of Charlotte’s triumphant homecoming it’s that killing your darlings is important, but trusting your instincts is infinitely more so. If the story seems to be pushing you in one direction, do what it says. Because nine times out of ten the story knows best.
Writing words about writing words.