Momentary Acts

Another common criticism I have of student writing is that it lacks "narrative detail;" that it's more of a plot summary than a story. What this means is that the sentences in the piece describe events or actions that take place over a long period of time, as opposed to something that a character does, says or perceives within a single moment in time. For example:

David went to school.

Although it contains a verb-of-doing and passes the Verb-of-Doing Test, this sentence does not describe a momentary act; "going to school" actually represents a whole series of individual actions (walking out of the house, locking the door, waiting for the bus, etc.) that, in total, can take a very long time. Let's say it takes David an hour to get to school; the sentence therefore summarizes an entire hour of time, and all of the things David did, said, saw, heard, thought and perceived during that hour.

To provide
narrative detail, we need to present David's journey to school as a series of momentary acts, singular moments in time that combine to form the whole:

David carefully closed and locked the door behind him, making sure to do it quietly so he wouldn't wake his father up. Stuffing his keys into his jacket pocket, he turned and looked out into the morning air, taking in the sights of the city as he had done every morning of his life. He felt the sun warm his face and squinted his eyes from the glow, then hurried down the steps and leaned on the corner lamppost to wait for the bus.

Notice that each sentence contains at least one momentary act; each sentence shows something that David did, saw, thought, or perceived within a single moment in time.

Note also that much of the passage contains descriptive detail which helps to establish setting.

Keep in mind that the
entire piece does not necessarily need to be written this way. Any background or setup material can be written in more general terms, but the essence of the story, the story itself, should be written like this, with as much narrative and descriptive detail as possible, in order to capture the experience for the reader.

When writing a narrative,
each and every sentence must contain a verb-of-doing, but more than that, those verbs-of-doing need to represent momentary acts; something the character does, says, sees, hears, thinks, remembers, etc., during one single moment in time.

Here's another example:

Sonia got ready to leave.

No momentary act here; the sentence summarizes a series of actions over a period of time.

Sonia checked her watch again, nervously wondering what traffic would be like once she got onto the expressway. She placed the note on the kitchen table, standing it on end so Jeff would be sure to see it, then lifted her purse from the chair and dropped in her cell phone and Palm Pilot. After checking her lipstick with the help of the chrome-sided toaster, and making sure all the appliances were turned off, she yanked her coat from the rack by the door and folded it over one arm, grabbing her purse as she rushed out onto the slush-covered sidewalk.

Again, the passage shows what the original, single sentence summarized, by presenting it as a series of momentary acts, thoughts and perceptions, all attributed to the character.

See also:
Show, Don't Tell
Verbs of Doing
Establishing Setting
Revealing Character

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