Have you ever been told that your scenes are too abstract and hard to visualize? Then, I’m afraid you may be suffering from white room syndrome.
If you’re jumping straight into your scenes without laying the groundwork, your story can seem flat and far removed from the reader, making it difficult for them to become engrossed in the story as a whole.
Describing your setting in the right place is crucial to keep your audience and make your story truly come to life.
What's white room syndrome?
As an editor, I’ve read many manuscripts and short stories by less experienced writers. While each writer has their own unique strengths and weaknesses, a lot of beginners make the same mistakes. White room syndrome is definitely one of them, but luckily, it’s a simple fix.
This is just an industry term for when a scene in a story has little to no description before it jumps into the action and dialogue. So, when readers come to visualize the scene, it seems like the characters are floating in a white room.
This is closely related to the dreaded “Talking Heads,” a topic that we can explore later.
Is it really that important?
When it comes to writing a new book or story, there are a lot of big things to worry about. You’ve got to flesh out your cast of characters, pace out your riveting action, and fix any glaring plot holes as you endeavor to write the next modern classic.
So, it’s no wonder that something small like describing the setting in your scenes can be forgotten. Who wants to hear about Uncle Jeffrey’s vintage wall clock when Susan just found out her husband is cheating on her?
I get it. Often, we get advice like “Only write what the readers find interesting,” or “Jump straight into the action,” and while this advice might be fitting in some circumstances, it shouldn’t be followed without judgment.
Let me say it very clearly. Your setting is important.
Let’s look at another creative medium as an example — film and television. How does every scene in a script start? With the setting — and for good reason. That first line tells us whether we’re inside or outside, what time of day it is, and the surroundings. These three things are the bare minimum to include at the beginning of a scene.
Knowing your character is being mugged in the light of day on a crowded street is a very different image from them being held at gunpoint inside a dark deserted office building.
In addition to reader immersion, setting can have a great effect on the tone of your novel. It is absolutely a vital tool to add suspense and real emotion to your scenes, and it would be disappointing to leave it unused.
Where's the best place in the scene to describe the setting?
Now, many writers shy away from writing descriptions because they fear it may affect their pacing. And this is a very valid concern. Writing a big block of description in the wrong place can throw off the tension and pace of your plot.
I have a tried and trusted method that can be used in about every scene.
In the first five lines after each scene break, we need to have a short description of the surroundings and any other characters that are important to the scene. This can be very brief. You don’t want several paragraphs clunking up the pace.
This first paragraph should establish the most relevant facts. Are the characters indoors or outdoors? What time of day is it? What kind of place (restaurant, hospital, empty field) are they in?
Then, feel free to dive back into the action and dialogue. As the scene progresses, you should remind the reader every so often of where the characters are by dropping smaller details as they become relevant to the scene. Here, you can note all the small things your character notices about their surroundings and fellow scene partners.
But how does this apply to action scenes or scenes with high tension? How can you keep the reader anchored without disrupting the build-up?
It’s quite simple.
Use the description to draw out the tension. Did one character just pause ominously in their sentence? Why not describe the eerie echoing water droplets in the silence? You’re amplifying the mood of the scene while stretching out the reveal and keeping the reader hooked on what happens next.
Tips for Writing Effective Descriptions
- Engage the five senses — Most writers start out describing only what they can see. You want to engage as many senses as you can. The establishing description at the beginning of each scene should include sight, smell, and sound to give a more complete picture.
- Show, don’t tell — What would a writing blog be without this oft-repeated gem? Showing is crucial to effective imagery.
- Make intelligent choices — As you map out your settings for each scene, make sure that the details you choose combine to reach your ultimate purpose. Take into consideration how the setting will influence your readers’ experience.
How and when you describe your setting can make a great deal of difference to the quality of your writing. When you’re going in for your second draft, remember to anchor your readers in every scene and use every word to your advantage.
Written for The Plottery
Ariadne Aaronson is a professional editor and lover of urban fantasy. After getting her degree in creative writing, she began working as an editor with independent publishers and mentoring novice writers. When she’s conveniently avoiding her work schedule, she might be playing with cats, baking, or painting.