Moment By Moment

I got busted for this in my writing workshop last Wednesday. I commonly get busted for this. Thankfully, it is not (yet) a cookie-worthy offence[1]. Briefly stated, “moment-by-moment” is when a writer describes every action in minute detail.

“The sound of hoofs stopped. As Frodo watched he saw something dark pass across the lighter space between two trees, and then halt. It looked like the black shade of a horse led by a smaller black shadow. The black shadow stood close to the point where they had left the path, and it swayed from side to side. Frodo thought he heard the sound of snuffling. The shadow bent to the ground, and then began to crawl towards him.”

JRR Tolkien. The Fellowship of the Ring.

Sometimes, like in the passage above, this can be a good thing. A fight scene written in moment-by-moment is riveting. Moment-by-moment drags out the action which is why it’s great in an exciting scene since it can build tension. But in normal, run-of-the-mill, non-action scenes dragging the pace is not good. It’s a big mistake. Readers get bored. And bored readers become non-readers, at least of your book or story.

Something new was mentioned last Wednesday about moment-by-moment that led me to a slightly new perspective. A participant said that the real problem with bad MbM is that it contains a series of actions that do not support the continuation of the story. In other words, the things the characters are doing don’t advance the plot.

This got me thinking about teaching procedures in math class. Yes, this is how my mind works. I started to make a connection between writing a scene out in minute detail—first this happens, then this happens, then this other thing—and teaching a multi-step mathematical procedure—first you do this, then this, then you do this other thing.

Aha! I said. To myself. On the train. Very embarrassing really[2].

Is it any wonder students don’t remember procedures all that well when they are taught them by rote? It’s moment-by-moment teaching. The action (i.e. the steps of the procedure) that the characters (i.e. the numbers or maybe variables) are doing is not advancing the plot (i.e. the interesting problem my teacher should have assigned me instead of this crappy worksheet).

The obvious next question (at least to me) was “how can we harness the powers of MbM for good and not evil?” Well, first off, 1) we’ve got to make students care. Then, 2) we have to make this procedure a must-have for solving the problem. When we have arrived at that point, students will be on the collective edge of their seat waiting to see what happens next—well, theoretically at any rate. Given some of the reactions to the water tank problem, it seems that this idea isn’t nearly as farfetched as it sounds.

I admit to being a little uncertain about how to effectively implement steps 1) and 2) on a consistent basis, but once I’ve got those down, this moment-by-moment teaching is going to be a breeze.


[1] In my writing group certain writing no-no’s mean you’re bringing cookies the following week.

[2] Not really. But it’s funnier this way.

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2 thoughts on “Moment By Moment

  1. I’ve been thinking about this post most of the day and I really like it and I think you’re definitely right about the 1 and 2 so you must be on to something.

    I’m just not entirely sure I get the MbM analogy. It seems like for the good MbM LotR example, the MbM serves to build tension. It’s purposely delaying us. OTOH, it seems like teaching MbM would speed us along to help us get to our desired goal quicker. What am I missing here?

    • Thank you for your clarifying question, Jason.

      I think the key thing to realize with MbM, at least in terms of writing something, is that it can be really good. But it can also be really bad:

      “Vanessa stretched out her arm. Her fingers grasped the back of the chair. She drew it towards her. The chair’s metal feel scraped over the worn floorboards. She circled around the chair and sat down.”

      Everything in these five sentences can be said in five words: “Vanessa sat in the chair.” Without any context, this MbM doesn’t add to our storyline. Now, if we happened to know that Vanessa is about to come out as a lesbian to her Greek Orthodox parents and she believes that they will kick her out of the house as a result, it might then make sense to ramp up the tension. Or if Vanessa is an FBI interrogator about to interview a key suspect, again MbM might add to the scene. If she’s a normal woman out getting drinks with her friends, the MbM prevents us from connecting with the story by dragging out an unimportant and uninteresting moment.

      Now, procedures are by no means unimportant in math classes–please no one take that quote out of context!–but to students who don’t understand why they are completing a procedure, they can *feel* unimportant and uninteresting. So, while you point out that it can be “faster” to teach with MbM methods, I would argue that in the long run it actually takes longer. How many students come into a pre-calculus class with misconceptions about fractions? At this point in their schooling, students have “learned fractions” quite possibly every year for the past five years. But if they only know the procedure, and not why they are doing it and what it means to do this procedure, then oftentimes they don’t really understand.

      So, to sum this up, since I’m not sure if it’s any clearer yet, MbM in and of itself is not bad (or good). The issue is when you choose to employ it. Within the context of a good problem, and under a need-to-know basis MbM is great. That’s why Steps 1) and 2) are so critical (and hard). Also, I don’t know how realistic it is to only use MbM-teaching when you have this setting in your classroom. Logistics may dictate otherwise. But in the blogosphere, I can pretend we live in an ideal world.

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