Written by JJ Barnes
A scene with no background, no setting, feels like it’s playing out in a white box. When you’re watching a film or a play, the setting of your story is immediately apparent. It’s created by set designers for the story to move through and around. However, when you’re writing a book, it’s your job as the writer to fill in that scenery.
The White Box
When you’re telling your story, you need to set the stage. Where is this happening? You can tell your audience that your characters are in a bedroom or a restaurant, but if you leave it there, that room is blank. Setting your story in what is essentially a plain white box is both boring and unrealistic.
You need your audience to immerse themselves in your scene and feel like the performances happening on it are real. When there is no stage, your audience will be distracted wondering where your characters are, trying to fill in those blank spaces themselves. As soon as your audience is distracted from your story and thinking about something else, you’ve lost them.
Give your audience more than a white box for your story to play out on.
Too Much Detail
The complete opposite to The White Box is when you describe everything in so much detail that it’s overwhelming. When you start your scene by describing exactly how the room looks, your characters certainly won’t be in a white box, but your audience will be bored. It’s too much to process and keep in your head. It can also distract from the point of the scene in the first place.
You need your audience to be able to focus on the characters, what they’re saying and doing, and what they want. That’s your story, that’s what they’re showing up to experience. Don’t push your audience out of your story in order to describe the exact shade of the carpet.
Use Show Don’t Tell To Avoid A White Box
To avoid The White Box and overwhelming with detail, you need to use the technique of “show don’t tell.” By showing not telling, your audience will feel part of the scene. The setting of your story will feel real.
To show not tell, only focus on the details of the room that directly impact your POV character. When your character moves through the room, what do they notice and why? If they wouldn’t notice it, or it wouldn’t matter to them there’s no need to describe it to your audience because it probably wouldn’t interest them either.
The stage your story plays out on is as part of your character’s experience as the other people in the room. So connect the two in your mind, follow your character’s movements, and focus on how they’re feeling.
A nervous character would notice if the room is particularly big or small, light or dark. They’d notice how busy it was, or whether everybody was looking at them. An excited person might notice the décor because they’re enjoying the space and how it makes them feel.
If the carpet feels soft and squishy it will make your character think of wealth, if the wallpaper is peeling it will make them think of poverty. If the room is heavily scented the perfume could belong to another character they like or loathe. By showing these details on how they impact your POV character, rather than just listing them as bland information, they feel real.
An important thing to remember is that if you’re setting a scene somewhere familiar, you’ll need to describe less. If it’s somewhere alien to both character and audience, you’ll need to describe more.
If your character walks into a classroom, the likelihood is that your audience will have a pretty clear idea in their heads of what that room looks like immediately. You still need to describe certain specific details relevant to how your character experiences the scene in that space, but your audience won’t picture a White Box, they’ll picture a classroom.
However, if you’re describing your character entering some kind of haunted mansion, you’ll need to describe more. Describe the gothic chandeliers, the shadowed doorframes, the statues and the mirrors. Describe the smell of decay in the air, the sound of the wind through the cracked windows. Those things will interest your audience because they’re not something we experience every day, and the details will be noteworthy.
Avoid The White Box By Keeping Connected To Your Character
The most important thing to remember about setting the scene is to keep connected to your character. Your character wouldn’t walk into a room and notice nothing, we don’t exist in a White Box. But equally so, most people don’t walk into a room and start listing the number of light switches or the placement of every single vase.
Your setting and your characters are connected, so write them as such.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose