Questions. Questions.

I spend my life looking at what I’ve written and striking a line through my words. Writing is all about editing. Inevitably my critical eye transfers to other people’s work, whether published or not. I’m not a punctuation pedant and I barely know the difference between a noun and a verb (and while I’m at it, should that be barely or bearly? I really don’t know.)

But I do have some pet hates in other people’s writing and top of my list is rhetorical questions – questions asked outside of dialogue, that are not immediately answered.

Jessie cropped

Jessie by Aaron Blecha

It is as if the character is asking me, the reader, for my opinion and it takes me out of their viewpoint and the action. I always encourage writers I mentor to find an alternative way of expressing the doubt in a character’s mind. So …
‘What am I going to do about the train that is going to derail any minute?’ 
Could become
‘I didn’t know what I was going to do about the train that was going to derail any minute, but it was going to be messy.’
‘The train was about to derail any minute and I could do nothing about it.’

Sometimes writers bunch their rhetorical questions in a cluster.
‘I didn’t know what was going on. Why was Dad acting weird? Who was the guy with the scarred face? When was the pizza going to arrive?’

Too much uncertainty!

Mickey with questionmarks


I need to know that the character knows what’s going on or at least that the character knows that they don’t know.

It is the character’s problem, not mine. I’m rooting for them to fix the issue. I don’t want to have to do it for them and I don’t want to stop reading and wonder why Dad is acting weird.

Bunched rhetorical questions are often a sign that the author doesn’t know what is going on themselves. Which is okay in first drafts, when the writer is thrashing out the plot, but I think they should be ironed out in subsequent drafts. That’s what editing is all about, writing the story in the most compelling way and I find rhetorical questions take my attention away from the words written on the page.

For me, the very worst crime is posing a rhetorical question on page one. The opening of a novel should be about grabbing the reader’s attention, introducing a character we are going to love in a believable location. The writer needs to drag the reader away from the television and into the book.

The opening page is not the time to plant the seed of doubt in the reader’s mind.

What if the reader decides NOT to read on?
Help I'm An Alien

Artwork by Aaron Blecha

So are rhetorical questions completely banned? Of course not.

I thought I better check out where I used questions in my own work, so I opened my Help I’m an Alien manuscript and searched for ‘?’ There are 314 question marks in 28,000 words. Over three hundred of them appear in dialogue. Which is the best way to have your character raise a question. It’s not left hanging with no one to answer it. Even if the character’s best friend answers ‘I don’t know’, the question is contained within the story not dumped on the reader.

Another great way to use a question is as a cliff hanger at the end of a chapter
‘Was she trying to tell me I was adopted?’

Or when the character is questioning someone else’s motives. When my character is accused of being an alien by his sister he poses the question in his head and provides an immediate answer.
‘What did she mean? Aliens didn’t exist.’
He is doubting her, not himself.Another way I use questions in Help I’m an Alien is to directly ask the reader a question.
‘Who gives out oranges instead of sweets at Halloween?’
‘Did I mention, I always wanted a computer of my own?’
I use these questions because I want to collude with the reader on the unfairness of the world.
I think it’s worth running a search on ‘?’ in your own work. Where are you using questions? Why are you using questions? Could you rewrite that sentence in a more compelling way, rather than dumping the character’s anxiety on the reader?
My advice is to try and keep rhetorical questions to a minimum.
PS my critique group know that rhetorical questions are one of my pet hates. I point them out in their work all the time. I am a rhetorical question pedant.
My lovely critique buddy Alli Jeronimus wanted me to tell you that the other week I made a comment on her work ‘I think you should ask a rhetorical question here.’
She nearly killed me

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