Assisting Students to Appreciate SMALL MOMENTS in Time When Writing

The stories we tell others and eventually write about often emerge out of small moments, in which there is only time enough to perform a brief task or action. Think of things that happen in your life that, while taking only a moment of your day, assume great significance.

One way to begin teaching inexperienced writers to appreciate the power of ‘small moments is to read aloud a small extract from a book. A carefully chosen excerpt can help children better understand what it means to write about a small moment within a bigger story. To slow down the action and meander about in the moment. The writer may also attach importance to a small moment to build tension and illustrate the significance of the event to the overall story. Writers don't apportion the same amount of attention to every detail within the story. The story ebbs and flows. The writer controls the speed and the attention given to various aspects of the story.  

Chris Van Allsburg is skilled at focusing on one small moment and describing it in detail. This approach is difficult to achieve for many young writers who tend toward abstraction.  Each detail is given equal time. We see it reflected in their recounting of events on an almost daily basis.

Van Allsburg's art of description is useful when talking to your students about focusing on small moments. For example in the book Just A Dream he writes:

As usual, Walter stopped at the bakery on his way home from school. He bought one large jelly-filled doughnut. He took the pastry from its bag, eating quickly as he walked along. He licked the red jelly from his fingers. Then he crumpled up the empty bag and threw it at a fire hydrant.

This passage tells readers a great deal about Walter's character by focusing on one instant in his life. After sharing this extract It is useful to ask the students to tell a partner the details they recall from the text. The action described is short in terms of real time, but it reveals much about Walter's character.

 Use your own writing to show children how you write about small moments across several paragraphs (even pages) to make the moment feel important and interesting.

Another great example of writing about small moments appears in Roald Dahl's, 'The Twits' where the author devotes an entire chapter to describing Mr Twit's beard. Dahl stays with the moment. He considers this aspect of the character important enough to devote many words to describing the beard. It is also a great example of an author using the strategy of 'show, don't tell.'

Encourage young writers to take their writing pieces and stretch their small moments into even longer stories.

 Start them thinking about the techniques that authors use. Authors use details to stretch out those small moments. This is something we must reinforce with student writers before getting them to write about their own small moments.

I am currently working with students across two schools who are writing memoir pieces. I am impressing upon them how important it is explore the small moments in their pieces.  Otherwise the reader remains shut out and the writing lacks an essential connection for the reader. Notice how the author of this piece, Peter Fitzsimons writes around a small, yet important small moment in his life:

'One day I was walking with Dad just down from the house and we see a whole new batch of baby chickens wobbling around in our chook yard, leaving only one unhatched, still struggling to get out if its shell. Dad and I see its little wet leg poking out from the crack, vainly trying to make that crack bigger. When I ask Dad if I can help get the chicken out, my Father tells me no- that if the baby chicken does not have sufficient strength to get out of the shell then it wont be able to make it in the world anyway, whereas by struggling to emerge from its shell it is also hardening itself up to cope with whatever the world can throw at it. That baby chicken, he says is going to have to get out on its own, and there is a good reason why the mother hen doesn’t peck away at the shell herself.'

From: A Simpler Time, Peter Fitzsimons

Don't forget, not everyone who meanders is lost. Teaching about small moments is important...


  1. I know this well, but appreciate your deliberate, specific telling of why the writer does it, and how. Thanks for the details!


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