White Room Dialogue

Most writers fall into one of two camps: those who prefer to write dialogue and those who prefer description. Personally, my innate talents fall more on the dialogue side of the spectrum. As such, I have a tendency—if I’m not careful—to write “white room dialogue.” In general, this is a major no-no. As I did in my post on said bookisms, let’s look at what white room dialogue is, why to avoid it, and how to fix it.

White Room Dialogue Defined

White room dialogue is pretty much what it sounds like: dialogue that appears to be happening inside a white room. Because the author hasn’t provided any scene descriptions, the reader has no way to picture accurately where the conversation is taking place. For all intents and purposes, such unattributed could be happening anywhere from a mental institution’s padded room to a spaceship to an underwater sea grotto. And in lieu of any defining information, our brains are likely to default to imagining disembodied voices in a white room. TV Tropes even calls it the Featureless Plane of Disembodied Dialogue. (On rare occasions, this is actually the atmosphere you want to create. Orson Scott Card used White Room Dialogue to great effect in Ender’s Game.)

For those who find that writing dialogue is their forte, it’s all too easy to get carried away by the witty banter or somber discussion and forget that all of these things are happening somewhere. And that the people who are talking probably aren’t standing at absolute attention, not moving a muscle.

But if the dialogue is that good, why is this a problem? I did say, after all, that Robert Asprin could get away with one writing taboo because his dialogue was so flawlessly written. But even Asprin didn’t let his dialogue happen in a white room.

It’s even more boring as a picture!

Reasons to Avoid

White room dialogue is particularly problematic at the beginning of a scene, chapter, or book. As author Mary Robinette Kowal has said, this is a problem because “you don’t know what’s going on, and… as soon as the dialogue is finished, as soon as you start giving the reader something else, [then] they have to reevaluate everything, and it will take them a little bit longer to get into the story.” Ultimately, white room dialogue confuses and distracts the reader. You risk a reader putting your book down from the very beginning.

You also want to avoid white room dialogue so that you don’t bore your reader. Novel readers want to read novels. If someone wants to read a string of uninterrupted dialogue, they will pick up a screenplay. The joy of reading fiction is that you can be immersed in the world. It’s hard to be immersed in a world that you know nothing about.

This is especially true of those who fall more on the description side of the spectrum. My sister is an artist, and, for her, physical descriptions are much more important than natural dialogue. White room dialogue will probably make her put down a book right away. Now me, who prefers dialogue, I don’t rely so much on the description. But even I would be tempted to put down a book that was just straight dialogue—even (or especially) if it’s straight pages of dialogue after straight pages of description. The key is to  mix the two together, so you can gratify both crowds.

Primarily, you want to prevent dialogue overload. Scene and character descriptions give people a chance to process what has actually happened in the dialogue. When characters are constantly talking with no descriptive breaks, the reader’s brain doesn’t get a break. Neither your reader nor the characters has a chance to catch their breath, as it were. If important plot or character development is being revealed through the conversation, the reader needs time to absorb that. And the characters need time to think about their responses. Someone probably taught you to think before you speak; your characters need that same opportunity.

When to Give In (Just a Bit)

Now that links directly to one example of when you should give in to white room dialogue, just for a little bit. If your characters are having a heated discussion, they won’t take time to think before they speak. So you should limit the amount of description you put between pieces of dialogue. However, situations like this should happen only after you’ve properly set the scene. The reader already knows your angry couple is in the local grocery store, in the breakfast cereal aisle, trying to decide between raisin bran and cheerios. So they can hold that image in their minds as the dialogue starts to move more quickly. And in that case, the reader knows they’re not in a white room, so it isn’t even white room dialogue.

It’s all about pacing. The amount of description between pieces of dialogue should reflect the amount of time your POV character has to think.

A Better Way

One answer to this problem is pretty simple: write more description!

If the conversation is happening while the characters are on a mountain hike, describe the scenery between pieces of dialogue. Maybe one of the characters nearly trips over a rock, or another has to pause to hop across a stream. If a husband and wife are having an argument in a crowded grocery store, describe how his face turns red and how the woman’s yell wakes up a sleeping baby in a cart the next aisle over. Describe the manager hovering near them, nervously trying to decide if he should get involved or not. If a child is talking with her teacher about why she didn’t do her homework, have her avoid the teacher’s question by staring at the chalkboard or the motivational poster on the wall. And have the teacher take a deep breath to calm himself or lean closer to get the child’s attention.

You get the idea.

Add as much detail as you can without overpowering the dialogue—a balance that can be hard to find but will become more natural with practice.

In my next post, I dig a little deeper into examples of good and bad dialogue.

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