Rewrite From The Blank Page
By Jacob Krueger
Happy Thanksgiving everyone! While we’re all feeling grateful for our families, friends and fabulous foods, it’s also a perfect time to think about the things we want to make even better, in our writing, and in our lives.
When it comes to revision, one of the biggest problems facing every writer is the problem of attachment.
For that matter, it’s probably safe to say that the problem of attachment is the primary obstacle to all positive change.
You want to get in shape, but you don’t want to let go of your old routine. You want a relationship that inspires you, but you don’t want to let go of all the good things in the one you currently have. You want to write a great new draft, but you don’t want to let go of all the stuff you’ve already written—whether it’s actually serving the story or not!
And that’s why it’s so important to rewrite from the blank page.
Rewriting from the blank page doesn’t mean letting go of everything. It doesn’t mean totally reinventing every aspect of your script or sacrificing all of your great writing.
It means recognizing that, as thankful as you are for all the great stuff you’ve written, the only way to make real change is to trust yourself to remember what’s really important and to forget the stuff that’s no longer serving your script.
For most beginning writers, revision often turns out to be a process of incremental change, cutting and pasting within a document, fiddling and tweaking line by line. If you’ve ever been part of a writer’s group, you’ve probably seen the results—the poor writer who works for a year on a “major revision,” only to present a draft that seems no different from the last one to everybody in the room.
And we’ve all seen these people in life as well, who “reinvent” themselves again and again on the surface, without making any of the real structural changes that would allow them to escape the same old cycles.
So how do you avoid being one of those people when it comes to your own revisions—whether in writing or in life?
Start by recognizing that attachment is a natural part of being human that nobody escapes. But you also have a natural filter to protect you from it—the filter of your memory.
Your subconscious mind is an amazing machine.
When set free to explore on the blank page, it has tremendous powers to intuitively hone in on the things that are really important and completely forget the ones that are not.
But, when editing within a document, it becomes like a child with too many toys – overwhelmed by the desperate need to hold on to all of them, whether the child is actually playing with them or not.
Allow that child to play on its own terms and he or she will quickly hone in on just the right toy and play with it for hours, oblivious to anyone or anything else.
Clear out all the unused toys in the room, while that child is playing somewhere else, and the child will barely even notice.
But try to remove the most neglected toy on the shelf while that child is watching and suddenly that toy becomes the most important toy in the universe.
And, of course, this is exactly what happens when you cut and paste within a document – manually excising each word and suffering the pain of each and every loss no matter how tiny, until the agony has grown so strong that you end up putting it all back in.
Just like a child in a playroom, the pain you experience with loss often has little to do with the actual value of the writing. The subconscious mind is like a child. And, like a child, it can suffer intense pain over the most trivial of objects.
A part of you may know that things you are cutting are just a distraction from the real story. But the childlike, subconscious part of your mind just knows that something it likes has been taken away, and it wants it back!
That’s why it’s so important to clear the room before you start to rewrite, starting with a blank page, and allowing your subconscious mind to populate it only with the toys it truly wants to play with, remembering the elements that are vital enough be remembered and forgetting those trivial elements that are no longer serving your story.
Once all those useless toys are out of sight and out of mind, you’ll be shocked to see how easy it becomes to let go of all that attachment. Like a child running off to some far more exciting game, suddenly the tears are gone and your subconscious mind is free to make the real changes that make your script dramatically better, rather than the micro changes that are imperceptible to anyone but you.
So how do you rewrite from the blank page without losing everything you’ve already written?
- Start by carefully reading over everything you’ve written. Print out your pages, mark them up, take notes, journal, write down every idea, every potential cut.
- Use the ideas we discussed in steps 1-8 in this article series LINK to hone in on what is most important in this draft of your rewrite, and to develop everything around that one important goal. LINK
- Break down the 7 Act Structure LINK TO SEMINARS of your character’s journey, as it currently exists in your screenplay.
- Pitch yourself the scene, the act, or the whole movie (depending on what the focus of your rewrite may be) in the simplest, most exciting terms you possibly can.
- Chart out the structure of the scene, the act, or the whole movie from memory in relation to that pitch, and the theme of your story. Look stuff up as you need, but try to do the work off the page, so that you’re holding onto the stuff that’s most important to you.
- Keep adjusting your structure until you’re sure your 7 Act Breakdown is really delivering on that pitch.
- Now, start with the very first scene you want to rewrite. Re-read your notes and the scene, as many times as you need, until the things that are most important are well anchored in your mind.
- And remember, everything you’ve done so far is just research for the real writing that is about to happen now. Just a fertilization process to stimulate your subconscious mind, passing down from adult to child by osmosis and then blooming again in a new and better way.
Which means: it’s now time to forget it all.
- Open a new blank document on your computer.
- Keep that one thing to focus on in your mind.
- Rewrite the scene from memory, remembering anything that’s important enough to remember, forgetting anything you need to forget, and allowing any changes to happen however they do, as if you were creating this all for the very first time.
- Allow that wave of creativity to carry you as far as it can. That may be a whole draft or simply a scene or two.
- Read the scenes you’ve rewritten and notice how the changes you made affect the scenes around them. You’ve probably noticed that things are happening quicker, bigger, and faster, and that stuff you thought you weren’t going to get to until page 50 are suddenly happening on page 10.
If the scenes are working, trust them! Don’t look back or try to squeeze in old stuff you lost. You’ll just end up bloating the scene and bringing yourself back to where you started. If you need to, you can repeat those planning exercises in light of the new changes. Or, if you can, see if you can just follow those impulses, trusting all the planning you did to carry you to the end of the script.
If the scenes are not working, ask yourself, were you allowing yourself to be present with your characters when you were writing? Or were you trying too hard to recreate the scene you’ve planned. See what happens if you shake things up, try things a couple of new ways, rewriting from the blank page again with a completely different approach, until you finally find the thing you need to crack that scene open and make it work.
Finally, if this is all too scary for you, try it anyway! Writing is supposed to be scary, and making it hard for yourself as a writer is going to make it so much better for your audience. At the same time… sometimes we do reach a point where rewriting from a blank page yet again is just too much, or starts to show diminishing returns. And sometimes as we get close to the final draft, it doesn’t make sense to completely rewrite a scene for just a few small tweaks.
So if that happens to you, make sure at the minimum to print out your pages and retype the scene into a blank page. This way at least you’re forced to re-examine every choice, and truly read your pages as you write them, rather than skimming through your old choices as you cut and paste.
Almost without question, you’ll find that you end up making much bigger changes than you planned, and that these changes end up serving your story in ways you never even imagined when you first sat down to write.