Using the Rhetorical Question in Fiction Writing

I often see fiction writers use the rhetorical question in their manuscripts to ramp up story tension and get readers more engaged. Or so they think. Is this a worthwhile strategy? Or is the presence of a rhetorical question in your prose just a copout? (Do you see what I did there?)

rhetorical question, rhetrocial question in writing
Don’t just ask the rhetorical question, answer it.

Rhetorical Questions Do Not Help Character

Instead of asking a bunch of questions, I’m going to give you some statements. I don’t believe questions help further character or plot. They aren’t specific. They aren’t mysterious. They are a shortcut to doing the hard work of writing your story.

Not sure what I mean by a rhetorical question when it comes to the fiction or writing craft. Here are some rhetorical question examples:

But could she be trusted?

What would happen if he let himself believe?

Would it be worthwhile for her to follow the imp down the path?

I would imagine writers believe there to be a lot of mystery in rhetorical questions, and a lot of tension. But to my trained eye, they’re much ado about nothing because they don’t communicate a lot of substance.

How Do I Get Around Rhetorical Question Use?

In my editorial work, I push clients to go further. If you know a juicy, meaty, potentially emotionally engaging question to ask in your prose—answer it instead.

This forces you to plant your character’s flag one way or the other, decide, and then move on based off of that decision. Otherwise, characters can swirl around in an endless stream of questions without ever taking a definitive stance. You will likely not get character buy-in on crucial issues, and you are much more vulnerable to the deadly sin of flip-flopping that way.

Imagine if we addressed the rhetorical question examples above more directly instead:

He wanted to trust her, but he just didn’t. Not right now. She’d have to earn it.

Believing in magic was risky. It was foolish. It went against everything he’d been taught his entire life—everything his family worked so hard to protect. Order. Logic. Reality. But here, he saw magic in front of him, as real as his own reflection. If he let himself believe, he’d have to change his entire concept of himself. For the first time, that didn’t seem so scary.

She considered whether or not to follow the imp. Sure, she could play it safe. But then she’d never know. Everyone kept saying that she needed to listen to her heart. Well, her heart was telling her to take this once-in-a-lifetime chance.

Instead of questions, we have characters declaring themselves. Weighing their options. Considering the issues in more depth. Coming to decisions.

Nothing Rhetorical About It

At the end of the day, you’re the writer. It’s your job to present the story, put the issues out there, and lead readers through the character’s decision-making process so that we get to know that character on a deeper level.

I’ve recently had a rash of manuscripts where writers are relying too much on the rhetorical question in important moments—in essence, asking the reader to create part of the story and do the character’s heavy lifting.

Instead, answer these questions where you find them in your manuscript. You’ll be rewarded in terms of depth and nuance and a better understanding of your character and story, which you can them transmit to your readers.

Struggling with asking the right questions? With answering them? Partner with me as your developmental editor, and we’ll get down to the marrow of your fiction together.

8 Replies to “Using the Rhetorical Question in Fiction Writing”

  1. I often see the advice to avoid “distancing” words and phrases such as, “he wanted,” “she considered,” “he wondered,” “she knew,” etc. because they take the reader out of the character’s “deep” point of view. So, when I write a question like “Could she trust him?” it is often because I’m trying to stay deep in the character’s perspective and not “distance” the reader. I don’t really have a strong opinion for or against this in general, but I wonder about your thoughts on how this seems to conflict with the common advice about distancing.

    1. Mary Kole says:

      I think “Could she trust him?” and “She couldn’t trust him—not after what he did” are both explorations of the idea of trust without using distancing, yet one is much more specific than the other because it doesn’t leave the question largely up to the reader.

      I only use one distancing phrase (“She considered”) in the above examples of expanding on rhetorical questions. I think distancing phrases are one way to put direct thoughts on the page and aren’t necessarily verboten. Consider this: https://kidlit.com/2016/01/18/formatting-interiority/

      I think that you can avoid rhetorical questions AND distancing phrases. How about that? 😉

  2. Alice Fleury says:

    I try very hard not to have my protagonist question. I appreciate your response as to avoiding the question. Thanks.

  3. Thanks for this! I’ve been conscious of this tendency in my own writing ever since reading an agent’s guidelines that mentioned she thinks rhetorical questions are “twee.” I appreciate the constructive suggestions on how to avoid them!

  4. Keith Elias says:

    This makes total sense, and when I tackled this head-on in my manuscript I was rewarded with a much richer moment. I love that you don’t just point out problems in these posts. You offer solutions.

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