Monday, January 28, 2019

Rotten Easter Eggs

It was kind of funny on Critique Circle when someone wrote a post that was like a blog post I'd write.  It was trying to compare gags in Murphy Brown to the "darlings" writers are advised to kill.
So TV is a different medium than novels, but they're still storytelling and sometimes you learn things from watching TV with an eye to how they do things. In this instance, I've been watching Murphy Brown. Not the reboot. (I knew I wasn't going to like it because they weren't going to be able to resist making it political.) I'm talking about the original series. I just finished watching the first season and it reminded me how much I liked the little touches that can only be called "darlings."
 Specifically, the whole running gag with Murphy's secretaries. For those of you who don't remember the show, Murphy had a new secretary in almost every episode. Most of them were raging disasters. There are even YouTube compilations of her secretaries (It takes 4 compilations to cover them all.) These running gag most certainly qualifies as the kind of "darling" authors are told to kill. At least that would be my understanding because the secretary was never vital to the story line. As the YouTube compilations prove, they're completely capable of standing on their own.
 Another darling I personally loved was the back of Murphy's office door. There was always something new there, tacked to the dartboard. The characters never even acknowledged it. It just existed in the background, waiting for the audience to notice. It was always the thing I watched closely for.
 I often have things like this in my stories and I've always felt kind of self-indulgent for not cutting them, but watching the original Murphy Brown has convinced me that I should stop sweating it. I'm thinking instead that I need to use a different yardstick to measure whether they stay. It's not necessarily "Is it necessary to the story?" but "Is it entertaining enough to overcome the fact that it's not necessary?"
 What do y'all think?

Isn't that something like I'd do an entry on?  Except I think this thesis is incorrect.  First off, there was really nothing special about the stuff in Murphy Brown; shows have running gags like the secretary thing or the dartboard thing all the time.  Like remember in MASH how for a while Klinger would have a different female outfit every week?  And usually some new zany scheme to get a Section 8.  Or in Cheers every time Norm came into the bar they'd shout his name.  Or in Home Improvement they never showed the neighbor Wilson's face below the eyes.

Just about any show that was on for a little while probably has some running gag that really has nothing to do with the main plot.  Some of them, like the dartboard thing, are more like Easter Eggs hidden in the background so they don't really matter at all.

The other stuff are just running jokes to entertain the audience and the writers and actors.  It doesn't really affect the plot but there's probably enough slack time in the script that it's not a detriment either.  It is like a "darling" in that it's self-indulgent, though it's also fan service too.  These running gags if you do them long enough people come to expect it.  It was the same thing with Hitchcock's cameos in his movies and Stan Lee's cameos in Marvel movies.  It's not really important to the plot of the movie but it was something people came to look for.

But really the "darlings" they talk about for writers are things a writer thinks are really clever but don't add any value and may actually annoy the audience because they're dumb and self-indulgent.  Like there was one guy who insisted on calling his aliens "Kanooks."  Like Canucks, ie people from Canada.  Isn't that funny?  No.  Or a long time ago there was this guy who described a woman's hair as a "slow-motion riot."  Whatever that means.  Typically in critique groups people will refuse to kill those things they think are so funny and clever but really are just dumb.

Something recently from a story I was working on:  it's sort of like a zombie story and I thought it'd be fun if these soldiers were sheltering in Graceland until they could get picked up by a helicopter.  But then I looked at the map of Memphis and it didn't really make sense since the airport is just a couple of miles from Graceland.  Originally I was going to have them fight their way from Beale Street to Graceland but again on the map the Mississippi River is really close to Beale Street, so if you wanted to escape zombies, why not just go there?  Finally I had to kill this darling and find a different location instead of trying to force something to happen that wouldn't really make sense and in the scheme of things wasn't important to the story.

If you beta read a whole book then maybe you might notice something as minor as a turn of phrase or more significant like a whole character or subplot that just doesn't add anything and may actually distract from your enjoyment of the book.  Those are the real "darlings" that editors and such warn about.

So was the author of that post right?  Meh, not really.  See, you try to do blog posts like me and I'll do a blog post about you doing a blog post like me!  So meta.


  1. I like Easter Eggs in my entertainment. I don't think we should "Marie Kondo" things like entertainment, i.e., asking "Does this thing bring joy to your life?" Not everything that does not bring joy should be cut.

  2. I had thought kill your darlings meant to kill off a character that you liked regardless of their significance to the plot. Although I never thought it meant those on going gags.



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