Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Buzz Words & White Room Syndrome

Lots of phrases, buzzwords, slang, jargon, and perfectly cromulent words are thrown about critique groups on a regular basis. Newcomers to critique groups can mentally stumble when they hear something along the lines of, "The POV in your WIP head hops through white room syndrome, and all of the narrative is written in passive voice with lots of tense shifts."

POV? WIP? White rooms? Is there padding on the walls of these white rooms? I feel like I'm going insane! I know I'm tense, but how is that shifting around?

Well, have no fear. I'm here to help expand your vocabulary into the writerly world of the critique group.

This month, I'm going to cover white room syndrome.

Over the months I've been doing this series, you've seen me mention "white room syndrome" in the intro text. Enough people have asked me about what the heck that means, I've bumped it up to the top of my list for this month. This has nothing to do with straight jackets and padded rooms. It has nothing to do with the sterility of hospital rooms or the blank page staring back at you when you start writing a fresh story.

White room syndrome is, quite simply, a severe lack of description in all areas. This can be a major problem for the readers when they can't picture the setting or characters.

The Setting

Readers love to immerse themselves in the worlds we create. Even if the setting is Small Town, USA in modern times, they want to feel like they're there with the characters. If the area surrounding the characters lacks detail, the immersion (and suspension of disbelief) will fail miserably. You want to draw the readers in and make them feel like they are actually there with the characters. By leaving out sensory details of the setting, the readers are left with nothing more than a white room to picture.

When describing a room, restaurant, coffee house, mansion, playground, or some other setting, we tend always to start with the visuals. We are visually-driven creatures, so this only makes sense. However, by leaving out temperature, smells, textures, sounds, and tastes, the world will feel flat and two-dimensional. We don't want to leave our readers with the impression they are experiencing a grainy animation from the 1940s. We want them to experience the world we're creating. Give it all to them! In some cases, you want to start with a non-visual description.

As an example, when I came home one evening, my wife was already there and had started dinner. As soon as I opened the door, my first sensation was the smell of chicken from the soup she'd prepared. I didn't hear the jingle of my dog's collar first. I didn't see my son running my way. The sense of "welcome home" came in the form of a wonderful smell.

Set up your scenes with senses, and your readers will always come back for more.

The Characters

Characters can also suffer from being too blah or bland. Like your settings, they can feel two-dimensional if there isn't enough detail about them. I'm not just talking about physical descriptions. We need to know their desires, fears, goals, motivations, hatred, loves, quirks, habits (good and bad), and their general outlook on life. Getting your characters from being flat does take some effort (and pre-planning for some), but it'll pay off in the long run.

As another example, one of my critique partners accidentally edited out the opening description of a character. The only impression I had of this character were her perfectly manicured fingernails for most of the book. Then one nail got chipped during an adventure, and the character didn't seem to care because of the dire straights she was in. This told me volumes about how extremely overwhelmed the character was at that point in the book. Unfortunately, I had to give a comment along the lines of, "This character is nothing more than talking fingernails," because of the lack of physical description. Fortunately, this was a quick fix for the author to go back to older versions of the manuscript and snag the description that had accidentally been dropped.

If you've heard a phrase or word in a critique group and you think others should know about it (or you're not sure what to think of it), drop me a comment below, and I'll add it to my list of Buzz Words to talk about.

J.T. Evans writes fantasy novels. He also dabbles with science fiction and horror short stories. He is the president of Pikes Peak Writers. When not writing, he secures computers at the Day Job, homebrews great beers, spends time with his family, and plays way too many card/board/role-playing games.


  1. One we used in the RMFW critique group I facilitated over many years. NIGY... neglegee in a graveyard -- think of the stereotypically dopey pretty young woman who runs through the graveyard undressed, as if that doesn't draw the bad guys or bad ghosts. A commercial that capitalized on this unrealistic faux pas includes a teen suggesting she and her friends escape in a car. Another one, brighter one might think, drags them instead to the safe harbor of a barn filled with cycles, chain saws and other sharp instruments. There they will hunker down rather than take up arms. NIAG. I hear something in the kitchen so I'll run to safety in my room upstairs, where I'm now trapped typng this... and showering. Better to be a clean victim. Karen Lin

    1. LOL! Karin Lin We rudely call that TSTL. The too stupid to live scenario. Clean victim, I love it ;) Now I have a new one Negligee in a graveyard! What do you think, J.T?

    2. That's a great set of ETLAs (extended three-letter acronyms) that can describe poor use of tropes during a piece of horror (or similar) fiction. I love it! I really love the TSTL ETLA. :)

  2. BTW, the reason I used that particular pull quote was I thought it encapsulated perfectly what writers need to include in a scene. We want to be careful to not overwrite... one of my favorite quotes by Anton Chekhov is, "I don't need to know everything that's in the room. I just need to know what I need to know is in the room." I think this is an invaluable reminder, J.T. for new and advanced writers alike.

    1. I love your use of a pull quote there. It really makes things stand out and pop. I didn't realize that section evoked so many senses and such until I saw it called out. Thanks for doing that!


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