The Demon Named White Room Syndrome and How to Exorcise It From Your Story

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The Demon Named White Room Syndrome and How to Exorcise It From Your Story

There’s a demon that infiltrates a lot of our fiction and memoirs and that demon has a name. Learn about White Room Syndrome with us on this week’s episode of Write Better Now!

Hi, welcome to Write Better Now, a podcast of quick, weekly writing tips meant to help you become a better writer. We’re your hosts with NYT bestselling author Carrie Jones and copyeditor extraordinaire Shaun Farrar. Thank you for joining us.

So, white rooms are all the rage right now in 2020 thanks to the Swedish Cozy Minimalist design movement, but what might be perfect in your actual house isn’t anywhere near perfect for your story.

You want to avoid white room syndrome at all costs.

So what is this again? This white room syndrome?

According to

Rather than fully imagine such a world, some writers instead create a quick, unformed facsimile of their own. For example, they start the story with the line, “She awoke in a white room.” The white room is the white piece of paper facing the author. This is known as white room syndrome, a term coined a few year ago at the Turkey City Workshop in Austin (a group that has included authors William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Lewis Shiner, Rudy Rucker and Walter Jon Williams).

They officially define white room syndrome as “an authorial imagination inadequate to the situation at end, most common at the beginning of a story.” In short, because the world wasn’t fully imagined, it can’t support the story that unfolds from it.

Or as Lauren Mullen says:

The scene is coming together just as planned. Your dialogue is snappy, witty, and poignant. The action is electric, carrying your characters from one spot to the next. You can see it all unfolding to you as if it were happening on a screen…but the setting details are absent. As a result, all your character’s amazing dialogue and action happen in a blank space.

But what I really like that she says is here:

Think of when you go over to someone’s house for the first time, how they decorate and treat their home says a lot about them. Are they the type of person who cleans up when expecting guests or not? Do they keep a lot of books? Collect art? Fan memorabilia? Are there any pets? What are they? A dog owner says something different about a person than a hamster owner. You learn a lot about a person by how they decorate and treat their home, likewise this is why description and setting are so vital to good storytelling. 

When done properly, the world in which your characters inhabit can take on a life of its own. It is important to spend as much time fleshing out your setting as you would a persona. This helps the space in which your characters exist feel grounded and real. 

How do you keep white room syndrome from happening? Or how do you fix it?

There are some good ways!

  1. First make the decision about how you want the reader to feel about the space where the scene is happening.
  2. Add details that make that happen. Is it a crowded space? A quiet café? A darkly lit jazz club? Are the tables sticky? Does the office smell like onions? Do you hear the fast clickety-clack of coworkers keyboards? Do smells come from another cubicle? From the coffee shop’s kitchen?
  3. Think about how you learn about people from the first time you walk into their homes? Give that feeling to the reader. Is it well lit? Shadowy? Are the salt and pepper shakers shaped like manatees or plastic? That sort of thing.
  4. Allow yourself to set the scene as a stage where the details you choose reflect the emotional struggle of the character and/or the plot.
  5. Use the five senses (sight, sound, touch, smell, taste) and try to use three of them in each scene. Oh! And don’t have the three you use be the same for every single scene.
  6. Don’t overdo those senses, but do use them a bit.

Why is this important again?

  1. It allows your reader to be fully in the experience of the character of the book.
  2. It’s a tool. The setting can be a metaphor for your character’s internal struggle. If your character is having an anxiety attack and stuck in her job and life, making her hide in a bathroom stall is perfect as metaphor.
  3. It can be a character in your story. The city of Chicago or New Orleans can influence the plot and character a lot. The city can grow too as the character grows.
  4. It helps create tone and conflict. If you’re writing a novel about an apocalypse, the details you choose in your scene’s setting help show that.
  5. It shows class and divisions in society, too.

There you go! A quick and super important writing tip to help you write better now.

Thanks for listening to Write Better Now.

The music you hear is made available through the creative commons and it’s a bit of a shortened track from the fantastic Mr.ruiz and the track is Arctic Air and the album is Winter Haze Summer Daze.

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Author: carriejonesbooks

I am the NYT and internationally-bestselling author of children's books, which include the NEED series, FLYING series, TIME STOPPERS series, DEAR BULLY and other books. I like hedgehogs and puppies and warm places. I have none of these things in my life.

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