A White Room Problem

Which is to say, one of the main ways to have your setting and background not work.

You know you have this problem when your workshop buddies point it out to you when a lot of your action takes place in the equivalent of a white room, description-wise — that is to say, in settings that are so barely visualized that they might as well be blank.  They lack what W. S. Gilbert might refer to as “corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.”

If two of your characters are talking in a white room, you still need to give the reader some details to hang their visualization on.  Mention the unsettling flicker of the dying fluorescent light panel, or the faded scuff marks on the floor, or the spot on the wall where a few remaining bits of sticky tape hint that someone once put up a poster in that spot.  (See?  Now you’re in somebody’s former office, now empty of furniture.  It’s not just any white room; it’s a particular white room.)

And don’t forget:  for good description, you want more than just the visuals.  You want the sounds and the smells and the tactile sensations as well.  Does that empty office smell of industrial-strength cleaning agents?  Or does it smell of dust and old paper?  Can you hear the faint almost sub-audible hum of electric devices somewhere nearby, or the whirr of a fan, or the breezy rumble of an air conditioner?  Does the static electricity in the dry air make the hairs on your arms and neck stand up?  Or does the lack of ventilation send a trickle of sweat down between your shoulder blades?

It’s the particularity of detail, not the amount, that’s the key.  (We’ll talk another time about the other way that scene-setting can go wrong, which is through detail overload.)

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