Blank Page Syndrome

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By Chris Hutton

          Almost every writer that I know dreads it. It may be the most daunting thing with which a writer ever has to grapple – at least when it comes to the work of writing. It taunts you; it challenges you; it just plain gets under your skin.

          I absolutely loathe the blank page.

          Sure, it is rife with possibilities, a clean canvas upon which to paint your story, a journey yet to be begun, or some other green grass metaphor, but it is also a trap. It is the source of every so-called “writer’s block” that I’ve ever experienced. Now as to the actuality of “writer’s block,” perhaps that’s another story, as there are ways to push through. Then again, perhaps it is entwined with this one. Maybe you’ll see what I mean momentarily.

          When I think about the blank page, it is not simply the empty word document or the literal blank pages of a writer’s notebook that come to mind, no matter my choice of illustration above. The blank page is the starting point. It is the beginning of something new, whether it is time to dig for new ideas, the moment you sit down to outline a story, the first moments before drafting those opening words, or even the return from a narrative break.

          It’s also an excuse. When I’m at a beginning, I might as well be at a stopping point. The two feel as one and the same. Let me explain.

          I’ll start with the first example:


Searching for New Ideas

          As discussed last week, searching for inspiration for that next story can be a difficult task. Yes, it is the beginning of the story, but it can just as easily be the end. Tell me, which is easier: 1) to push through all the techniques that I mentioned in the Searching for Inspiration post, or 2) to say, ‘You know what, I’m not inspired, today,’ then take a seat on the couch and watch some TV. When I’m tired I guarantee you that option B is the easier route, and I work a full-time job, have a two-year-old daughter, am writing new story material, and am managing my online presence completely on my own. I guarantee you that I am tired a lot. Hell, I didn’t come up with the idea for this blog until October 27th, while trying to justify why it would be okay to skip one day. Guess what?

          It wasn’t okay.


Beginning the Outline

          Let’s say you have an idea. It’s great. It’s an amazing idea. Now you want to write it. How does it begin? How does it end? Who is the main character? Where is it set? What is it about? What’s the plot? The themes? How do all of these elements tie together? How do you sequence this out to tell your story? That’s a lot of work to start. As long as the page is blank, the outline hasn’t begun and once again it becomes easy to say, ‘You know what, it’s late. It’s 12:30 am and I really need to get some sleep. I’ll start this outline when I wake up.” After finishing my work day on October 27th, (a few hours before this very moment mid writing this post), that seemed like a valid excuse. I could have ended it there and put this off until tomorrow. Instead, I sucked it up and drafted out the basic ideas of what I wanted to express. Why? Because once I start typing, the blank page is gone and I can move forward. As long as I mull it over and keep it blank, it is so very easy to stop before starting.


Starting the Story

          Okay, you’ve nailed the idea, the outline is down pat, and now it’s time to start writing (which technically you’ve already started even if you don’t realize it). So how do you get going? That opening line seems too cliché. It is always a dark and stormy night, right? You need something original. Did you just begin your story with the word ‘it?’ That’s a no-no. Is that opening paragraph too long? It’s too short. It’s too dry. Too clipped. No sentence fragments.

          As you start your story there is an immense amount of pressure. In screenwriting the purported rule is that you have ten pages tops to catch your reader, probably less. In prose, the literature always speaks about the great opening lines, and how the writer captures the reader from the first sentence. Likely this source quoted A Tale of Two Cities. In either scenario, the alleged experts have laid down the gauntlet and its tough to accept that challenge. Moving back to this post, as 1 am rolled by, and I fixed my OS on my computer and could finally start putting words to Word document, I reminded myself that I’m sick, and that a good night’s rest was in order. I still agree with that, but I post every Friday. This post had to get done. So I pushed all thoughts of perfection out the window, and I set down to type.


Returning from a Narrative Break

          Finally that story is underway, but then you reached a logical stopping point. You wrapped up your current narrative arc, saved the file, and shut down. When you come back, that page doesn’t look blank, but it is. You stopped before starting the next train of thought, and now you might as well be at a new beginning all over again. The best example I can give of this is when writing a novel. You finish a chapter and you close out. The next day when you return to write, you’re staring at the words ‘Chapter 2,’ but there is nothing yet written beneath that headline. You are once again at the blank page. For once, I have no scenario from this posting to provide. I’ve been pushing through as fast as I can, so no stopping point has presented itself, but I guarantee that had it presented itself, I would once again have found myself having to push forward.


Advice for Pushing Beyond the Blank Page

          And that’s all well and good, but how do you push forward when you’re on that blank page? Obviously saying that you’re going to do it is much easier than working up the nerve and plowing forward.

          In the end, I think it comes to will and desire. If you really want to write that story (blog, poem, etc.), you find the willpower and you push forward. But again, a few pointers can’t hurt. So here’s my advice, for whatever it may be worth.


Searching for New Ideas

          Be observant. Rifle through your everyday and your personal experience for ideas. Keep a dream journal, especially if you already have vivid dreams. List out what if scenarios off the top of your head and see what pops. Think about your favorite story types and what unique spin you might be able to offer on each. Try stream of consciousness writing. Whatever ideas you don’t use for that particular story, jot into an idea list for later use when confronted with an inspiration block, i.e., the blank page on ideation. See my longer blog post for more details on the above methods.


Beginning the Outline

          If the story hasn’t come to me with a narrative arc already set in stone, then I turn to drafting a bible (especially for longer works). In that bible I focus on these elements:

  • Basic Premise / Logline
  • Setting
  • Tone & Style
  • Themes
  • Characters
  • Story Arc

          As I explore each in drafting the bible, the outline begins to shape itself. Looking at the premise I consider what setting might be a reflection of that premise or a natural corollary for that story. For instance, a story about a man with a forgotten past sets very well in a town that has itself been forgotten. With setting and premise locked, I think about what tone I want to use. If it is a series about a bunch of teenagers, do I want to aim for a CW style tone? If it’s a horror story of something beyond our imagining could I be looking for something more arcane and intellectual, something in which the prose itself is doused in insanity (a sort of Lovecraftian approach)? Once I lock those three aspects, themes often emerge naturally. Dreams manifesting in a town that is dying with a teenage cast and a CW tone? Maybe I’m looking at the difference between our dreams and our reality. I’m telling a coming of age story that compares the ideal world we hope to live in, and the reality or nightmare we face upon stumbling into adulthood. By the time I’ve moved this far into my process, my main cast has already begun to shape itself, I have an idea of where the story begins and ends, and then I can outline by determining major beats that I want to hit along the way.


Starting the Story

          Here I think one just has to let the idea of perfection go. It’s very easy to avoid writing caught in the impression that every line has to be perfect, especially those opening lines. They don’t. Writing is rewriting. Don’t trust me? Check out Jack Epps, Jr.’s book Screenwriting is Rewriting. He makes a valid case and offers up more suggestions for the process than I can here in the limits of this blog.

          The point that I hope you take from this advice, however, is not that you need to go read this book in order to write, but that it’s understood that your first draft is not going to be perfect. It will need to be rewritten, then rewritten again, then polished. Case in point, I’m currently rereading and editing this post at 2:30 in the morning. This is why writers need editors. So don’t get hung up on perfecting that first line right out of the gate – not at the expense of writing at all. Look back to your outline, push through those first couple of paragraphs, and get your momentum going. Once you do, once you have that forward drive, you can always go back and revise. Just don’t go back too soon. It’s good to seize that momentum while you have it.


Returning from a Narrative Break

          With this one, you could easily follow the same advice I applied to Starting the Story – just not getting hung up in perfection and reminding yourself that you can rewrite. That being said, there is an easier method. Don’t stop at a logical narrative break. Coming up with ideas, outlining, and starting your story are three steps that have an absolute blank page. At these natural breaks a writer will always have the temptation of avoiding the work and making excuses. But a narrative break, whether it is a chapter break or a scene break or whatever it may be, can be avoided. If you have your momentum going and you reach the conclusion of some narrative structural unit, then keep going into the next section. Ride that momentum through your next story beats. Don’t go far, but write just far enough that a new scenario has presented itself – that the next arc of your story has begun. Now when you return the next day to continue your story, you don’t have to face that blank page. You already have a few paragraphs or even just the first few sentences started. That can easily be enough to move you past the fear of the blank page, past the tendency to put off to another day, and on to writing.


Time to Draw This to a Close

          So yeah. That’s my basic advice. We are all faced with blank pages at the start of any new project, and at the logical structural breaks between the phases of that project. Each of those breaks is a blank page – one that taunts you and whispers in your ear that it’s okay to go off and get some sleep, or watch some TV, or do anything but move forward. You can’t listen to that voice. You have to be determined, and you have to seize on any method you can to move on and get writing, painting, composing – whatever your art may be.

          Though if I have any more advice to give, its just this. Work on your project every day. Even if only a little. As it applies to writing, write every day. At least jot down ideas. Outline. Rewrite. Do something. Keep yourself moving forward and avoid the negative writer brain telling you its not good enough. Don’t stop and give up, which most of us have wanted to do many times. Finish your story. If you do that, you’re already doing better than so many of us that get started, but don’t’ see the story through to its conclusion. Eventually, we too often succumb to that blank page and leave our work unfinished and unstarted.

          Don’t be that writer. Don’t let the blank page stop you, and don’t give in to excuses.

          On a side note, if you’re in a relationship, following any of the rambling excuse for advice given above is much easier to do if you have an understanding significant other. Thank you, Nicole. I realize it is 2 am right now (now 2:40 am after proofing) and I’m going to be very cranky in the morning and probably still sick, but hey… I finished my blog post.

          And that’s a wrap.

          Happy Writing


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