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Erasing White Room Syndrome from Your Scenes

Erasing White Room Syndrome from Your Scenes

June 20, 20248 min read

Discover in this post …

  • how to tell if your novel contains White Room Syndrome.

  • what happens in readers' minds when your scenes lack atmosphere.

  • two simple fixes to eliminate White Room Syndrome from your novel.

Where's the Atmosphere?

Have you ever read a book that contains realistic characters, a plot that moves steadily forward, but little to no detail about your characters' surroundings?

Maybe there's a heavy amount of dialogue on the page but not much else.

Or maybe the scenes take place largely in your protagonist's mind—and although readers know exactly what your character is thinking, that's all they know.

It's as if your characters are in a vast white room, interacting with others (or with themselves) but not interacting with the environment.

This issue is known as White Room Syndrome, and it can keep readers from fully immersing themselves in our story. As writers, we have the incredible opportunity to connect deeply with our target audience, but when readers can't picture how the environment ties into a particular scene, they often feel distanced from the story itself.

Don't worry if this describes you! This issue is easy to identify and fairly easy to resolve. I'm about to discuss two simple ways to eliminate White Room Syndrome from your scenes so that your story resonates with readers as you intended.

But first, ask yourself an important question:

First Things First

The first step toward erasing White Room Syndrome from your scenes is to ask yourself, "To what extent is my setting missing?" I've known many writers who provide a brief setting description early in each scene, then go hundreds (sometimes thousands!) of words without mentioning it again or its impact on the characters.

Again, this can be problematic if your goal is to immerse readers in your story. Readers who can't "see" your story in their mind as it unfolds may lose interest and close your book. So first, determine the extent of the issue. If all your scenes lack atmosphere and environment, you've got your work cut out for you, but it's still fixable. And if it's a more minor issue, note the specific conversations or problematic moments and attack them one by one.

Now let's dive into two simple methods to eliminate White Room Syndrome from your novel!

Method #1: The 5 Senses

Nicole Whisler Edits Novel Writing

You may have heard the advice "Consider the five senses as you write." It's solid advice, but I'd add something to it:

Consider the five senses in terms of your point-of-view character. In other words, what does your point-of-view character notice about their environment?

I had a recent conversation with a writer trying to overcome White Room Syndrome in her novel. She recognized that it was a problem, telling me she knew talking heads in a vague room wasn't good and that she was trying to get better at adding small details to the story.

To pinpoint her exact difficulty, I asked her for further clarification, and she told me, "I can imagine the room very well when there's something special about it, but when it's just a kitchen, it's hard to see something worth mentioning."

We chatted a bit more, and she thanked me, saying, "By making me voice the problem, you helped me find a solution. The solution is to think not about what in the room is interesting to me, but what is interesting to the character. In the case of the kitchen in the chapter I'm editing now, it's in an old house, so it should be full of old furniture. My main character loves old stuff, so ... why not let her admire it a little?"

If you're writing in close first- or third-person point of view, always consider what your character would naturally be thinking in that moment.

For example, a teenager who's focused on his recent argument with his girlfriend isn't likely to notice the bright blue paint on his kitchen walls—unless the paint is peeling and the color is fading, and he asks himself why everything in his life falls into ruin. Or perhaps he doesn't realize this consciously, but his eye catches the peeling paint and readers fill in the rest on their own.

As the writer above noted, you are not identical to your protagonist. The sights, smells, and sounds you'd naturally notice in any given situation will differ from what your protagonist notices. Build a picture for readers around your point-of-view character's natural observations of their setting, and you'll add realism to your scenes.

Method #2: Character Reaction

Nicole Whisler Edits Novel Writing

The second way to rid your scenes of the dreaded White Room Syndrome also relates to your point-of-view character, but it goes deeper. Whereas in Method #1, I discussed how to know which missing sensory details to fill in, Method #2 is about highlighting not just what your character notices, but what that particular detail means to them.

This tactic will prevent you from accidentally adding lengthy blocks of dialogue with little else on the page. Train yourself to think, "How does my character react to what's happening on the page? How do they feel about it? What do they think about it?", and you'll become well-versed in revealing your character's inner world, which in turn will foster a stronger connection between your character and readers.

It's easy for your novel to become a "play by play" in which you describe what happens on the page, or a "he said/she said" in which readers get nothing but speech bubbles, but in doing so, we often diminish or hide the point-of-view character's emotions. (Don't get me wrong—there are times when rapid-fire dialogue works beautifully, but it should be used on purpose to create a certain effect, not used because we don't know how to fill in the gaps.)

I was guilty of lacking character emotion on the page years ago. I remember submitting an opening chapter to my critique group in Jefferson City, Missouri. One of the critique members commented on my scene, saying, "I could use a little more from your main character."

This was actually great feedback, but at the time, I wasn't sure how to incorporate it. I even followed up with that commenter after the critique session, asking her to clarify what she meant. She wasn't an editor or a book coach, so although she did her best to explain, I wasn't confident I'd fully resolved the problem once I implemented my desired changes.

Now, after reading hundreds of scenes from my clients, I know exactly what she meant and how to fix it.

I thought at the time that readers were feeling all the emotions along with my protagonist. I knew how she was feeling, so I assumed they would know as well. But they didn't! Until I dove into my protagonist's head on the page and showed her relevant thoughts, feelings, and emotions, readers had to use guesswork to draw conclusions about my protagonist.

And while some guesswork is fine, if the pieces are absent altogether, you're likely missing out on a key opportunity to establish and strengthen that all-important character–reader connection.

But that's what writing is all about—learning, experimenting, and growing!

For further explanations and examples related to this topic, take a look at my prior blog posts on character reaction and character voice.

Summing Up

Today I’ve examined two ways to rid your novel of White Room Syndrome:

  1. Determine what your point-of-view character would naturally notice about their surroundings in any given scene. This will vary from character to character.

  2. Include on the page not just the what, but the why. Give readers a sense of not only what stands out to your character, but what it means to them and why it's important to their story and/or character arc.

If you find yourself thinking, "What can I possibly include in this scene to make sure it's not too bare for readers?", you may be asking the wrong question. Ask yourself a slight variation: "What does my character notice about the atmosphere and environment in this scene, and what does it mean to them?" to help your story grow deeper and more immersive.

Do you see elements of White Room Syndrome in your own work? Or are you fantastic at balancing your plot, dialogue, setting, and character reactions? I'd love for you to share your thoughts with me by emailing me at [email protected], and if you gained value from this content, I'd love for you to share it with others!

Do you want to learn how to write a story that makes your target readers stand up and cheer? If you’d like support from A to Z (from brainstorming to drafting to revising to publication), book a Discovery Call with me to see if you’re a good fit to join my book coaching program, Fantasy Footsteps: Road to Publication. And if you haven’t done so already, grab your Free Guide on how to hook readers from your story’s start!

Nicole Whisler Edits

Nicole Whisler is a developmental editor and book coach who specializes in working with writers of fantasy novels. Prior to editing, she taught English and creative writing full-time for six years. She is a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, a member of the Professional Editors Network, and a leading book coach for the Coach Foundation. She lives with her husband and three daughters in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where she leads an in-person writing critique group at her local library.

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