White room syndrome haunts all writers. It’s when you have a scene with dialogue, maybe some internal narration, but almost nothing going on between the characters and their environment. They could be anywhere—literally a white room. And it’s not just a problem in writing, it happens in improv too. The actors are so focused on their back and forth that the audience has no idea of the context. For example, a conversation about how in love two people are has one context if it’s at a New Year’s Eve party, but a much weirder and more interesting context if it’s at a funeral.
The biggest cause of white room syndrome is that the immediate setting is boring. So boring that even you, the writer, have forgotten about it. My best experiences curing this problem have been changing up the environment, or at least adding to it. Here are four ways to change the setting to help you cure white room syndrome.
Place your characters somewhere that reveals info about at least one character.
It could be a bedroom full of family photos and travel mementos. Their kitchen, full of one-use infomercial tools. Their office with a single personal photo. Wherever you choose, make it significant and demonstrative of one character’s personality. That way, you remember to describe it throughout the scene, because it adds depth.
Place your characters somewhere that has a lot of things to interact with.
It could be a car, with the radio, A/C, windows, etc. It could be a child’s playroom with toys all over the floor like landmines. It can be as simple as a clothing store. Give your characters a variety of options for actions to take while they listen to or speak with each other. Think of conversations you have in real life; you’re almost always doing something with your hands.
Place your characters somewhere that demands they pay attention.
A scented candle store—can’t escape the smells. A very hot sauna—can’t ignore the heat. A spicy hot wing tasting plate at a restaurant—can’t eat that without feeling every bite. The environment then interacts with your character, rather than the character initiating contact first. This forces you to trickle in setting details throughout.
Place your characters somewhere symbolic.
If the conversation is about betrayal, they could be in an art museum in front of a painting of Judas. If the conversation is about forbidden love, they could be in the wine aisle and one bottle could be from a vineyard called Verona. If they’re discussing madness, maybe they’re on a walk and see some windmills (even modern wind turbines would probably be enough of a Quixote nod). You can be sneaky or overt with this, even suggesting how their plot will end. If you go into a scene planning to include a symbolic item or location, then you won’t forget to include it.
Those are my tricks for making a white room transform into an actual setting. What tricks do you use? Did you try mine and like them? Let’s discuss in the comments!