Monday, January 20, 2020

The Many Faces of White Room Syndrome

White Room Syndrome is a newbie writer mistake that I see in my slush pile more often than I should.

What is it?

Essentially, it's a setting that is so nondescript or so unimportant to the story that it doesn't contribute to the story at all.  Your characters might as well be standing in an empty, windowless, furniture-barren, white-painted, doorless room.

Most White Room stories are about people talking or people thinking about things.  Very little, if any, action occurs.  The prose often shows an imbalance between dialogue and narration, with dialogue holding too prominent a role in the storytelling.

Interestingly, White Room Syndrome can happen in "rooms" that we, as readers, can see quite well.  Problems arise, again, when the setting has no central role in the story.

Understand that there are three elements to every story, and each of those elements deserves an important role.

Those three elements are:

1.  Character;
2.  Setting (remember that setting includes both place and time);
3.  Conflict.

A good story balances these three elements in a way that triggers an empathy response in the readers.  That empathy response allows the reader to become imaginatively and emotionally immersed in the story.  That immersion is the writer's goal, the blue ribbon, the golden ticket.  Without it, there is no reader.

How does one make the setting important?

Consider how your characters' surroundings might impact them, how the setting might contribute to the resolution, how the setting might put obstacles in your characters' paths, how your characters interact in meaningful ways with the setting.  In a way, the setting should be treated as a character.  It might act as an antagonist, like Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back.  It might act as an element of characterization, allowing us to gain some insight into the people in our stories, in the same way a first-person narrator might tell us what he sees.

Think of that West Texas farm in Second Hand Lions.  How did that setting help us accept and understand the characters of the uncles?  How did that setting contribute to the boy's character development?  How did it support and contribute to the story's resolution?

Think of the video store and the neighborhood in Be Kind, Rewind.  Similar questions.

The small town in Stranger Things.

The desert island in Castaway.

The school in Matilda.

The forest in Brothers Grimm.

All these stories have rich, detailed settings that contribute to the story in meaningful ways.

Let's look at some of the common white rooms I see in my slush pile:

1.  All-dialogue stories or stories that start with a long sequence of dialogue.

They rarely work and are hard to do well.  Dialogue is not a natural way to give narrative description.  When you're in conversation with someone, you rarely have the opportunity to talk in any kind of meaningful detail about your surroundings. Setting suffers.  It's also difficult to establish setting, character, and conflict quickly, which is an important skill to learn in crafting a story that immerses the reader quickly enough to keep him interested.

2.  Bar/Tavern/Pub.

This is one of the most common white rooms I see.  In fact, I see so many of them, and so little generally happens in them, that I don't even read them anymore.  If your story is set in a bar/tavern/pub, I'll most likely drop it in the reject bin.

Not much happens in bars except for people drinking alcohol and talking--and that's generally what these kinds of stories do.  Instead of telling a story, the story is about people telling a story.  I'd much rather see the story than see people telling a story that happened somewhere/sometime outside that bar.

3.  Hospital beds/rooms.

Lots of people sick or dying.  Don't get me wrong.  I feel for that.  It's never fun to be hospitalized.  But it's also pretty boring.  Mostly sleeping and waiting and Conflicts and the results of the conflicts in hospital rooms are usually pretty predictable.  Any setting description is going to be mundane.  The very nature of hospitals prevents us from being able to do or describe things that are out of the ordinary.  Any extraordinary things we see inside the hospital usually happened outside the hospital, so why not tell THAT story?

4.  Mysterious forests/fog/dark rooms

Many new horror writers believe tension comes from not knowing.  The opposite is true.  Seeing the meathook on the wall is incredibly more terrifying than sounds in the dark.  Sounds in the dark are possibilities.  Meathooks on the wall are certainties.  Anyplace that removes our ability to sense what's around us, to know what to be afraid of, is, essentially, a white room.  Good settings engage the reader rather than mystify the reader.

5.  Waking/groggy character.

I see too many stories in which the main character is waking up from a drugged sleep into some kind of uncomfortable situation.  Sometimes that setting/situation becomes clear, but usually it doesn't until far too late.  And, usually, the setting is just another white room--a kind of hospital room.

6.  Vague-writing.

We all know what Vague-booking is.  Someone posts "I just hate when this happens," on Facebook.  Purposefully vague, fishing for comments.

Something similar happens sometimes with new authors.  A vague opening in which some terrible or interesting thing is referred to but never clearly explained--at least not until far too late.  Again, it's the idea that being vague or withholding information keeps the reader's interest by stimulating curiosity, fishing for tension.  The writer who believes this is wrong.  Instead, the reader becomes irritated.  Just tell me, already!

This kind of writing almost always neglects setting, and when setting is neglected, a white room is the result.

I like to use my Party Analogy when teaching about story openings.  It applies to character, setting, and conflict.

Your story opening is like going to a party with a friend.

Your friend, your host, is the narrator.  He's taking you to a party full of people he knows but you don't, to a place he's familiar with but you're not, into a situation that he's aware of but you're not.

As you walk up to the door, he might even apprise you of what's going on inside.  Is it a dance?  A costume party?  Maybe it's a business luncheon and he's going to introduce you to possible employers.  In terms of your story, that narrator is going to introduce the conflict of the story almost immediately, maybe even before you meet anyone.  This is often accomplished through the book blurb--that thing you read to decide whether you think you'll be interested in a book before you buy.  In short story terms, he's going to establish or hint at the main conflict usually in the first paragraph.

Once you reach the actual party, the first thing that's likely to happen is for your host to introduce you to someone.  This person is your point of view character, or a character you're going to follow through the story.  Throughout the story, your host may introduce you to other partygoers or even pass you on to another partygoer--in writing terms, a point of view change.  Again, this is something that happens immediately.

Very soon--maybe even as soon as you walk through the door--you're going to take in your surroundings.  Remember, the best parties are always held at interesting venues.  A wedding reception at the top of Angel's Landing (Zion National Park) is much more interesting (and tension-inducing, at least for people like me who don't love heights) than a wedding reception in the church gymnasium.   What kind of setting is going to enhance your story?  What kind of setting is going to say something about your character?  What kind of setting might create interest or tension in the opening of your story or scene?

And don't forget to establish that setting ASAP--within the first few sentences, first sentence, if possible.

I know what some of you are thinking.  You're thinking, "I bet I could write a great story in one of Suzanne's White Rooms."

Maybe you could.  The problem is that it's been done so badly so many times before your brilliant attempt that I'm already seriously prejudiced.  I'm not likely to give your story the opportunity to prove itself to me.  The moment I see the white room, I'm done, your story is gone.

Don't blame me.  You can blame all those who have done white rooms too often and too badly before you.


June Lorraine Roberts said...

Helpful items Sue

Sharmon Gazaway said...

As a short story writer I'm always trying to decide how to make the story as compact as possible and it's helpful to know that the setting should not be the sacrifice. Than