White Room Syndrome: The Writing Mistake You Can't See

... or hear, or smell, or touch.

Imagine this scene:

Three men walk into a bar. American, Russian, and Chinese. The American sits down and says…

Okay. Let me stop right there. You don’t want to hear the joke.

But did you notice all the little visual details in the joke’s setup? Think back to elementary school, when we were taught the concept of who, what, when, where, and why as parts of a story’s context. In this setup, “three men” describes the who, which is further fleshed out by their ethnicities. “A bar” describes the where. “Walk” describes the what — and so does the American man sitting and speaking.

The when is implied. Late night, of course. When else do three men walk into bars?

The why is the point of the joke.

In a mere 16 words, the joke painted a complete picture in the reader’s head. Three men of different ethnicities, all haggard and rowdy, stumbles into a bar at night. They sit down and start a conversation. Maybe they each order a drink. Maybe they just talk. The joke needed no additional setup.

Where am I? What’s going on?

How does this relate to writing, you ask?

I’ll tell you.

The “X walks into a bar” joke is the exact opposite of White Room Syndrome.

White Room Syndrome isn’t a real disease, by the way. Your writing suffers from WRS when the action is disconnected from the setting. Writers often jump straight into the action, neglecting the setting, which makes it seem like the characters are moving around in a white, padded room.

How might a White Room Syndrome bar joke begin? Something like this:

A man says “I’ll have a beer.” The bartender pours him a beer and turns to the other man, who says “in mother Russia, only women drink beer.”

As the reader, you didn’t know the story took place in a bar until the mention of “bartender”. You didn’t know there was another man until “the other man”. You didn’t know this man was Russian until “in Mother Russia.” You still don’t know anything about the third man, or the identity of the first man.

This scene might as well have taken place in a white room.

Often, a writer tries to fix WRS by adding detailed descriptions:

The oak paneling behind the stack of glasses is pockmarked. The light is dim. A tidal roar envelops the cramped establishment as the three hanging TVs flashed the words “Leafs goal” at the same time. The man’s stool squeaks as he leans into the bar, sticky under his rough elbows. “Hey barkeep,” he shouts, “give me a beer.”

Is it better? Yes.

Does it give you the context to understand the scene? Nope.

Even with all that description, you still don’t know who else is involved. You still don’t know why you’re told all this detail. When the sticky bar-top and the hockey game turns out to have nothing to do with the scene, you will feel cheated.

Poetic prose will not save your story, because White Room Syndrome is not about adding details to your description. It’s about giving readers the necessary context to understand the story. Context is who, what, when, where, and why. At the minimum, you should establish the first four in a scene.

Today’s Writing Tip: to avoid White Room Syndrome, establish who, what, when, and where, and why as early as possible in a scene.

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A Masterclass of Context

Let’s take a look at an example. This is the opening paragraph of Ernest Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants. It is a masterclass for establishing context for a story at the onset.

The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies. The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went on to Madrid.

Observe how Hemingway does the following in order:

  1. Establishes a place (valley of the Ebro, railway station) and tells you what to look at by painting a picture.

  2. Establishes an environment, implies the time, and tells you how to feel (hot, sparse, primitive).

  3. Introduces the two characters (the girl and the American).

  4. Tells you why the characters are here (waiting for a train to Madrid).

From this paragraph onward, Hemingway barely addresses the setting. The rest of the story is 95% dialogue between the two characters. The writer can neglect the description because he establishes the context for this scene at the onset.

Today’s Writing Assignment: Open up notepad and copy, word-for-word, Hemingway’s paragraph. Copying someone else’s writing is called copywork, which is an underrated way to learn and improve. 

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Last time we looked at keeping tension in dialogue. In that article I gave an assignment to rewrite the dialogue. This is a great answer, sent in to us by P.A.:

"What do you want for dinner?"

"Pasta is fine."

"You're sure?"

"Would you rather we have that garbage from last night?" Jake snapped, eyes still glued on his laptop screen.

Sally glared at him for a moment, stunned. Garbage—that's what her cooking had become to him. Now she was more than convinced that the man she'd fallen in love with had departed a long time ago. The blonde before her eyes just wasn't her Jake.

She turned and shuffled out of the room, taking one final glance over her shoulder.

Jake was hunched over his laptop, fingers flying over the console. Couldn't he read her silence?

She shut the door with a gentle snap, one thought emboldened in her mind: "I should leave him."

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