One of the more obvious forms of telling is the when statement. These phrases slip into the prose because the author knows what happens and describes the scene with that knowledge. Problem is, they usually convey too much in the wrong sequence, so that "when" sucks all the show out of the sentence.
If you're getting "it feels told" feedback, try checking your scene for when. Is your protagonist stating her motivations before she acts? Does the chronology feel out of whack? When statements can give the text a detached feel, as if the protagonist is explaining things after the fact and not actually participating in them. It slips into telling, even though it might feel like showing because it's describing action.
Look for sentences such as...
But when she tried to run for the door, Bob stopped her.The point of view character (POV) doesn't know Bob is going to stop her until he does (unless this is a retrospective novel). The when statement is outside watching the action, not being inside the POV's head experiencing it. It also clues the reader that something has happened before it actually has, which could rob the scene of its tension.
(Here's more on telegraphing your plot or action)
Try making the subtle change to...
She ran for the door and Bob stopped her.A tiny change, but see how the second example feels more active? The POV acts, and there's a response to that action--She runs, Bob stops her. Better still, why not take advantage of the conflict you've created and really up the tension...
She bolted for the door. Bob lunged for her, arms out, fingers raking the back of her shirt and grabbing the hem.Much more exciting than a boring when statement.
Like all told-prose words, you don't have to worry about when in a first draft. It's a good placeholder word that's easily searchable and allows you to keep writing when the muse is fired up. But it's a good word to look for during revisions and spot the opportunities to turn a told, ho-hum line into something exciting.
(Here are more red flag words for telling, not showing)
It's a small word, but doing a quick search for when statements is an easy way to tighten your manuscript and make your scenes more exciting. You'll be showing the action, not telling it.
How often do when statements slip into your writing? Do you check for them?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound