Rhetorical questions in fiction: good or bad?

Healthy dessert with grapes, cherries, and granola, with the words: What do you think? 3 question marks. Good? Bad? and Alicia Butcher EhrhardtSHOULD YOU USE RHETORICAL QUESTIONS WHEN WRITING FICTION?

This was a shocker.

When working on Pride’s Children: NETHERWORLD, I came across a note:

Sue Coletta: don’t use rhetorical questions. They take you out of the story.

Like all other blanket prohibitions, this one is wrong.

But it sounded good. And I had stored it away for a reason, specifically to make sure I didn’t do something that took my readers out of my stories.

How many rhetorical questions are too many? One? Two? In how much ‘scene’?

I had just finished writing the first scene for one of my main characters, and it seemed a good time to 1) check to see if I had many rhetorical questions in it, and 2) to go back to Book 1, Pride’s Children: PURGATORY, and see if I had that problem there, too.

I startled myself: this main character, Kary, had TWENTY-SEVEN rhetorical questions in her new scene. Wow. Certainly too many.

So I check a different main character, Andrew, and found he had a couple. (My scenes have 800-1500 words in them, typically.)

I went back to Book 1 and found Kary had another huge number of rhetoricals in her last scene. Andrew, only had a few in his last scene in Book 1.

And I realized how different I had made these characters in how they talk to themselves – and I didn’t even know I’d done it!

One of my ‘go to’s on my Left Brain righT method is to ‘Become the character’ before attempting to write the character’s next scene. It includes going back and reading that character’s last previous scene, and possibly a few before that, to get into the character’s voice and mannerisms.

This turned out to have a vastly different style in something I prized, the interior life of the character – and I didn’t even do it on purpose.

Characters are different – duh!

I’m not sure whether I’m channeling or inventing these characters.

But it spooked me.

I don’t know when this happened, and yet there it was.

I just knew they were different, and I knew how they were different (from spending years living with them in my head and in my notes), and the characterizations came out by themselves.

I like things like this in my writing, but I always thought I did them deliberately.

About those twenty-seven rhetorical questions that Kary had? I couldn’t change a one.

Takeaway?

Sue’s admonition – Don’t ask rhetorical questions because they take you out of the story – needs to be changed.

To: ‘Don’t ask the READER rhetorical questions.’

Because it takes the READER out of the story.

It’s fine for the CHARACTER to ask herself questions without answers. How often? As often as she would do it if she were real.

Is she?

Dunno.

What is real?


Do you ask rhetorical questions?


Thanks, Sue. You made me think – and that’s always, uh, interesting.


If you find any of this intriguing, and/or want to see rhetorical questions in action, you can find Kary’s scenes in Pride’s Children at Amazon US, written by the same person who writes these posts. Note: the link leads to the reviews; the product page link is in the right sidebar. Don’t you like to see what other people think about a writer before considering buying?

PS I’m depending on word of mouth right now, as I can either write, it turns out, or market. Or you could go out and find a cure for CFS, so I can do both (might be a wee bit harder).

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15 thoughts on “Rhetorical questions in fiction: good or bad?

  1. J.M. Ney-Grimm

    Really cool to hear about the different “stats” on language use by Kary and Andrew. I’m not surprised. When you are in Kary’s POV, you are Kary and you let the reader be Kary right along with you. Ditto for Andrew and Bianca. I love it. I’m hankering for my next installment in PC2!

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  2. The DC

    I find that I ask myself lots of rhetorical questions (often as a point of sarcasm),so when I read the characters doing it in your work,it made me feel more in sync with them. Maybe that’s just me?

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Kary uses sarcasm to prevent damage to herself, keep her expectations and dreams under control. It’s a character flaw – though some would say disabled people aren’t allowed to have the same expectations and dreams as everyone else. After all, God or Fate or the universe has already marked us as losers.

      I’m working very hard on showing the consequences of those attitudes; I keep saying fiction is a good way to undermine them, if the story pulls you in.

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        1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          Oh, but they do – all the time. That’s what the SSA is saying to people who have the temerity to apply for what should be theirs by right.

          I would venture that most Americans have a horror of asking for public assistance, because it goes against the work ethic so ingrained in us – assistance is for other people, poor dears.

          I tell people I would rather work – after going to school forever to do my job. Being ‘on the dole’ has such a bad name that we reject applying, even when we should be doing it.

          And then they kick us in the face, when we’ve finally gotten our courage up high enough.

          And, of course, everyone who sees someone park in a handicapped spot has the FIRST reaction – ‘let’s see who gets out of that car and why should they have special anything.’

          Don’t get me started.

          Society humiliates enough already those who were such losers as to become ill or disabled.

          Sorry. Rant over.

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        2. Catana

          “everyone who sees someone park in a handicapped spot has the FIRST reaction – ‘let’s see who gets out of that car and why should they have special anything.’” Especially if the handicap isn’t visible. You have to have a cane, at the very least.

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        3. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          I agree – when I was more mobile, I felt the eyes, judging with no knowledge, sending negative vibes.

          Those people want the convenience without the pain – they think we’re getting away with something. If they only knew the paperwork behind the plates or the hanger, only knew that my stupid doctor questions when I ask her to please renew the paperwork the state now requires every three years (for someone marked ‘permanently disabled’ in their records).

          Believe me, the minute I regain energy and the ability to walk, the DMV will be the first to know. I’m tired of the implied hatred of those who ‘only think they’re protecting the spaces for those who are really disabled,’ but will be happy to waste my tiny bit of energy to argue with them and their lack of a medical degree and common decency.

          I don’t like being disabled. You also get contempt with it.

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  3. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

    ‘A self-talker.’ I like that. I found the original link to Sue’s post!
    http://www.suecoletta.com/three-tips-to-amp-up-your-writing/

    I am in deep pov when I write these, but I’m still not sure I agree with her the rest of the time. Semantics?

    Possibly I’ve lost the capacity to think in other than deep pov, but I don’t see how her examples are a problem, now that I’ve reached some stylistic choices myself.

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    1. Catana

      I read her post and I just don’t see it. The rhetorical questions aren’t offputting, and the “improvements” don’t necessarily improve. Also, if her examples are typical of her writing, she tends toward purple prose.

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      1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

        I was a newbie then – that’s almost a year before I published, and I was still not sure of myself.

        Of course, now I am overly sure of myself – which is why I tackled the rhetorical question question, and found that I have distinct characters, which is a good thing.

        My last main character, Bianca, doesn’t use many rhetoricals either, but that’s because in many things she is very sure of herself. That suits her. Interesting to end up writing characters who are so different from the writer.

        I like to say that some characters get the bits of me I don’t acknowledge – or don’t act on.

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        1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          I haven’t had that happen yet. If I dig, I find the multitudes I contain. And that little sordid piece I’m so pleased to have written? I know where it comes from – though I’d never dare do that in real life.

          I pretend I’m nicer than that.

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  4. Catana

    I don’t ask rhetorical questions myself, but my main character in Camp Expendable certainly does. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but now that you’ve pointed it out, that’s the kind of person he is, a self-talker. I don’t think it’s something we deliberately choose to do, as a technique. It’s more instinctive, just part of how you come to understand your characters in a very deep way. And I don’t see how the character’s rhetorical question could take you out of the story unless you’re forcing them and they don’t truly feel like the character’s own thoughts.

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