Writing smell: White Room Syndrome

WhiteRoom

Writing a story is like juggling; there are a lot of considerations spinning through the air and you somehow have to keep all of them up. You have to have snappy dialog, but paced well, good description, but not too much, character arcs, a well thought-out plot, and so forth.

To be able to take all these considerations correctly into account, you first need to know what they are, and what can go wrong. You need to know when your writing smells, and what it smells of. The writing smell for today: white room syndrome.

White room syndrome

When you try to turn your story into a real ‘page-turner’, you run the risk of reducing the description too much, until the reader doesn’t know where the characters are any more. It is as if the scene is taking place in a white room. That’s white room syndrome.

An example:

John walked in.

It’s been a while,” he said. Clara turned and looked at him.

Yes, it has,” she said. They hugged, and the hug turned into a long kiss.

Shall we?” he asked.

She grabbed her bag. They left hand in hand.

Can you guess where the characters are? The scene is short and you’re missing the context, yes, but still, in a well written scene you should have at least some idea of the location. You don’t have that here. You could argue that this is not a problem, and that it is a matter of style. It’s about the characters and the dialog, right?

It is, but description and characterisation are not mutually exclusive, they’re complementary. In a White Room scene like above, you’re missing an opportunity. Let me show you why.

Painting the room

The obvious solution is to add a block of description at the beginning of the scene that describes the location. When I first started writing, I used to do exactly that. A wide shot, as it were, before the camera zoomed in to the characters. Unfortunately, such a block of description freezes the action and quickly gets boring, so we want a more elegant approach.

The trick is to keep the description snappy and short, and instead sprinkle it into the rest of the scene. You should also make the description work on characterisation and mood. The more you can do with a word or sentence, the better. Description can do more than just describe a place, it can describe characters and emotions. By choice of wording, the style, and the details you choose to describe you can bring the scene and the characters to life.

Let me show you with the example from above:

John walked into her office. He cringed at Clara’s disordered desk. A pile of books almost hid her from view, while she stood nosing in her bookcase for more.

It’s been a while,” he said. Clara turned and looked at him. He slid past the wall of diplomas to the desk.

Yes, it has,” she said. They hugged, and the hug turned into a long kiss.

Shall we?” he asked.

She grabbed her bag from beneath the coat rack. They left hand in hand.

As you can see, we now know that John and Clara are in Clara’s office. We know her office has a desk, a wall of diplomas, a bookcase, and a coat rack. It’s also a reasonably small office.

We also learn a bit more about the two: Clara has a job involving books, and a lot of education. She doesn’t have a clean desk, and he does not like that.

It only took three extra sentences and some extra words in two existing ones to add a wealth of information. There are no blocks of description, I sprinkled it on, like salt and pepper in a dish.

Of course, seeing this in your own writing can be hard, because you usually have a very clear picture in your head. To practice, keep an eye out in other people’s writing.

Conclusion

White Room Syndrome is a problem of underdescribing the setting. It’s an easy trap to fall into when trying to remove boring description.

To resolve it, you usually only need a little extra description, and only sprinkled around the scene.

Happy writing.

Author: Martin Stellinga

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands