Kill Your Darlings (and Theirs)

I’m currently reading Lee Sheldon’s Character Development and Storytelling for Games, and this passage hit me pretty hard.

If you can get to the point where your favorite game no longer entertains you, you will have taken a crucial step toward understanding how it worked its magic. It can be a sad moment and an exhilarating one all at the same time.

This wasn’t the first time I’d read this. Robert McKee makes it a point to pound this into your head in his book Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting. But it was the first that it hit really me in a way I’d never thought about.

I got a degree in music composition. I studied music for years–or so I thought, until today. I spent hours copying manuscripts, from Bach to Stravinsky. Yet, I was never able to master the art of composition to the point where I could write the music I truly enjoyed and admired. (I could wrote a lot of what I liked, but more often than not I would stumble across a cool technique rather than putting it there purposely.) My teachers were great, taking the time to really show me how they did things. They encouraged me to study all kinds of music, from Purcell to Cage to Weezer to Rob Dougan. But I never sat there and broke down what I loved. I was always afraid, unwilling to take something I loved off that pedestal to brake it apart line by line, note by note, to see why it was that I loved it.  As a consequence I never learned what made them work for me so well.

This was to my detriment. I was a bad student. And I missed an opportunity to not just further my art, but also learn about myself and improve my skill in the process.

Lesson here: “Kill your darlings.” It’s not just about all those “awesome” scenes your wrote, but also about those awesome scenes you wish you had. The first you hack to death. The second you deconstruct to oblivion. This applies to music, games, books, and anything you want to excel at.