The offensive “long moment”

A “moment” is by definition a brief span of time–usually very brief. As a result, the phrase “a brief moment” would be redundant.

Why, then, does one so often encounter the awkward phrase “a long moment,” especially in fantasy fiction? Isn’t a “long moment” an oxymoron?

Let me issue a disclaimer. I developed my tastes as a reader from old classics. As a child, we had almost no reading material in the house, and our trips to the library were occasional at best. Consequently, I was exposed to almost no literature outside of school. Mass market paperbacks were unknown to me. Which is to say that for the longest time I thought all books had a certain high quality, particularly of style and expression.

So when I began reading fantasy as an adult, I was appalled by certain phrases, certain lazy writing habits. This one, the “long moment,” for some reason ranks as one of my pet peeves. I can almost pinpoint the reason: I somehow wrote that very phrase in an early, awkward draft of one of my own stories. I obliterated it later, at the editing stage–with a certain venom, I might add–only to discover (subsequently) that even some of the most accomplished fantasy authors are guilty of the atrocity.

Let me define some terms. I have already noted that a “moment” is by definition very brief. By contrast, a “while” is an undesignated span of time; it can be contracted (“For a short while, I thought …”) or expanded (“For a long while, I thought …”) without hurting anyone. Similar to “while” is “time.” You can do something “for a short time” or “for a long time.”

So what, one may ask, is the advantage of an offensive “long moment” when the innocent “long while” and “long time” are available? Here is my guess, based on the usage I’ve observed. When a writer wants to call attention to a particularly pregnant moment, a period that may be of brief duration but within which time seems to slow down, and if moreover that writer is working in the fantasy genre, then the “long moment” can be trotted out to do duty for the task.

However, as I said before, this is laziness. So I offer here some alternatives, for what it’s worth.

Fantasy novel: “For a long moment, Durga was silent.”
Alternative 1: “A long silence followed.”
2: “Durga fell silent.”
3: “Durga seemed to bite back her words. She said nothing.”

In each of these, not only is the dreaded phrase “a long moment” avoided, but something valuable is given in its place. #1 is the least interpretive; it lets the reader fill in the blank regarding Durga’s motives. Even so, it sets up the reader to hear whatever comes next as the result of Durga’s deliberations, without requiring an omniscient narrator.

#2 is somewhat similar to #1 in that the reader has room to interpret the silence. But it calls attention to something in the situation or perhaps the words that came just before the silence, rather than the deliberations that lead to whatever comes next. #3 simply takes this further.

Any of these, or some variation upon them, would not only be more pleasing to those of us who care about the meaning of words, but also would carry the action forward more effectively in the process. Let’s take another example.

Fantasy novel: “Hrothgar and Brulia gazed at each other for a long moment.”
Alternative 1: “Hrothgar and Brulia gazed at each other.”
2: “Hrothgar’s eye met Brulia’s, and the world went hazy.”
3: “Something passed between Hrothgar and Brulia, which neither words nor time could contain.”

I don’t especially like any of these, partly because I dislike the unskillful invention of names (like Brulia) in fantasy literature. Tolkien could do it, but he was a linguist. For the rest of us, a quick peek at “Baby Names” on the internet will disclose countless names of old English, Celtic, Norse, Hebrew, Algonquin, or whatever origin, which are hardly in use and have the ring of authenticity about them. But that’s beside the point.

Alternative #1 has the advantage of remembering that the word “gaze” means a lengthy, intense stare. This makes the additional, offensive phrase “for a long moment” entirely unnecessary.

#2 may be bordering on a cliche itself; but something like it would imply the passage of a pregnant moment, without coming out and saying it. This would be an example of “show don’t tell” at work. Don’t tell me it was a long moment (since such a thing is an oxymoron); show me how (in what way) the moment was pregnant.

#3 simply takes that further, into a melodramatic climax, I admit. But in the right situation, it might work. For instance, if Hrothgar and his poorly named consort were just here falling in love.

Other options are always available. You could write “for several moments” instead of “for a long moment.” You could just put, “for a long time”; you might be surprised how little you’ll miss the connotation of a pregnant moment. And of course there’s that phrase itself: “for a pregnant moment” or “a pregnant moment passed,” though I don’t find these very appealing. Point is, there are many and better options that don’t murder the English language.

That’s my advice, although no one asked. I feel better now. And that’s what blogs are for, isn’t it?


4 thoughts on “The offensive “long moment”

  1. It’s still quite an odd construct but I think it’s a sign of an author’s struggle to capture a span of time without an anachronistic reference to a post medieval time unit.

    Kudos for not tossing in seconds or minutes, though. Such things require not just clocks but fairly precise clocks and are out of place in many (but certainly not all) fantasy settings. Until clocks, people didn’t really divide time up into anything more than vague hours or not at all.

    • Thanks, that’s a good point (though I’ve even seen this in urban fantasy and sci-fi now). You’re quite right that prior to mechanical clocks and railroad schedules (i.e. the industrial revolution), there wasn’t this obsession with or awareness of time units (like seconds).

      If you think about it, the effort to capture that sense of time in a fantasy world that lacks the measurement of time with that precision is a failure to enter into the world as it would be experienced by a character in that world. So I agree, that might be another motive for the “long moment”; but not, in my book, a very good one.

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