Another Way to Improve your Writing: Kill the Cute


I have always considered myself a good writer. That is, I felt that I had a command of the language, a reasonable idea of how to use commas (although there is still a mysterious element to them), and a way with words, as they say. The way with words part is what I intend to talk about here.


In our studies to become writers, we are often told “kill your darlings.” This is great advice. Usually, the part of a story that you think is the best thing ever written is horrible, and ruins the story. Take it out. I have received other advice, as well. For example, “go on a which hunt.” Go through your work, take out all the “whichs” and replace them with “that.” Then go through and take out all the “thats.” I would like to add one more: Take out the cute.


As a novice writer who thought he had a way with words, I would often write something that I felt to be witty and humorous, demonstrating my clever use of words. I was wrong. This often manifested itself in the form of witty banter amongst the characters. The result was to turn a scene that I intended to be scary, into one that was funny or, more accurately, one that not scary or funny, but rather stupid. Consider the following:


Original: 


(Rose’s husband has been kidnapped, and put into a tomb somewhere in Venice. Rose and their friend Mauro have determined that the tomb may be located under a church in the crypt. They set off to find him. Is this a time for humor? There are other obvious problems with the writing that I also correct in the revised version)


“Let’s go,” Mauro said, taking out his flashlight, and stepping off the bricks into water, and heading for the hidden places of the crypt.
Rose took out her flashlight, and they headed back into the heart of the crypt.
“Won’t the little man guarding the door wonder where we went?” she asked.
“No, it’s taken care of.”
“What do you mean, ‘it’s taken care of?’”
“I told him we wanted to go on an extended tour.”
“So?”
“That’s code. We’ve known each other since we were boys. We used to bring girls back here to impress them, and such.”
“And such?”
“Yes, they were usually quite impressed when they left.”
“So he thinks–”
“Yep.”
“You bastard.”
He grinned.
“I’m not going to kill you now,” she said, “I need you. But when we get out, you die.”
He laughed out loud.
“Fine, but keep it down,” he said. “We need to be quiet.”
They turned the corner and shined their lights off into the crypt. It was surprisingly vast, and clearly covered a span of territory greater than the footprint of the church. Walking slowly through water that was about six inches below their knees, they moved through the pitch dark of the crypt. The darkness seemed to devour the light from their flashlights. 
Shelves cut into stone and heaped with skulls and other bones lined the corridor, below which ran a row of sepulchers decorated with elaborate carvings and odd figures, such as lions with bat’s wings, screaming skulls, and creatures half man and half snake.


Revised:


“Let’s go,” Mauro said, stepping into the water, shining his flashlight into the darkness, which seemed to devour the beam. 
Rose followed with her flashlight. They moved into the damp gloom of the crypt, sloshing slowly through ankle-deep water. Skulls  peered at them from shelves cut into the stone. Below these bones ran a row of sepulchers decorated with elaborate carvings of fantastic figures. Lions with bat’s wings, screaming skulls, and creatures half man and half snake.


Even if you simply take out the silly dialogue, the scene changes from one of comedy to one more serious and (hopefully) more frightening. Dress it up further, and you begin to get the feeling I was shooting for. I realized that the cute and witty banter ruined the feeling of dread I hoped to achieve. This passage was actually a darling, as well. Better that it’s gone. What do you think?