Why? (or Some Thoughts on Rhetorical Questions in Fiction)

In manuscripts that I’ve been reading recently—workshop pieces, early drafts from friends, etc.—I’ve been noticing a LOT of rhetorical questions in the narration. Things like, “What would my sister think of me?” or “What could I possibly do?”

Now, sometimes rhetorical questions can be good: when the question itself is surprising (I didn’t think she’d care what her sister thought…) or…

Ok, that’s it. That’s the only case I can come up with in which rhetorical questions are good. Otherwise, they just pop me right out of the story. I was having trouble pinning down exactly why that is, though. Something one of my mentors, Fred Shafer, recently said helped me figure it out.

imagesWe’re reading Elizabeth McCracken’s The Giant’s House (which is great, BTDubs). At the end of Part One, there is this long passage of interiority where Peggy, the narrator, “decides” to finally love James. At one point, we get the following paragraph:


“I did not love him like a brother. I did not love him like a son. And though I loved him because of his body, it wasn’t his body that I loved, not the body of some manI dreamed would hold me, a body containing secrets that would somehow transform my own. Some will hear this and say, librarian, spinster: clearly there’s a block, clearly there are problems here. But I’ve thought about this enough, and I’ve dreamed of other men’s bodies that way, and I know the difference.” (pp 88-89)


This is a novel writing workshop and Fred’s point was how long passages like this are more or less necessary in novels, whether they are scenes or interiority or something else. In talking about how McCracken may have discovered such a passage, he pointed to the above paragraph and said that she hadn’t settled for the question from Peggy, “How will I love him?” That question would be fitting for her to ask—she is a woman in her early 30s, James is a teenage boy afflicted with gigantism. However, Fred pointed out that sustaining a passage like this is a matter of taking those kinds of questions and not just posing them to your character(s) but forcing them to answer, to answer and answer until you hit the truth. And yes, in some cases, you may cut a lot of what you write and just keep that last nugget, the surprising truth, but sometimes the passage that you discover is something beautiful. He wanted us to see how to sustain these moments in order to make our novels more full.

But suddenly, I realized why I hate rhetorical questions in fiction so much: they are, at best, moments of missed opportunity; at worst, they are a neon sign pointing to the author’s fear. You are simply letting your character off the hook when you type one of those little suckers, relieving them of any responsibility to look deeper. If, instead, you pick that question up and stick in your character’s face, make them answer it, well, what treasures you might find. And how NOT BORED I, as a reader, will be.

Think of my first example: “What would my sister think of me?” Now, imagine plucking the question off the page and asking it directly of the character: “What would your sister think of you?”

She’d think I was terrible.


She’d think I was a lowlife, a liar, a cheat, a crook.


She’d think I wasn’t any better than our father.

*BU— “Wait, ok, why would she think that?”

Because he was a lowlife, a liar, a cheat, a crook.


Because she hated him.


Because we hadn’t seen him since the day he’d left three stacks of blood-stained bills on the kitchen table. His teeth were stained pink and when he kissed me on the forehead he left an imprint like mom used to, faint red lips. He hadn’t kissed Marcia, just took his hand off the bloody hole in his shirt and put the hand on her shoulder, squeezed briefly, ruined her dress.

Or, you know, something like that, something deeper, something important, something interesting and possibly new, a game-changer, that little whiff of mystery that can make your story so much more than it was.

This is a great revision exercise. Take that early draft and scour it for any rhetorical questions you may have left on the page. Open a new document and keep asking the question and follow-up questions and newly discovered questions until you find something or are sure you won’t. If you do find something, it may turn out to be just what the next draft needs.

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