Rhetorically Speaking

If you've done any sort of research into the "rules" of query-writing, you've probably come across advice to avoid rhetorical questions. "Agents hate them." "It leaves the door open to readers answering in ways you didn't intend." (These are both true, by the way.)

 The duck does not like rhetorical questions.

The duck does not like rhetorical questions.

 

But the use of rhetoricals doesn't stop at the query. In fact, many many writers use them in their manuscripts as well.  And just as with queries, it can actually undermine your writing and weaken tension and impact.

Are rhetoricals in narrative always bad? Nope. 

In fact, this is where I provide my obligatory Writing Advice Caveat:

No rule is an absolute.

Now that we've gotten that out of the way, and before we get too far, let's discuss what a rhetorical question actually is.

Let's talk examples:

A query might open with something like: Have you ever wondered what the world would be like if everyone was forced to wear a banana suit every day?
Or close with: Will Becky be able to overcome her fears and love again? Or will she hide behind her banana suit forever?
In a manuscript, a rhetorical might appear as: Trish sat across from me, the table spanning wide between us, her face blank. Didn't she know what her words did to me? Did she not care about me at all?

As with all rhetorical questions, this is designed to incite curiosity in the reader. Often, it does the exact opposite, whether it appears in your query or your manuscript's narrative.

By Definition

My friend Merriam defines "rhetorical question" thusly:

A question not intended to require an answer

That definition. Ouch. So what does that say about the questions in our query and narrative above? It says we don't actually expect the reader to answer them. 

Which, is the truth. 

There are approximately 300million places you can read about rhetorical questions in queries, so I'm going to focus on why it's better to eliminate them in your narrative. And we're going to start with that definition.

So Why Do We Ask Them?

We don't actually expect the reader to answer these questions. When we write them, we're trying to get them to think. We want those questions to rattle around in their heads. We want the tension of them not knowing the answers.

Marla said Eric was at the bar that night. The security tape showed a car just like his leaving the lot. Could he have taken Jamie then? Put something in her drink and carried her out before anyone noticed?
I plaster myself to the wall, gouging the pads of my fingers on the rough brick. Did he track me here? If I move, allow myself even a sip of breath, will he find me?

In the first example want the reader to wonder if our character's suspicions are true--we want them to take her evidence and decipher it.  In the second, we want to know if our brave character is done for! 

Instead...

Losing Reader Confidence

You're the writer, so you're the one who's supposed to have the answers. We want readers to be swept away in our books. We want them to lose track of time because they're immersed so deeply in our worlds they don't notice the sun has set and dinner is long past overdue. 

Posing rhetorical questions can pull readers from that wave we've swept them away on. We're no longer leading them along, we're asking for directions. 

It feels almost a bit timid, unsure. Dear reader, Do you think the Bad Man is going to find our character? Do you think if she moves, he'll find her?

Except we're not expecting them to know. In fact, there's no way they could know. Otherwise, they wouldn't need to read the book. What we're left with then, is a question they can't answer, which leads to....

Reader Frustration

Imagine yourself, engaged in lovely conversation, with your astrophysicist friend. (If you're actually an astrophysicist, pretend I said rocket scientist. If you're both, I'm not sure you're human.) You like astrophysics, and you're happy to hear all the fun new things your friend is telling you.

Then they start asking you questions. Questions about magnetohydrodynamics or evolution of stellar dynamics. Or maybe it's string cosmology and astroparticle physics. After every question, you mumble, "I don't know," or "I have no idea, Becky, I'm not an astrophysicist," and yet Becky keeps slipping these questions into your otherwise lovely conversation.

At some point, you're going to get annoyed. At some point, being repeatedly faced with questions you have no hope of answering is going to get frustrating.

That's what happens when pose them to our readers. They'll be met with a internal (and often subconscious) shrug and an "I have no idea, why don't you tell me?" at best, a "How the hell am I supposed to know?" at worst.

angry panda.gif

 

Revision Time

Let's fix our first example:

Before: Trish sat across from me, the table spanning wide between us, her face blank. Didn't she know what her words did to me? Did she not care about me at all?
After: Trish sat across from me, the table spanning wide between us, her face blank. She knew what her words did to me. She knew, and she didn't care at all.

Well lookie there. We have a very different excerpt now, don't we?

Losing the rhetoricals forces us to take a stand. We're no longer asking the reader if Trish cares, we're leading them. We're using our main character, seeing through her eyes,  feeling through her, and she knows whether Trish cares or not. She knows she doesn't. 

Before: Marla said Eric was at the bar that night. The security tape showed a car just like his leaving the lot. Could he have taken Jamie then? Put something in her drink and carried her out before anyone noticed?
After: Marla said Eric was at the bar that night. The security tape showed a car just like his leaving the lot. But he couldn't have taken Jamie then, not without those same cameras catching a glimpse of him carrying her to the car. And the bouncers knew Jamie. They would never let her leave if she was drugged.

Again, we're forced to take a stand. Forced to use data to back up our character's thinking. We can still puzzle things out, and lead the reader through our character's hypotheses and thought processes, but we're not asking them to answer impossible questions anymore. We're presenting them with evidence, and leaving it up to them whether they want to play detective, or watch as things unfold.

I plaster myself to the wall, gouging the pads of my fingers on the rough brick. Did he track me here? If I move, allow myself even a sip of breath, will he find me?
I plaster myself to the wall, gouging the pads of my fingers on the rough brick. He couldn't track me here. I know these woods, every path and branch. His footsteps died off over a mile ago, the path behind me silent. 
But I can't move. Can't allow myself even a sip of breath. Not when every rustle of leaves could carry his arrival.

Again, feeling along with our character. We're in their thoughts, experiencing every second of their rationalizations and fears. Rephrasing the rhetoricals has forced us to lay out our arguments--she knows the woods better than him so he couldn't have followed her, his footsteps died off a long time ago. But we can still keep the tension. Our character may have perfectly good reasons for thinking she's lost her attacker, but we can still show her fear. We can still raise the possibility that danger still lurks around the corner. 

We can keep the tension, keep the confidence, and lose the frustration. And hopefully, we're left with a reader so carried away by our stories, they forget sleep exists.