Friday, December 11

"When" Are You Telling? The Trouble with When Statements

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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? 

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, 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, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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  1. Thanks Janice. I just did a word search for "when" in my first two chapters and found one that absolutely fits the "telling" category.
    I made the appropriate changes in light of your examples, and now have a much better scene to show for it.
    Sometimes these reminders really do the trick! Thank you!

  2. Great point! I've done searches for other 'telling' or filter words such as felt, saw, heard... but haven't really thought of the 'when' statement in this way.
    Thanks for the heads up.
    *back to MS & find function*

  3. I have to say, as I read this post, I had a repeated moment of Homer Simpson's "Doh" then the palm to the forehead. It seems so obvious shared here, the smooth difference in showing vs. telling. Now if I can only get that "smoothness" to translate into writing the perfect first draft :-). If not, I'll put wine on standby for each revision to follow.

  4. Virtuefiction, most welcome! That's why I keep a checklist of things to look for before I revise. Stuff you know not to do still slips in :)

    Kelley, to, with, and in are other red flag words as well. Also as can be a sneaky one.

    Angela, sounds like a good plan! I've given up trying for a perfect first draft. I think it's a myth :)

  5. Wow. Like Angela said, a total "Doh!" moment. Thanks for sharing this awesome tip!

  6. Oooh, I'll bet I have plenty of these in my manuscript. I'm adding "when" to my list of slash and burn words. At least that way I can review them and see if they're needed. Thanks!

  7. Thanks for sharing this. I'll have to watch for it.

  8. Thinking I might be guilty. Going to put this on my revision check list. Thanks for making us all better writers!

  9. Jenn, most welcome :)

    Julie, happy to help

    Natalie, you're welcome!

    Vicki, I aim to please

  10. Great tip, Janice, and explained so clearly it'll be easy to find these (as I'm sure I will) in my MS.

  11. I'm always amazed at how easy you make those changes seem. Great post, thanks!

  12. Hi Janice,
    I'm very careful about using the word "when". Thanks for the reminder to keep it in check.

  13. Excellent point. who would have thought that 4 letters could be responsible for so much "telling" vs 'Showing"?

  14. Janice, thanks for the great advice. Now that I am doing NaNo I am optimistic about getting to the point where I can actually revise something. You mentioned that "to, with, and in are other red flag words as well. Also as can be a sneaky one." Have you already done a post on these things to look for when revising AND given examples on how to fix the problem? If so, please send me the link.

    Thanks a bunch!

  15. Monica, it's easy to tweak them, too. Nice to have an easy fix for a change, hehe.

    Jae, most welcome. A lot of it is easy when you break it down to bite-sized pieces.

    Tracy, you're welcome!

    Carol, I know! "To" is another evil one. And even smaller :)

    Marti, I have three I've done (and I just realized I never linked to them in the post, my bad)

  16. If you have any questions about those just ask :)

    1. I have one, or rather three. First, are there times using "when" makes sense?

      Second, is it okay in dialogue, but used sparingly?

      Third, does tense play a role in using "when" in prose versus dialogue?

    2. You'd take context and use into account of course. Like everything in writing, there's no set-in-stone rule, as usage and intent matters and can change how it's read.

      When is a perfectly good word to use, it's just one of those words that is often found in told prose. So it makes a good red flag word to look for if you're getting feedback that your prose feels told. if you're not getting that feedback, odds are it's not a problem for you.

      Dialogue is fine, since characters are speaking, so you're probably not going to get that "faceless narrator from a distance explaining things" vibe. It makes perfect sense for someone to be telling a story and say "when Bob ran for the door...". They know what happened.

      Tense can play a role, and you'd have to decide if you're speaking of the past or referring to something that hasn't happened or is in the middle of happening (such as "when she went to leave...")

      When is typically only a problem when it turns an active, shown line into a passive, told line. And even then, if the author is going for a particular tone or feel, it can be acceptable.

  17. Such a small adjustment that makes a HUGE difference. Thanks.

    1. Most welcome. It's amazing how often the small things do that. :)

  18. I've been going through your amazing editing posts for the last hour, one article after the next...I had to laugh: it looks like Bob finally got the bite and became a zombie :D :D