Monday, September 8, 2014

Crafting Your Best Story - Writing Tip #22 - The White Room Syndrome

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 firm 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 from Divergent 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 Clockwise, Nate and Casey are in the cabin for the first time and Nate's asking questions. Casey pauses to consider her surroundings before answering.
... two cots with a night table between them--a candle and a box of matches the only thing on it--and a larger table under the window with a pitcher and bowl for washing up. A small brick fireplace was built into the corner with a little pile of kindling and a stack of wood against the wall. I lit the candle, then stepped across the room, the wooden floor squeaking under my feet.
Three things are described and elaborated on which erases the white room syndrome: the cots, a larger table, a fireplace. Now when Casey and Nate talk, we can really picture where they are.
Sometimes it just takes one or two details to brighten a setting in order to the ground the reader in the setting and make for a more engaging and enjoyable read.

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