This is my second year serving as a judge for the Colorado Gold contest (which I highly recommend, for a number of reasons—but that’s a story for another blog post). After judging a dozen or so entries, I noticed I was making the same comment on almost every single manuscript: I didn't feel grounded enough.
Lack of grounding is sometimes referred to as "white room syndrome," because without sufficient setting details, a scene can feel like it’s taking place in an empty, white-walled room. But the lack of grounding isn't just a setting issue. Readers need sufficient information on other elements, such as character, conflict, and genre, to be fully immersed in the scene. At best, lack of grounding causes readers to feel like they're watching a scene from a distance rather than living it along with the characters. At worst, it causes readers to be too confused to turn the page.
So how do you achieve that elusive sense of grounding? Start by asking yourself the five W questions about your scene:
Where is it set? This applies to the macro and micro level. Is it set on Earth? In America, or Antarctica? In a big city or small town? Inside a building, on a train, in a cornfield, in an underground tunnel?
When is it? This also has macro and micro elements. Is it present-day? WWII era? Prehistoric? Is it the middle of the night? Sunrise? Dinnertime?
Who is in the scene? This doesn’t just mean describing the main character; you must also provide a sense of anyone else present. Is Mr. Protagonist sitting on the couch by himself, or is his wife sitting beside him? Are they alone, or is there a cocktail party full of people going on around them?
What are they doing, and why? If your character is digging a hole, he might be planting a rose bush or burying a body. If she’s racing to the hospital, she could be a surgeon who’s late for an operation, or she could be pregnant and going into labor.
Remember to look at these questions from the perspective of a reader. You, the writer, know the answers to all of these and more—but from the first page, or even the first paragraph, does the reader know?
Of course, grounding is no excuse for info dumping or over-choreography. The reader doesn’t need to know that the main character is 42 years old, 5’9” tall, 160 lbs, with shoulder-length chestnut hair, gray-green eyes, a square chin, and long fingernails. The reader doesn’t need to know she’s sitting behind a desk in room 212 on the second floor of Corporation, Inc. in Blahville, USA on March 22nd, 2016. The reader just needs a few key details to get a flavor of these things. For instance, you can show the character is middle-aged by showing a picture of her 12-year-old son. You can hint that she lives in the present day by mentioning her computer or smartphone.
Then, you can make the scene come alive by adding concrete, memorable details. Instead of “She had long fingernails,” try “Her glittery glue-ons clicked with every letter she typed.” Instead of “She worked in an office,” try “Her windowless cube farm felt live a cave.” Find details of character and setting that are dynamic, rather than static—things that can be incorporated into action, things that can be described with active verbs rather than the life-sucking “was.” Instead of “Her skirt was black,” try “Her black skirt clung to her as if it had been painted on.” When your descriptors pack more punch, they’ll stick better in your reader’s memory.
I’ve seen many writers get halfway there: they do a good job grounding the reader, but too late. Imagine you’re reading along, envisioning a fair-haired boy walking through a forest—only to discover 10 pages later that the character is actually a bald 50-year-old walking around a cruise ship. It’s jarring, and it pulls you out of the story. When we read something that isn't fully grounded, our brain automatically fills in some of the gaps. It's jarring when we realize we've filled them in wrong, and we have to tear down and rebuild the entire scene in our mind.
This applies to genre as well. When readers encounter white room syndrome, they’ll usually fill in the gaps with a contemporary setting by default. Imagine their shock when, pages later, they realize the story is set in a space-bubble orbiting Saturn, or the human female they were envisioning turns out to be a centaur-cyborg hybrid. Not only do they have to rebuild the setting in their mind, they also have to grapple with an entirely different genre. Readers want a sense, from the first page, of what kind of story they’re diving into—and if you don’t provide that, they’ll be ungrounded.
As writers, we have a painfully short window of opportunity to hook readers before they put our books down forever. The good news is, if you work hard on grounding, you can immerse readers on page 1 and never let them go.