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Rhetorical questions: avoid at all costs?

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This post on Mary Kole's site reminded me of a critique I once got that I use too many rhetorical questions in my fiction. Some say you shouldn't use any because they are a form of telling.

Here's an example:

>>Mandy looked up. The candy was on a very high shelf. Could she reach it if she stood on the overturned bucket?

Do you think rhetorical questions should be avoided? (That's not a rhetorical question.)
#1 - September 28, 2013, 12:54 PM
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Some say you shouldn't use any because they are a form of telling.

Well, I would find that reasoning faulty, because not ALL telling is to be avoided in fiction.

It seems to me that the definition of "rhetorical question" might be undergoing a change or broadening. Traditionally, it means a question that the receiver/listener is not expected to literally answer, but to consider the point or message in it. It also means "a question that implies its own answer." I think considering the question in your example to be "rhetorical" may be stretching the definition. There is no "message or point" for the reader to consider here, and we expect Mandy is about to "answer" this question by standing on the overturned bucket and finding out if it works. Nor is the answer implied in the question, because we don't in fact know if she can reach the candy this way or not. Calling this rhetorical seems shaky on all three points I've cited. There could be some room for quibbling here, but Paul Brians, author of COMMON ERRORS IN ENGLISH USAGE, says that people often confuse rhetorical questions with mock dialogue or merely nonsensical questions. So the issue gets muddier when the person saying "Don't use rhetorical questions" may actually be referring to something that's not one. 

I think saying you can never use them is going too far, especially if the definition is being applied to questions like the one in your example.
#2 - September 28, 2013, 01:47 PM
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So you don't find questions like the one above (the one that represents Mandy's thinking process)  annoying?
#3 - September 28, 2013, 01:58 PM
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I think you're probably safer to change it around, so your example reads something like, "Maybe she could reach it if she stood on the overturned bucket. One way to find out."

But I agree with mrh--you need to do a little telling, and an occasional internal question's no big deal.

(Another thought--was the critique from a trusted source?)
#4 - September 28, 2013, 02:05 PM
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I think if reworded it would work fine.

Mandy looked up. The candy was on a very high shelf. Could she reach it if she stood on the overturned bucket?


Perhaps to Mandy looked up. The candy was on a very high shelf.  There was a bucket nearby, would that work if she turned it upside down?

Does that make more sense, that way the bucket isn't popping out of the air unless you mentioned it earlier.  If you have then I think it is okay. 

#5 - September 28, 2013, 02:47 PM
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The way I read it, Mary Kole's post was referring to a specific kind of question used in stories to point the reader to something that should already be self-evident. For instance, if a character is acting suspicious, let them act and trusr the reader figure it out for themselves rather than having everything explained through the narrator's interior dialogue.

(Mary's example was: "What did I know about Kyle, anyway?")

I recently read two adult mystery novels, one that used questions in interior dialogue, and one that didn't. The one that did use the questions frustrated me because I never actually needed her to ask those questions -- I could figure out who she found suspicious by the way she observed and acted towards them.

The second book was much more satisfying because it trusted the reader to come to their own conclusions. If a character was acting nervous the narrator didn't have to point that out again through questions in interior dialogue -- we got it the first time.

As far as your example goes, Whizbee, phrasing the line as a question can be a little frustrating as there is no way the reader can answer and we're about to find out anyway, when Mandy finally does climb up on the bucket. It creates a kind of false suspense. I like the way dewsanddamps rewrote the line.

So, I think the answer is that questions in interior dialogue are like adverbs. They can be useful, but should be used thoughtfully and sparingly.
#6 - September 28, 2013, 03:45 PM

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So you don't find questions like the one above (the one that represents Mandy's thinking process)  annoying?

No, I don't find them annoying if they're used sparingly. Actually, with this question, I feel as if I'm seeing into Mandy's POV. That very question is in her mind.

Any technique or sentence structure starts to call attention to itself if overused. I don't think the question is a no-no, but like anything, you wouldn't want to be doing it noticeably often.
#7 - September 28, 2013, 06:24 PM
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My editor had me edit out every question I had in the manuscript. As I edited, I found that there were much more active ways to get the info across. I'd never thought about it before, but it's a great question.
#8 - September 29, 2013, 01:31 PM

My editor had me edit out every question I had in the manuscript. As I edited, I found that there were much more active ways to get the info across. I'd never thought about it before, but it's a great question.

Really? Wow, I would love to see how you replaced them. Care to share an example? Either way, I'm going to try to use fewer of these.
#9 - September 29, 2013, 02:39 PM
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In general, I find them annoying, because they are a crutch/or shorthand for the writer. Instead of coming up with a way to get the reader to think something, the writer is telling the reader what to think. I don't think they are usually needed, and I just skip over if there is a whole series of them.

I've seen a series of questions in published books, though, so obviously some editors don't mind them.
#10 - September 29, 2013, 02:48 PM

I'm sooo glad you posted this question. I saw Mary Kole's original post, and have been wondering about it since. To me, questions in a narrative don't feel annoying at all, but rather pretty accurately portray how people think. But I'm really interested to see the discussion on this. Maybe I'm being obtuse about it all. And honestly, I do use a lot of questions in my writing!
#11 - September 29, 2013, 04:02 PM
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I'll dig through the manuscript that my editor sent with all her scribbles to see if I can find some, whizbee.
#12 - September 29, 2013, 07:00 PM

I wonder if certain genres need this more--specifically mysteries. Usually the detective is asking herself questions about the case, right? And also, the reader needs a summary of which questions we're trying to answer along the way.
#13 - September 30, 2013, 10:26 AM
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I find them annoying because it sounds very talking-down-to-the-reader to me. But I'm sure there are times when the rare (and not so obvious) thought-question might work.  I think if it's about plot/action, it's a much bigger problem than thought/feelings. "How could she climb to the top of the wall?" sounds way more dramatically annoying than something like "Would Mom ever stop talking to Aunt Rita?"
#14 - September 30, 2013, 10:53 AM

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I wrote about other irritating rhetorical questions on my blog today:

http://literaticat.blogspot.com/2013/10/nutshell-spoilers-and-rhetorical-no-no.html
#15 - October 06, 2013, 01:32 PM
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Thanks, litericat, for an interesting post!
I've been thinking about rhetorical questions a lot lately. 
I've heard from another author this summer that her editor asked her to weed out questions too.
Then, I read Mary's post...

Now it's like I'm seeing it everywhere. I know I do it a lot in my own writing, almost unconsciously.
I have noticed though that when I change my questions to statements, my MC comes off as lot stronger, more proactive.
#16 - October 07, 2013, 08:33 PM
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I loved that post, literaticat. I'd never thought about it that way before. I can see a few legitimate uses of rhetorical questions, but like people have pointed out in this thread and yours, it's irritating when it feels like the author is trying to lead the witness and force the reader to think obvious things. Tried it with my own writing last night and saw a difference already! :)
#17 - October 08, 2013, 05:18 AM

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After these posts, this is something I've become hyper aware of in my writing. I have a quite a few thought questions and I worry I might be over doing it. My character is naturally inquisitive and there's a lot of strange things happening to him that he initially doesn't understand (alien abductions, superpowers, etc.) so I think anyone in that situation would have a million questions. But how do you know when enough is enough? I know with everything in writing there's an element of subjectivity and you never want to say your the exception to the rule, but I guess what I'm wondering is how do you know when is a good time to have your character ask questions and when do you need to cut it out? Where's the balance here and is it best to just go with the old saying when in doubt throw it out?
#18 - October 08, 2013, 06:03 AM

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I think if you're leading the witness with your questions (like, hitting the reader over the head with the obvious), you're overdoing it.
#19 - October 08, 2013, 06:20 AM

I've been reading (and enjoying) RESCUE PRINCESSES with my daughter. Lots of rhetorical questions like, "Was it the door on the left?". Doesn't stand out to me as a negative at all. Just feels like you're inside the MC's thoughts. I only noticed it because I had read this post earlier. As with most things, I guess it depends on the situation. Never say "never". Cliché, but true.

Disclaimer: I don't write chapter books or novels.
#20 - October 08, 2013, 07:48 AM
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I just realized, my example above may not technically be a rhetorical question. Maybe it's just a regular, ordinary question? Now I'm wondering if some sorts of questions are less problematic than others.

I can see how the OP's example (the question about standing on the bucket) can potentially be a spoiler.

Interesting blog posts.
#21 - October 08, 2013, 10:00 AM
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You can get inquisitiveness across in a thousand ways. Internal thought questions are the least effective IMHO. Characterization is a better choice to show personality traits, not internal thinking, otherwise you run a higher risk of telling vs. showing.

Having been through the revision process now and taking out all my internal thought questions, I can see that there really isn't a need for them at all. The question isn't really, "can I make the internal question work?" but "can I write something better than a thought question?" And as I was revising, the answer to the second question was always yes.

#22 - October 08, 2013, 11:14 AM

The question isn't really, "can I make the internal question work?" but "can I write something better than a thought question?" And as I was revising, the answer to the second question was always yes.

As long as they answer is yes, then it seems best to revise to get rid of those questions. It may be that the answer isn't always yes for everyone, but maybe the answer is yes more often than some of us thought.
#23 - October 08, 2013, 02:19 PM
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As long as they answer is yes, then it seems best to revise to get rid of those questions. It may be that the answer isn't always yes for everyone, but maybe the answer is yes more often than some of us thought.

Very true and now I'm seeing there's a bit of distinction between rhetorical questions and just plain questions.
#24 - October 09, 2013, 06:12 AM

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Often I find I put them in my first drafts and then when I go back through in subsequent drafts I develop that thought or idea into an action.
#25 - November 04, 2013, 06:01 PM
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And I was wrong! Going through first pass pages I'm seeing a few questions survived the edit. I tried to edit them out again, but really, in a few instances, the question was the best way to go.

So, ignore me :)
#26 - November 05, 2013, 10:42 AM

I've been editing out almost every question my mc asks himself in my WIP and I think it's making the prose cleaner and stronger. But yeah, there have been a few places where he really does need to ask himself a question.
#27 - November 05, 2013, 02:00 PM
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