White Room Syndrome

I first heard of White Room Syndrome on the OWW (Online Writering Workshop)  to describe the issue many first drafts have of forgetting to describe the environment.

I’m guilty of this in my first drafts, particularly when the action gets wild and I’m really into what the characters are doing. I’ve even heard from some prolific and famous authors that this is a constant struggle in first drafts. “That’s what second drafts and first readers are for” – Mercedes Lackey (CONvergence 2008). Unfortunately for many new writers, it is a problem that persists into later drafts and may be one reason they find their stories hard to sell.

Describing the environment can be a sticky issue. It requires a balancing act between giving enough information make the environment clear and not so much that the story stops dead while you describe the wood grain on the tavern bar. You also want to be careful to leave enough space for your reader to add their imagination to the story as well.

There is a lot of advise out there encouraging writers to keep the story going; never let up on the action. Some people must like that kind of thing because enough of them get sold. Personally I find them exhausting to read. Others spend so much time on the scenery that you get the impression that’s what the book is about. These are slow reads (great if you have a lot of time to kill such as on vacation). In either case, even in the action at all costs, there has to be enough description for the reader to see the whole scene – not just the actors in front of the green screen.

Ah yes, green screens are a great tool for movie producers. You don’t have to build the whole set right away. The actors do their thing and some time later, during the editing process the sets are added. By the time I buy my ticket and relax into the darkness of the theatre it’s all there together giving me a whole experience. That’s what I want from books as well (minus the dark movie theater – it’s hard to read in there). I really don’t care if your first draft is just a script with a bunch of talking heads so long as you edit in the background and movements before you ask me to read it – unless I’m contracted to beta read it for you, in which case I’ll mark all the places that should have more description.

On the other side, I’m not looking for a picture’s worth of words. If you’ve already established that we are in an Old West town you can just tell me that they’re in the saloon. After that, only the details that are either different from the stereotype, vital to the plot or used by the characters need to be elaborated on. In the saloon, you can simply mention the bar as in: “They walked up to the bar, dropped their coins on the counter and demanded a drink”. I don’t need to know that the bar is about chest hight, alcohol stained to an almost black appearance. I can assume that much on my own. And if I don’t? If I happen to see a pale pine slab instead of the dark one you envision, it won’t matter much. It’s still a bar, it still takes their money and holds up the drinks.

All the details don’t need to come at once. In that tavern we can wait until our characters have slammed back their first round and are relaxing through their second before noticing the out of tune piano in the far corner. We can wait until one of the call girls descends the stairs causing a stir to talk about the balcony above the main room. And that villainous looking guy hiding under his dust colored hat in the corner can stay that way until he makes his move surprising both the characters and the reader at the same time.

Another principle to go by: describe the odd things; those bits that make the place unique. What if the piano in our saloon were in tune? That would be worth mentioning. Or if it were a baby grand rather than an upright. The same applies to characters. Don’t describe them in detail from head to toe (unless your viewpoint character is a fashion buff), tell me what makes them different from the next person. A few choice details will save you from White Room Syndrome (and the corollary Naked Characters Syndrome) without sacrificing pace or tension.

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