5 Ways to Avoid “White Room Syndrome” and Bring Life to Your Fiction by Linnea Gradin · Writer’s Fun Zone

5 Ways to Avoid “White Room Syndrome” and Bring Life to Your Fiction by Linnea Gradin · Writer’s Fun Zone

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“White room syndrome” is what happens when your writing feels abstract, floating in some otherworldly vacuum with nothing grounding it to physical reality. The author seems to have forgotten to add color to the background, resulting in a flat and unfinished story that feels like an empty, white room.

If this sounds familiar, this article will outline 5 ways to build a strong setting and sense of place — key steps if you want to improve your writing and bring some color back to your pages.

1. Spot the signs of “white room syndrome”

White room syndrome is characterized by an absence of atmosphere.

This makes it seem like characters are acting out scenes in complete isolation and can make it hard for readers to visualize and navigate the story.

As a writer, it can be difficult to spot because you know what the world of your novel looks like, but how do you know if it’s the same for your readers?

Getting an outside perspective can be helpful, but you can also self-diagnose by scanning your writing scene by scene, searching your writing software for words and sentences related to setting.

If you can’t find any, that’s a clue. 

Equally, if you find that you’re only using vague, generalized descriptions like “they were in a classroom” without capturing what that individual classroom looks or feels like, that’s probably a sign of white room syndrome too.

2. Continuously set the scene

The most obvious solution is to add more queues to set the scene.

As a rule of thumb, you want to make sure that you include at least two or three details about the setting every time you change scenes or when action takes place.

But it’s not enough to sprinkle some details about the setting in an opening paragraph and then forget about it. Rather, you want to inject discreet notes about the setting throughout the story.

Weaving details into the narrative in this way ensures the setting remains vivid in the reader’s mind and helps create a consistent sense of place which feels integral to the storytelling.

3. Focus on sensations

A common problem that authors run into when editing their texts for setting is that they overcompensate and add lackluster exposition.

Not only is this inefficient, but, to the reader, the room still feels pretty bare: it may make sense logically, but there’s no emotional or sensory resonance.

One way to give readers the sense that they’re in the room with the characters is to implicitly describe details and focus on sensations.

Don’t just write “she sat down at the café,” and think the readers will know what the café is like.

Instead, describe the smell of burnt coffee, the sticky residue on the table, and the wobbly chair.

Without spelling it out, readers know that it’s not the best café in the world, and they can imagine the rest.

4. Give the space a larger context

Another great exercise to make your space come alive is to give it purpose beyond the bounds of a scene so that readers believe in its continued existence even after they close the book.

You can think of it as a character in its own right, with its own separate journey: the waitress serving coffee after your character leaves, and customers coming and going.

You can also use space as a metaphor.

For instance, a darkening sky can indicate the arrival of evil or internal turmoil; you can use setting as an obstacle in the form of an insurmountable mountain; or you can use setting as an opportunity in the form of a crack in the pavement, instigating a stumbling meet-cute.

Lastly, consider what the implicit rules of the space are: 

  • Who is allowed to move freely there?
  • Should people whisper in reverence or do they need to shout to be heard? How does one get the attention of the waitress?

Answering these questions will help you create an internal logic that makes the setting feel believable.

5. Use setting to intensify dialogue and inner monologue

Good authors often manage to weave details into their exposition in a seamless way, but great authors also use dialogue and internal monologue to intensify the atmosphere, making the setting twice as powerful.

Dialogue shouldn’t be just dialogue and your setting shouldn’t cease to exist while characters talk to each other.

A dialogue tag can reveal that the clouds have parted as your characters, literally, clear the air.

Or you can show your character’s mood or personality through their internal monologue: are they describing the fall foliage as vibrant and refreshing, or are they focusing more on the dying leaves and the biting cold?

White room syndrome can be difficult to tackle because you have to make the readers experience your world as vividly as you do in your mind.

You can’t give equal detail to every single scene, but the setting should still remain present throughout.

There are probably millions of ways to achieve this, but this is what has worked best for me.

Hopefully, it will work for you too!



Linnea Gradin writes about writing and publishing over at Reedsy — a website that connects authors with publishing professionals and gives tips on broad topics like how to find a ghostwriter or how to make an audiobook, and answers specific questions like what is literary fiction and others.

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