White Room Syndrome: Building Setting and Description in Your Story

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White Room Syndrome: Building Setting and Description in Your Story

white room syndrome

We all do it. I know I do. And once I explain what it is, you’ll probably realize you do it, too.

It usually goes a little like this:

Character A and Character B are having a heated discussion. The dialogue is sharp, piercing. Their expressions and physical language are poignant. The prose that holds it all together is elevated –Tolstoy could never. You’ve done it. You’ve put the scene in your mind down exactly as you initially imagined it, and it’s everything you dreamed of.

Or is it?

You send your manuscript off to your beta readers or your editor and they get back to you saying, “Your characters are floating in white space. I can’t picture where they are!”

You are now a victim of White Room Syndrome.


However, never fear. White Room Syndrome can be easily corrected.

As a writer, I’m aware of how difficult it is to construct a scene. You’re literally creating something out of nothing, breathing life into what was, at some point, empty space. You have to remember who your characters are. Are they acting out of character? Is their dialogue emotive enough or is it too dramatic? Is their body language conveying as much emotion as their words? Is your chapter focused enough? Are the words you’re using simple but impactful? Soon you’re going to have to set up the next scene and you’re going to have to worry about writing a smooth transition.

It’s like a spinning plate circus act. And it’s completely understandable that some aspects of our novels are going to end up forgotten, especially in the earlier drafts.

Setting can end up on the back burner when we’re writing and focusing on the emotion that we’re trying to convey and on the characters that we’re using to share them.

Thankfully, that’s what editing is there for as well as beta readers and critique partners.

Because writers end up going over their manuscripts so many times, they can become desensitized to their own writing. It’ll be harder for a writer who’s on their tenth draft, who’s read their manuscript 238 times to spot certain issues. A lack of setting can be one of them.

But a fresh set of eyes will be able to depict a lack of setting. As they’re going through the story, and their imagination recreates the images that the words are describing for them, they’ll notice if the image in their mind seems incomplete.

If you’re someone who’s not ready to share your work with anyone yet, then simply going through the manuscript for the 239th time, a focus to check for setting alone should help scope any “white room” moments.

As you go through each scene, ask yourself, “What’s going on with the environment around my characters?” Think of how the atmosphere might feel, whether there are other people present, and what sort of objects surround them. Furthermore, what does the environment say about what’s happening in the scene at the moment? Is it raining during a heated argument? Did a gust of wind suddenly start to blow? Are other people around during the interaction? How are they reacting and how do the MCs feel about this? Is it maybe too loud where they are, maybe too many cars are speeding by and it’s hard to hear each other?

Elements of setting are always important. There can be a bit more pressure when writing sci-fi or fantasy because world-building is a huge part of creating the mood and tone of your story.

White Room Syndrome doesn’t have to be a big issue.

It’s an easy blunder to spot and correct, and you can do it yourself or with the help of a beta reader, critique partner, or editor.

It’s also important to remember to not berate ourselves when details pertaining to setting slip our minds during the drafting process. However, a dedicated writer knows that writing a novel can be a great endeavor, and though most of the work can happen in solitude, there are people out there who are eager and willing to help us out.

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