Can I Keep My Rhetorical Questions?
by Eric M. Witchey
Back in the dark ages of the early 90s when the word “blog” was a Unix term that meant binary log, I was working as a technical writer and struggling to learn the skills that would let me write fiction that somebody, someday might risk money on in order to make more money. As with all learning writers, I was stumbling through the darkness grasping at dangling threads of knowledge that happened to drag across my face and catch my attention. From time-to-time, I ran into a teacher that could teach me more than how to describe what had already been written. The good teachers sat down with me and showed me exactly how to manipulate the text in order to create a result in the mind and heart of the reader. Thank the gods for those teachers. I won’t list them here because there are too many, but they certainly deserve to have electrons spent on them.
So, the historical stage of my ignorance is now set. I was dumb as a stump in a sucking bog. One of my teachers, James N. Frey, read a page of my deadly creative prose and survived—just barely. He said to me, “Eric, you use too many rhetorical questions. Creating questions in the mind of the reader isn’t about having the character ask themselves things. You’re using them to avoid conflict. Conflict reveals character.”
As with most things my teachers said at that time, I almost heard his message. Like the pervasive Far Side cartoon showing what the dog hears, I heard, “Eric, blah blah blah too many rhetorical questions blah blah blah.” So, I cut all the rhetorical questions from my fiction. I even wrote up a little rule card to add to my deck of rules (a deck I burned when I found it ten years later). The rule on the card said, in big block letters: NO RHETORICAL QUESTIONS.
About the same time I burned those cards, about ten years ago, I also finally understood what Jim was actually trying to tell me.
The other day, I found myself engaged with one of my creative writing students. Her wonderful story, and I mean that, was practically pitch perfect—except for the rhetorical questions in the narrative of the main character’s interior, subjective experience.
The wheel turns. I bow in Jim’s direction.
I offered my student the following as a way of making the problem clear and, hopefully, giving her a way to avoid waiting for years for the blah blah blah to finally sink in. Because I offered it to her, I thought I would offer it up here as the main content of my posting turn for Shadow Spinners.
Jim told me I was avoiding conflict. He told me the Rhet-Qs, which is what I have come to call them in my marginalia, marked missed opportunities to exploit conflict or to provide deeper insight into a character’s experience.
Consider the following line from a first person, retrospective narrative. The character thinks to himself:
Didn’t Andrew know his insults would make her angry?
This type of rhetorical question marks a missed opportunity to show the character in action and engaged in the events and circumstances of the story.
Now, consider how it reads when replaced with the following (excepting the bold exposition of technique names):
- Subjective consideration of circumstances: I was sure Andrew intended to make her angry with his insults. He’d known her for twenty-five years. He knew Marissa better than any of us, but my gut told me to step between them.
- Action in response to consideration: I lunged forward.
- Opposition (conflict): Marissa’s hand came up in front of my face. Blue sparks jumped between the electrodes of the TASER she held. I swear, I felt the electricity in the follicles of my three day beard. I certainly smelled the ozone.
- Change in character’s subjective interpretation of events: In that moment, I realized how well Andrew really knew her. I realized she’d kill me before she let me interfere with their fight. That was Andrew’s game all along.
Okay, I’m not claiming brilliant story, here. I’m making a point. Am I making a rule? NO! I burned the rules. I burned them and scattered the ashes from a small plane over the Pacific. I am saying that sometimes writers can exploit the hidden implications of a rhetorical question.
That takes me back to the blah, blah, blah. Jim told me, though in different words, that by exploiting the conflict, I would create better questions in the mind of the reader. What do you think? Do you want to know what happens with Marissa and Thomas Alva Swift’s Electric Rifle?
However, not every rhetorical question can be, or should be, exploited as conflict. Sometimes, a Rhet-Q is a missed opportunity to provide deeper insight into the POV character’s experience.
Here’s an example of one of my attempts to create false suspense. I say false because real suspense is created by the reader’s expectations. It is not created by rhetorical questions.
Did someone unlock the door? Did they leave it ajar so she would find it and open it?
This type of rhetorical question distances the reader from the experience of the character. It is an attempt to create suspense. Suspense comes from what the reader knows and anticipates. So, suspense only appears if the reader is allowed to experience events and their significance along with the character.
Compare the Rhet-Qs with the following:
- Action: The door pulled open too easily.
- Response to stimulus: She hesitated, shaking hand on the cold, loose knob. It should have been locked.
- Anticipation of consequences: She had to step through. For Elle, she could face some homeless wino. Hell, for Elle, she’d walk into a trap set by an axe murderer. She’d step through and face whatever came. She’d never forgive herself if she didn’t.
- Decision and Action: She took a deep breath, let it out, and pushed the door open.
Okay, so can you just stop using rhetorical questions? Well, I can’t. When I compose, I type as fast as I can. Sometimes, I even wear a blindfold to help me keep from editing while I type. So, my prose ends up with rhetorical questions. I’ve learned to see them as my subconscious sending out cryptic, shorthand suggestions for the story. I have to go back and revise. I search on question marks and make sure every opportunity that should be exploited is exploited. In the end, the principle, which is NOT a rule, for my revisions sounds something like this:
Rhetorical questions can often be replaced with dramatic action in conflict and subjective character responses to circumstances.
Is it a rule? NO! It’s an idea to keep in mind. Sometimes, characters really do ask themselves questions. We all do. Right now, I’m asking myself a rhetorical question. I don’t think I’ll exploit it. “Eric, when will this blog entry end?”