Avoid white room syndrome when writing

Establishing the setting at the beginning of a story is no easy task. Imagining a world – especially one for the science fiction and fantasy genres – involves thinking about every aspect of its sights, sounds, scents and even tastes and feel.

Rather than fully imagine such a world, some writers instead create a quick, unformed facsimile of their own. For example, they start the story with the line, “She awoke in a white room.” The white room is the white piece of paper facing the author. This is known as white room syndrome, a term coined a few year ago at the Turkey City Workshop in Austin (a group that has included authors William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Lewis Shiner, Rudy Rucker and Walter Jon Williams).

They officially define white room syndrome as “an authorial imagination inadequate to the situation at end, most common at the beginning of a story.” In short, because the world wasn’t fully imagined, it can’t support the story that unfolds from it.

Sometimes this occurs because a writers’ inspiration for the story is from a setting in which he found himself. If the writer takes some extra time to think about and develop this world, however, such inspiration can be put to good effect. This is the case in the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

White room syndrome also can occur because some writers believe that they should simply start writing and let the world evolve from there, à la the Beat writers’ approach. Sometimes this technique does work, but all too often the writers misses the full potential of this kernel of a setting that is planted in the opening line. Even worse, the writer creates an inconsistent setting because he haphazardly creates a new world.

The lesson here: Think a lot about and fully develop your setting before committing to it.


My name is Rob Bignell. I’m an affordable, professional editor who runs Inventing Reality Editing Service, which meets the manuscript needs of writers both new and published. I also offer a variety of self-publishing services. During the past decade, I’ve helped more than 300 novelists and nonfiction authors obtain their publishing dreams at reasonable prices. I’m also the author of the 7 Minutes a Day… writing guidebooks, four nonfiction hiking guidebook series, and the literary novel Windmill. Several of my short stories in the literary and science fiction genres also have been published.