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White Room Syndrome in Creative Writing: What It Is and How to Overcome It

When you start writing, you can easily fall into the trap of the so-called “White Room Syndrome.” In this, your characters seem to be talking as if in a white room or floating in space! There’s no atmosphere, and the characters could be anywhere in the cosmos! There’s no sense of place because you felt no need to add it into the scenes while writing. The main problem with White Room Syndrome is that it makes your story feel flat and lifeless. The reader has no idea where they’re or what’s going on, which can be very off-putting. Here’s how to overcome White Room Syndrome and engage your readers in the story.

What Is White Room Syndrome and Why Does It Happen to Writers Specifically

When writing a scene, creating a sense of place is essential. This means that you give the reader enough details about the setting to feel like they’re there. Without these details, the scene can seem flat and uninteresting.

It can be difficult for the reader to understand what’s happening and who the characters are without a sense of place.

For example, suppose two people are talking as if in a white room with no other details. In that case, it’s hard to tell if they’re in a hospital or an interrogation room. Are they friends or enemies? What kind of relationship do they have? Without this context, the scene can seem confusing and disjointed.

One way to avoid this problem is to ensure that each scene has a strong sense of place. Writers can achieve this through descriptions of the setting and atmosphere, as well as dialog and action that anchors the scene to a specific location.

For example, you could include a description of the furniture or decor to give the reader a better sense of where they’re. You could also use dialog to establish if the characters are alone or if there are other people present.

How Can You Recognize if You Have White Room Syndrome in Your Writing

  • One way to determine if you lack a good sense of place and setting is to ask yourself if your readers can imagine the scene you’re describing. If you’re unsure, try reading your text aloud and see if the words evoke a clear image in your mind. If not, your readers will likely have difficulty imagining the scene.
  • Another way to determine if you’ve adequately rendered the place and setting are to consider how essential these elements are to the story you’re trying to tell. In some cases, the plot doesn’t depend on the specifics of the setting, so it may not be necessary to describe many details.

However, if the story depends on the reader understanding the setting, you must provide enough information.

For example, imagine that you’re writing a mystery novel set in a small town. In this case, it would be necessary for readers to know what the town looks like so they can better follow the investigation. This would include details about the town’s layout, descriptions of the principal places, and information about the people who live there.

Be careful not to become a kind of information dump for your readers. You must only include information necessary to the story to help create a vivid image in the reader’s mind.

How Do You Ground a Scene?

The term “grounding a scene” is used in improvisational theater and refers to establishing a scene’s location and parameters. This is usually done at the beginning of a scene after the improvisation suggestion has been made. The goal is to ensure that all the actors agree on the scene’s who, what, where, and when.

To ground a scene, an actor must create a specific environment in their head and then make decisions based on that environment. This technique can also be applied to writers of novels.

For example, suppose an actor is playing a scene in a crowded train station. In that case, they might imagine the sounds of the trains, the smell of the coffee kiosk, and the feeling of being pushed by the crowd. This would help the actor feel more present in the scene and make decisions grounded in reality.

Use Sensory Detail to Put Your Readers in the Scene

When writing a story, you must draw your readers into the scene so they can experience it along with your characters.

One way to do this is to use sensory details. You include details that appeal to your readers’ senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch.

  • For example, if you’re describing a character walking through a forest, you might write, “She could smell the moisture in the air and feel the earthy crunch of leaves under her feet as she walked. By appealing to multiple senses, you give readers a complete picture of the scene and make them feel like they’re in the middle of the action.
  • You can appeal to the senses by describing images. For example, instead of saying that a character enters a room, an author might say that she enters a dark, cramped room with peeling wallpaper and a musty smell. This allows the reader to picture the scene and better understand the character’s surroundings.
  • Another way to use sensory details is to describe how the characters feel. For example, instead of telling the reader that a character is afraid, an author might describe how their heart is pounding, and their palms are sweating. This makes the character’s fear more concrete and tangible to the reader.
  • Authors can also use sensory input to create an atmosphere or mood. For example, suppose an author wants to convey a sense of foreboding. In that case, she might describe the sound of raindrops hitting the windowpane or how the shadows grow longer as the sun sets.

Using sensory input, authors can give readers a more immersive experience and make them feel like they’re in the middle of the story.

Sensory details are critical in horror and suspense stories. Creating a compelling atmosphere is key to making the hair on readers’ arms stand up. Writers can use all five senses in these genres to create discomfort and suspense.

For example, suppose an unknown assailant is pursuing a character. In that case, you might write, “She could hear his heavy breathing behind her and tasted the fear in her throat.” The more vivid and concrete your details are, the better you’ll succeed in putting your readers right in the middle of the action.

Get Your Grounding In Early Enough In Your Overall Narrative

To write a strong and compelling story, you must get some grounding early on. This means that the reader needs to understand the setting, the characters, and the fundamental conflict of the story from the beginning. Otherwise, they may quickly become confused or lose interest in reading.

For example, imagine you’re reading a mystery novel. In the first chapter, a new character is introduced who seems to have nothing to do with the story. You’d probably be pretty confused and put the book down. However, if the same chapter does an excellent job of introducing the detective and revealing the central mystery, you’d probably keep reading.

Make sure your story is compelling from beginning to end, including all the necessary information from the start. This doesn’t mean you overload with information. It does mean, however, that you don’t leave out important details for the reader to understand your story! Don’t force them to re-construct the entire setting in their head late in your story!

The Stage In Your Writing Process At Which You Fix White Room Issues

After you’ve marked the places in your draft where you’ve discovered problems with White Room Syndrome, you can add the necessary details and descriptions. That way, the reader has enough to work with without it becoming excessive and slowing down the plot.

Remember that you can always go back later and add more descriptions. The most important thing is to keep the story and its tension moving so you don’t lose your reader’s attention.

Ergo, your main task in the first draft phase is to get that messy first draft on the page – to get the basic story down to a point, adequately set up your main character, and hold it together before you move on to the craft work (which includes fixing the White Rooms).

Another way to fix White Room Syndrome is to be more specific about time and place.

For example, instead of simply saying that a character is on the beach, you could say that she’s on the beach on a hot summer day. This gives the reader a better sense of the setting and creates a more vivid image in their mind.

Cases When You Might Want White Room Syndrome In Your Writing

There are instances when a writer wants to convey a sense of detachment or remove their characters from the immediacy of their surroundings. Writers can achieve this by having them speak in apparent isolation from their surroundings – a kind of literary abstractionism.

This way, the focus is on the dialogue and what’s being said, rather than the place or setting.

The setting can fade into the background when the story focuses on the characters and their relationships. In these cases, it’s often more important to get into the feelings and thoughts of the characters than to describe their surroundings.

This can be an effective way to illustrate the dynamics and motivations of the characters or to make a specific point.

If the story is set in a familiar place, such as a town everyone knows, there’s no need to describe the setting in detail. Readers already have a clear picture in their minds.

Or you might set your science fiction novel in deep space, where the whole point is that the environment is empty.

Does Your Fantasy Novel Need a Map?

If you’re writing a fantasy story, you should consider whether your story would benefit from a map.

In many cases, a map can be helpful to orient readers and help them imagine the world in which the story is set. A map can also help reveal essential plot points, such as the location of hidden treasure or a secret passage.

On the other hand, a map can also be distracting and, in some cases, give away too much information. If you’re unsure your story needs a map, try reading it without one and see how it feels.

Adding the Soil

For great advice on worldbuilding, and fantasy worlds, check out Chris Fox’s book Plot Gardening: A Simple Guide to Outlining Your Novel. Ask yourself the questions a traveler in your world would ask. How do the locals travel? What’re their daily concerns? What kind of food do they eat? What’re the impacts of unique technologies in their world? And an important point for SF&F writers: Pick an exotic place in the real world and fill it with all the ordinary things.