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. 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.
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.
 In my writing group certain writing no-no’s mean you’re bringing cookies the following week.
 Not really. But it’s funnier this way.