Rhetorical Questions...Telling or Showing? #WriteTip

If deep POV is done well, then the thoughts, emotions, moods, and experiences of the character(s) are interweaved so invisibly into the scene that the reader can almost experience everything along with the narrator, rather than having it itemized or stated for them. But much too often whenever a writer wants to express some kind of emotion, like confusion or surprise in their characters, they will include several rhetorical questions.
While a rhetorical question can focus on a particular character’s inner-struggles, it should not be used instead of actually showing the characters’ emotions and/or reactions.

Rhetorical questions shouldn’t be used as a substitution for internal-dialogue or as the primary method for getting inside a character’s head. There are much more effective and subtle ways to reveal a character’s internal reaction, or wonderment, or curiosity about an event or conversation, rather than using an internal-question.

When I critique a novice writer’s work, I often find that when they want to express some kind of uncertainty or curiosity or self-doubt in a character, they will overuse rhetorical questions. These interrogatory instances are a shallow way of establishing tension, and letting the reader know an internal debate is taking place by stating the obvious. The problem is that the misuse of rhetorical questions can become intrusive if the character asks multiple questions on the same page, or every time the author wants the reader to question something along with the narrator, which can become blatantly repetitive.

While rhetorical questions can raise tension, only use them if necessary when you cannot describe the reaction any other way.

Basically, a rhetorical question can be a way of telling.

Here are a few examples that should help you revise your own writing…

SHALLOW: I looked at my best friend with anxiousness. Why was Mary so mad at me? What had I done?

DEEP POV: I stared at my BFF and chewed on my lip. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why Mary was so pissed. I hadn’t done a damn thing!

SHALLOW: Kent went down the stairs and into the basement and looked around the room that was dimly lit. What was Harold doing in the basement? Kent wondered.

DEEP POV: Kent crept to the bottom step of the basement stairwell and squinted into the dimness. Harold was up to something and Kent was going to figure out what.

SHALLOW: I went into the house very late past my curfew. Would my mom be waiting up for me? Would I be grounded for a month? I wondered.

DEEP POV: I snuck toward the house with my heart thumping. It was way past my curfew. If my mom was waiting up, then I was gonna be grounded for a month!

SHALLOW: She’d told the wizard that she only needed one wish, but he insisted on giving her three. Why would he do that? Was this some type of trick? Rainbow pondered to herself. What would she do with three wishes now?

DEEP POV: Rainbow scratched her head. She now had three wishes to use instead only one. Yet she wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or bad. Or if it was some type of wizardly trick.

I have included a few longer examples to further illustrate my point. (In the shallow example, the questions are in italics.)

Please carefully examine these examples…

SHALLOW: I saw a ghostly shape in the doorway. I tried to hold back a silent scream as I stepped backward. Why was there paranormal activity going on in my new home? Was I being haunted by a ghost?

DEEP POV: A ghost floated in the doorway. With a silent scream stuck in my throat, I backed up into the wall. Okay, so there was some obvious paranormal activity going on in my new home. And it would seem I was being haunted by a very scary-looking ghost.

Please carefully examine these examples…

SHALLOW: Shelton had asked me a lot of dumb questions on our first date. Where better for an interior decorator to live than in one the most high-class cities in the United States? And what is it about guys that made them give the coldshoulder to a woman who says that she likes to wander around bookstores? Doesn’t anyone like to read anymore? Then he doesn’t even ask me out again! Why even ask about my hobbies if he wasn’t interested in dating me?

DEEP POV: I rolled my eyes and took another sip of wine. My first date with Shelton hadn’t gone as well as I’d hoped. All those dumb questions about why I had moved to the city, and about my hobbies, and then snubbing me for being an avid reader.

I still wasn’t sure what the point of asking me all those questions was—if the jerk wasn’t even interested in a second date!

Too many rhetorical questions can deflate the tension of the moment. Writers should revise them whenever possible so that they are not in the form of a question. One clever way to do that is, if there two or more characters in a scene, then revise some of the inner-questions into actual dialogue. And it’s an awesome way to add tension and create turn-paging prose!

Please carefully examine these examples…

SHALLOW: Damon shook his head. He deliberated to himself as he put down his keys angrily on the table. Why was Jane so insistent on going to dinner tonight? Didn’t she understand that he was exhausted after a long day at work? Would it be too much to ask for Jane to think about his needs first for a change?

DEEP POV: Damon threw his keys down onto the table with a loud clang. He was being ambushed by Jane again.

“Damn it, Jane! Why are you so insistent on going to dinner tonight? Don’t you understand that I’m exhausted after a long day at work?” Damon shook his head. “Would it be too much to ask that you put my needs first for a change?”

Were the examples helpful?

Have you read a story were the author endlessly pestered the reader with internal questions laced throughout the narrative like an interrogator?

Or writers who are trying too hard to show doubt about something that happens or they question another character’s motives?

Or even strive to be funny or colloquial by using lots of inner-questions? Or breaking the tension by inserting questions every couple of paragraphs?

Were all those questions above getting redundant?

Of course, they’re annoying!

Prose littered with rhetorical questions can be really irritating for the reader. Consider it this way: inner-questions are not real questions, but rather a way to “tell” the reader what the character’s thought process is in the form of a question.

The exception to this guideline is when a writer wants to indicate sarcasm or humor. A few rhetorical questions laced into the narrative can really enhance a scene and strengthen a humorous “voice” when needed. And it can even be a necessity in some scenes where any other type of sentence just wouldn’t fit the moment.

There are no hard-and-fast rules regarding where or even when it’s appropriate to use a rhetorical question in your narrative. But it becomes rather clear when it’s one of the instances of telling rather than actually “showing.”

Experienced writers should understand that you need to do both, so I’m not stating that all rhetorical questions are wrong, but in my opinion they should be used with caution. And definitely don’t ask more than two rhetorical questions on the same page.

If you limit the use of internal questions and only include them on occasion, then it’s just another tool for your fiction writing toolbox.

Now I challenge writers to consider revising almost every question into showing a character’s doubt, confusion, unease, or surprise, etc., or turn it into actual dialogue whenever possible.
Tell me in the comments how you feel about internal-questions. 

Do too many bother you as a reader?

Do feel that you overuse them in early drafts?

Do have clever ways of revising them when polishing your manuscript? 


For more tips on ways to stay in a Deeper POV, please check out my guidebook, THE WRITER'S GUIDE TO CHARACTER EXPRESSION, which is now on sale.


1 comment

  1. Rhetorical questions are one of the big things that bug me when reading others work, I always direct them to this page because the examples make a lot of sense!


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