Creating The Illusion Of Action: Verb Density

By Jody Lisberger

Spalding MFA Faculty

I’ve been thinking recently about a kind rejection note I received a few weeks ago. The editors wrote: “We have decided to pass on this one. We think it’s a compelling story and certainly worth developing, but the narration is a little internal (it’s not flushing out as much as it could) and there could be more external action… We hope you’ll consider us in the future.”

Now, if you’re someone for whom thoughts are very active and who believes our minds are animated sometimes more than our lives, you can probably guess a part of my reaction. First was my gratefulness for this useful feedback. I can literally mak

But I also heard myself asking, “Well, what about Lily Briscoe? All she does in To The Lighthouse is try to finish her painting. One meager stroke. Or what about Isabel Archer in that famous chapter 42, the number and bold Roman numerals of which I still remember 30 years after reading Portrait of a Lady? Were those novels full of external action? What about the life of the mind?” How does a writer make an “interior” story more “active”?

As I find my old copies of Woolf and James—authors I initially studied for a Ph.D. in English, with little awareness of how fiction craft underlies their brilliance—I’m not surprised to discover how verb density creates the illusion of action in moments when there is none.

For instance, when Lily Briscoe is feeling the oppression of her own “poverty of spirit” in the face of Mrs. Ramsay’s charms and Paul’s decision to find Minta’s lost brooch, we read (I will boldface the verbs): “Lily wanted to protest violently and outrageously her desire to help him, envisaging how in the dawn on the beach she would be the one to pounce on the brooch half-hidden by some stone, and thus herself be included among the sailors and adventurers” (102). I realize the adverbs, which Stephen King warns agai

In fact, not just verbs but these “verb traces,” I’ll call them, are constant in Woolf’s moments where nothing is happening. For instance, as Lily tries to figure out how to respond to Mr. Ramsay’s thoughts on going to the lighthouse, Woolf writes: “All Lily wished was that this enormous flood of grief, this insatiable hunger for sympathy, this demand that she should surrender herself up to him entirely, and even so he had sorrows enough to keep her supplied for ever, should leave her, should be diverted (she kept looking at the house, hoping for an interruption) before it swept her down in its flow. Surprisingly, perhaps, 27% of this sentence carries verb power as it activates Lily’s immobility.

Now add in the “verb traces”—many of this sentence’s nouns and adjectives could be verbs in another context and/or conjure up strong verb power—and one begins to see how verb power is exponential. Flood, grief, insatiable, hunger, sympathy, demand, sorrows, interruption, flow—these all conjure up strong verb traces or verb relatives (grief/grieve, insatiable/satiate, sympathy/sympathize, etc.) These words embolden verb density: “All Lily wished was that this enormous flood of grief, this insatiable hunger for sympathy, this demand that she should surrender herself up to him entirely, and even so he had sorrows enough to keep her supplied for ever, should leave her, should be diverted (she kept looking at the house, hoping for an interruption) before it swept her down in its flow. Remarkably, 43% of this sentence carries action power even though nothing is happening.

Isabel Archer, in her fam

These are but a few examples Spalding MFA students, who have heard Crystal Wilkinson’s exhortation to “underline your verbs,” would smile at. Wilkinson’s new novel, The Birds of Opulence (2016), exemplifies such verb density and attains verb power not only through the characters’ actions and inactions, but also through her choice to let descriptive elements be

Wilkinson also offers the important lesson of using yearning in inactive moments to convey action. Thus, in real action, “[Mona] pulls the car off the road and parks. She removes her heels and places them in the passenger’s seat, places her silver earrings in the small compartment below the ashtray…” but notice how her inaction moment has more verb power than her action section: [“she] sits in the car until she sees a glimpse of her mother at the window. She’d like to have thought she could determine from this distance if her mother’s diabetes is any better, if her cataracts have healed, how her failing kidneys are functioning. Each time she does this, she wishes later that she’d just gone up to the formidable Francine Clark’s front door and knocked, said “Mama, I’m home,” but she never does. She is not that kind of daughter” (182). One could also notice how Wilkinson, Woolf, and James all use negative space (never, not, etc.) to enhance the illusion of action, too, but that’s a blog for another time.

I often invite my students, as they think about verb power, to remember this old New Yorker back cover cartoon. It’s good for a few laughs and a very important lesson.


Jody Lisberger’s stories have been published in Fugue, Michigan Quarterly Review,Confrontation, Louisville Review, Timberline Review, The Fem, and Thema and have also won prizes at Quarterly West (finalist) and American Literary Review (third). Her 2008 story collection Remember Love was nominated for a National Book Award. She’s currently revising a novel called You Don’t Know the Half Of It and assembling a story-novella collection called House Pets and Other People. She lives in Rhode Island where she’s an Associate Professor in Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Rhode Island, along with being on the fiction faculty of the low residency MFA in Writing Program at Spalding University (Louisville). 

Photo credits:

Virginia Woolf: detail from her final session with a professional photographer, Gisèle Freund Photo: Gisèle Freund/IMEC/Fonds MCC, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-features/10914210/The-last-photograph-of-Virginia-Woolf.html

Henry James: http://www.escritopara.es/tag/henry-james/

Crystal Wilkinson: Ronald Davis

Brain at work: https://blog.bufferapp.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/brain-power1.jpg

For more information about our program, students and faculty, please visit our Spalding MFA website or email us at MFA@spalding.edu.

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