Have you ever read a story where it’s all action and dialogue but you can’t quite picture where it’s all taking place? This is what I call the White Room Syndrome. It happens when the author fails to give the reader enough setting for the scene. As a rule of thumb I try to always provide at least two or three setting details to anchor the scene.
For instance, many YA books have scenes that take place in a classroom. Because most of us already know what North American classroom is like, it’s easy to assume that we don’t need to provide setting details because we believe the reader will provide those on her own. This may be true, but it doesn’t provide for an engaging reading experience. Say we have two characters sitting together in a classroom.
There’s tension, conflict and witty dialogue between them, but beyond their shared desk it’s a white out. A few details added by the pov character will create a sense of dimension. A poster of the cross section of a man’s chest hung on the wall, heart, lungs and liver exposed, the corners curling with aged tape held up by tacks. Across the room a warm breeze blew in through open windows. Mr. Jones’s back faced us as he scribbled on the board, chalk scratching in rhythm.
Now back to action/ dialogue between characters. See how mentioning three things brings the setting alive? Of course the opposite problem to the white room syndrome is excessive descriptive passages. If I went on and on about every detail in the classroom the reader’s eyes would begin to gloss over before he even got to the action/dialogue. Here’s an example fromDivergent by Veronica Roth.
Her main character has entered a room where she’ll be tested to determine what faction she’s from. Mirrors cover the inner walls of the room. I can see my reflection from all angles: the gray fabric obscuring the shape of my back, my long neck, my knobby-knuckled hands, red with a blood blush. The ceiling glows white with light. In the center of the room is a reclined chair, like a dentist, with a machine next to it. It looks like a place where terrible things happen.“Don’t worry,” the woman says, ” it doesn’t hurt.”
Ms Roth even uses this passage to describe a setting as an opportunity for us to see what her main character looks like. You can see that she picked out three things to brighten the setting—the mirrors, the ceiling and the reclined chair. In PERCEPTION, Zoe leaves her utopian city to search for the guy she spotted on a news report on TV. She has reason to believe he can help her find her brother.
There are actually six details here anchoring the setting. Noah cracked the heavy door open just wide enough for us to squeeze inside, and I was relieved that the other girls were with us now. It would’ve been insane for me to follow a strange boy into a place like this alone. Not that what I was doing right now wasn’t crazy.It took a moment for my eyes to adjust from the bright daylight to the darker room.
Shafts of light streamed through broken stained glass high above my head, and dust swirled in its rays. Most of the pews had been removed but a few were left, moved out of their straight lines into a crooked circle. A wooden cross hung from the ceiling over an altar, but any other religious relics that might have once had a home here were gone. A lone guitar was propped in the corner.Two guys were sleeping on the pews and Noah kicked one in the foot.
“We got company.”Sometimes it just takes one or two details to brighten a setting in order to the ground the reader and make for a more engaging and enjoyable read.