Tag Archives: voice tags

Tips from the MFA pit – Part One

Readers of this blog may have noted I teach in an MFA in Creative writing program. From day one students work on what will eventually become their thesis, as well as study the history of their chosen genre, their work process, and a few other writing subjects. Along the way, I dispense advice on all of the above, and dang it! if now and then I’m just chock full ‘o wisdom. I’d like to share a few of those pearls, and what follows is ACTUAL ADVICE FROM A REAL-LIVE MFA MENTOR! To a real-live student (who shall remain nameless lest anyone find out she’s actually listening to me…) Today’s entry is on craft, starting with a lesson on those pesky Voice Tags, and ending with what’s commonly referred to as “Info Dumps…”

You say you hate using voice tags. Well, I don’t know of anyone who loves using them! The thing is it’s not the voice tag itself, as much as indicating in some way who’s doing the speaking. You can also do this by including an action or a reaction by the speaker. For example:
Lana fell back against the bed. “I can’t believe how tired I am.”
“There’s no place to go, so I may as well go home.” Then she closed the door behind her.
Or in a conversation…
Jane knew better than to argue with her sister. Amy, as the eldest,
always believed she was right. But when Amy said she’d rather stay home, Jane took it as the last straw.
Jane stared at her. “You can’t be serious.”
“You better believe I am.”
“But what about the kids?”
Amy shrugged. “They’ll have more fun without me.”
When you have a back-and-forth dialogue, it’s understood that each character takes a new line. You introduce the first character (Jane), then it’s understood, from a previous line of prose (Jane knew better…) that this would be a two way conversation. You just can’t let it go on too long without indicating the speaker, as the readers lose track and it becomes confusing.
Actually, you can write a whole book without using a voice tag doing the above. But sometimes you just have to use them. Especially in action scenes when you want your writing to be more immediate. Too much description can slow the story down. With action, you use short, clipped sentence to show immediacy, and strong voice tags add to the mood or action.
“Shut up,” he snapped, slapping her.
“Yes I’ll marry you!” she cried.
“I’ve never met anymore like you,” he whispered, his voice hot against her ear.
If you find yourself thinking hard and long about which voice tag to use, then you’re using too many variations of them. Use “said” for a statement, and “asked” for a question. Too many variations become clunky, and they draw attention to themselves. After a while, “said” and “asked” become invisible, and that’s what you want. In essence, only use them it its absolutely necessary for clarity.
As I noted before, you want your reader to ride along for the discovery of your plot, and if you “tell” it instead of “show” it, you’ll have your reader bored by page two. This is absolutely essential: you need to grab your reader on the first page. Even better than that – in the first paragraph. The first line. You can’t expect your reader—or an editor or an agent—to wait until Chapter Six for your story to take off. Because what you’re asking is for them to have all this background information in their head that they need to remember BEFORE they could follow your plot. It’s like asking them to learn how to read all the manuals on how to fly a plane before they could ride in one. Divulge your information on a need-to-know basis. Reveal the information as the characters live it. Don’t rob your readers of the delight of discovering it for themselves.