What You Can Learn from Rhetorical Questions in Your Manuscript

It is such an easy thing to do. Once you become aware of author intrusion and what that looks like in limited third person, first person, or deep POV, the easy workaround becomes a rhetorical question. A rhetorical question is used to create dramatic effect or make a point rather than elicit an answer. Instead of telling the reader how the character feels or inserting information into the story, you have the character wonder about the information instead.

Here’s a paragraph from a manuscript I’ve stuffed in a drawer. 

Laurel slunk deeper into her seat. The two other reporters and the admin glanced at her, but mostly they stared at their notebooks. She straightened in her seat and hooked her hair behind her ears. Why was everyone acting so sullen?

There it is. The rhetorical question that’s slipped in to replace the bit of author intrusion I had there. Problem solved, right? Maybe. Except, when I do a search for question marks, there’s 22 rhetorical questions in eight pages. TWENTY-TWO?? Hmmm…

I saw this trend of overusing rhetorical questions in my student’s work too and the question marks began jumping off the page at me. The problem is that the author intrusion or narrator voice we’re trying to avoid by using rhetorical questions ends up being a crutch that prevents us from taking that next step to go deeper with our character.

So I challenged myself to limit the rhetorical questions to one per chapter. One. And here are the benefits of stretching yourself in this way.

Rhetorical Questions Aren’t Wrong

Rhetorical questions have their place in internal dialogue, the goal shouldn’t be to completely eliminate them (mostly, rhetorical questions are fair game in dialogue). They can offer great surprise for the reader. 

But most of the time, the character’s rhetorical questions are offering information the reader already knows the character is thinking about. You’re repeating information instead of moving the story ahead. You’ve just tied an anchor to the pace of your novel right there. Why waste valuable space on the page repeating things the reader already knows?

Flip-Flopping

Readers want characters that stand for something. They want characters who have decided to press on towards a particular goal no matter what the cost – there’s no turning back. To do this well, your character needs to plant a flag, draw a line in the sand, pick a path, choose a side.

While we hope rhetorical questions help us create tension and uncertainty in characters (and therefore readers), over-using them allows the character to waffle. This waffling or hesitation makes the character harder to cheer for, harder to relate to. Instead, force them to be decisive and live with the consequences. Take a rhetorical question in your manuscript and have the character think of the answer to the question instead. For instance:

Could she trust him?

Could become: He’d betrayed her before and nothing stopped him from doing it again. But maybe he was her only chance at a relationship. The ache in her chest kicked up, a sharp penetrating throb over her sternum. No, she couldn’t trust him, but she didn’t trust herself to make a good decision either.

The rhetorical question is a shortcut that’s meant to increase tension, but many times the shortcut undermines the emotional potential in a scene. It’s a lost opportunity to go deeper. There’s more emotional depth to the answer than the rhetorical question offered.

Try Starting with the Rhetorical Question

Back-to-back rhetorical questions point to weak writing or undeveloped characters. I’m a pantser at heart, so my first drafts are riddled with rhetorical questions. Case in point:

But could she do it? Could she go back to the farm—to him? Could they fix their marriage? Did she even want to?

I have begun to see these paragraphs as fluorescent sticky tabs marking a place I need to revisit and go deeper with the emotions.  

In revisions, get curious about how the character would answer those questions. Start with the rhetorical question as a launching point for going deeper. What are the implications of one or more possible answers? 

In the paragraph above, the female character is trying to decide if she should give her marriage another chance. There’s so much depth to plumb there. If she goes back to him, what kind of person does that make her? Would her opinion of herself change if it doesn’t work out? Why is it so hard to decide – what’s at risk? What parts of herself are upset and why is she refusing to listen to them? What would a stronger person do? Why can’t she do that? 

Are the Rhetorical Questions Always Coming from One Character?

This was a pretty humbling question to ask myself, because I saw a trend in my first drafts where there was always one POV character who overused rhetorical questions to an embarrassing level. The other POV characters would have a reasonable use of rhetorical questions, but there would be one with back-to-back paragraphs of rhetorical questions. *womp womp*

Has this happened to you too? It’s a signal to me that I don’t know my character well enough. I don’t know WHY they’re doing/thinking certain things, what’s motivating them, what emotions are involved or at risk, or even what they really want. The rhetorical questions allowed me to waffle and skim, to avoid the hard work of going deeper. I had to stop being a lazy writer and get curious about aspects of this character I didn’t have an answer for yet. 

Going deeper with the emotions in a scene allows the reader to connect with the character. Rhetorical questions can be a great starting point to diving deep into emotions, so don’t be discouraged if you find quite a few. Just nod. Maybe do a search and highlight what you find. This is a new starting point. OK, I know what that’s about now and I know how to fix it.

Are you going to do NaNoWriMo? The mini-course on layering emotions in deep point of view is available on my website. It’s a combination of written lessons, PDFs, videos, and ideas for homework to help apply what you’ve learned. 

Lisa Hall-Wilson

Resident Writing Coach

If Lisa had a super-power it would be breaking down complicated concepts into digestible practical steps. Lisa loves helping writers “go deeper” and create emotional connections with readers using deep point of view! Hang out with Lisa on Facebook at Confident Writers where she talks deep point of view.
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This entry was posted in Characters, Emotion, Motivation, Pacing, Resident Writing Coach, Revision and Editing, Writing Craft. Bookmark the permalink.
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tripsymcstumble
tripsymcstumble
1 month ago

Thanks so much. I constantly use rhetorical questions in my writing as a crutch. I kept wondering “Is this good writing?” (haha). I couldn’t put my finger on how to replace them. Your examples really help.

E J Randolph
1 month ago

Cool Article. I was heading in this direction, but this article confirms what I was doing. And, yes, you are so right. We can come up with some amazing things we didn’t know was in our character’s heads. It’s fun.

M. Lee Scott
M. Lee Scott
1 month ago

Lisa, definitely one of your best posts! Like you are looking over my shoulder to make sure I’m using deeper POV instead of taking the shortcut. I will be checking out my manuscript during edits to make my writing the best it can be.

Lisa Hall-Wilson
1 month ago
Reply to  M. Lee Scott

Glad it was helpful! l

ANGELA ACKERMAN
Admin
1 month ago

You gave me some good food for thought here, Lisa. First, I never thought about how many times I might use retoricals and if I overuse them (great idea to look for question marks!) and second, I have to ask myself if I use them to waffle too much when I should be going deeper. Thank you!

Lisa Hall-Wilson
1 month ago

I saw them overused in the work I was critiquing and saw why they were being over-used. And when I looked at some of my own first drafts I saw the same issue. I love it when something new pops out at me to take my writing even deeper.