Setting the Scene
We’ve all heard of writers grappling with the blank white page. But sometimes, writers leave readers grappling with a frustrating condition called “White Room Syndrome.”
“White Room Syndrome” is where a reader doesn’t feel anchored in the setting of a particular scene. There aren’t enough concrete physical details to ground the action and dialogue. The characters may as well be in a blank, featureless space. This can leave readers feeling adrift and frustrated, and more likely to put a book down.
Amnesia-stricken Jason Bourne might be a great secret agent… but we don’t want readers to feel like him when they ‘re reading!
When “White Room Syndrome” strikes at the start of chapters, or at the very beginning of a novel, it can be especially disorienting. Where are we? Who are you? Who am I?! What year is it?!? What are these things on my face?!?! While a bit of mystery can draw readers into a story, we still want to ensure our scenes quickly establish where we are and when we are.
Think of that classic movie opening…
Or, for a bookish example, here’s the opening line of the classic children’s novel, POPPY, by Avi (1995):
A thin crescent moon, high in the sky, shed faint white light over Dimwood Forest.
It can be as simple as that. Where are we? Dimwood Forest. When is it? Nighttime. Of course, as the opening paragraphs continue, Avi introduces the characters and adds more detail to the setting. What is Dimwood Forest like? Where in the forest are we? What season is it? But right from the opening sentence, he gives us enough to ground ourselves in the time and space of the story.
For a more recent example, and one that’s in first person, present tense, there’s THE LAST CUENTISTA by Donna Barba Higuera, which won the 2022 Newbery Medal:
Lita tosses another piñon log onto the fire. Sweet smoke drifts past us into the starry sky.
In two short sentences, we can imagine where and when we are: We’re around a campfire at night.
But “setting the scene” doesn’t just apply to the start of novels. As an experiment, I’m going to randomly choose three books from my middle grade shelf and open to a chapter somewhere in the middle of the story. Let’s see what happens…
LONG LOST by Jacqueline West, Chapter 11:
After finding that The Lost One had disappeared from her nightstand, Fiona did what any calm, rational, future archeologist-historian would do. She ransacked her bedroom.
Well, so far, so good. Where are we? The bedroom. When are we? A little more ambiguous, “After finding that a previous event occurred,” but this is still an indicator of time. (The last line of the previous chapter also helps us out: “And when she woke up in the morning, it was gone.”)
(LONG LOST is an excellent spooky novel with a fantastic sibling relationship and creepy New England gothic vibes. Great for the upcoming autumn!)
HOLLOWPOX: THE HUNT FOR MORRIGAN CROW by Jessica Townsend, Chapter 10 – Golders Night:
The next few weeks were unlike anything Morrigan had experienced in her time at the Wundrous Society.
Ah, good. This gives us a bit of variety, because rather than dropping us into a specific scene, this sentence sets up a summary passage. Summary passages connect scenes in a story by giving an overview of the intervening events. However, this line still gives us the range of time covered (the next few weeks) and allows readers to infer the place (since the Wundrous Society is an elite group that runs Morrigan’s school, readers can assume that’s where she’s spending most of this time.)
(This is the third novel in the wonderful NEVERMOOR series. The quirky humor, rich world, and vivid characters give me the most Harry Potter vibes I’ve had since reading, well… Harry Potter! )
DRAGON PEARL by Yoon Ha Lee, Chapter 28:
Despite my shaky limbs and the agony running through my body, I dragged myself up onto the bunk.
So, this one defies the rule a bit. There’s a reason for that, though. It’s a good example of a continuous chapter transition, where there isn’t a jump forward in time or a change in location from the end of the previous chapter to the new one. Because of that, Lee doesn’t really need to “set the scene” over again and the reader doesn’t feel “White Room Syndrome.” However, even the mention of the bunk provides a setting detail that helps ground us. Out of context, that single detail may make us guess this is nighttime in a bedroom, and we wouldn’t be far off. (In reality, the protagonist is trying to get some sleep imprisoned in the brig of a spaceship.)
(Korean mythology meets Star Wars-style space adventure in this exciting tale from the Rick Riordan Presents imprint. The book also features a great twist on the “save the sibling” trope.)
If you’re having trouble starting a chapter, try beginning by simply stating the time and place with a few concrete details. Or, if readers are looking through your early drafts and mentioning they feel a bit lost, double-check you’re not stranding them in a white room. Then, you’ll be ready to rock!
Good song. But best avoided in writing.