While they have their place in rhetoric, rhetorical questions almost always weaken fiction. Below, I lay out how they stall the story, mangle POV, kill subtext, and generally frustrate readers, and why your story would be better off without them.What a rhetorical question looks like:
Alice was so confused. What could she have done wrong? Why was the dragon still attacking? She thought that she’d cast the spell to charm it perfectly. Could she have been mistaken?
Why they’re awful:
Rhetorical questions are, first and foremost, a crutch. They’re a way of handing the driving questions to the reader. This can go one of two ways. One is that your writing is strong enough that readers already know what questions they’re supposed to be asking, in which case the rhetorical question isn’t necessary. Have confidence that your readers are smart enough to figure out the story on their own. If you hand them everything, you lose all of the subtlety and intrigue.
The second way is that no one has any idea what questions to ask without seeing the rhetorical questions in the narrative, in which case there are some major issues with the writing and a few rhetorical questions aren’t enough. Readers wonder about things that they find compelling. If they don’t find something compelling to begin with, they’re not going to find the question worth pursuing.
In either case, rhetorical questions are a type of telling rather than showing. They tell the reader how you want people to feel about your work rather than allowing them to draw their own conclusions.
When the questions are printed in the narrative but attributed to a character (rather than appearing in quoted dialogue) they’re also a cheap way of showing that character is confused. Rather than showing the character’s reactions or allowing them to voice their confusion, the rhetorical questions make it so that their confusion is filtered through the narrator. This is a missed opportunity for effective characterization. Rhetorical questions have all the drawbacks on an internal monologue, and do absolutely nothing to make up for it.
In third person narrations rhetorical questions also introduce a POV error. In third person, the narrator is not the POV character. But the questions are generally the POV character’s thoughts. This means that the narrator is speaking the character’s thoughts without attributing them to the character. The alternative interpretation is that the narrator has no idea what’s going on, and is so completely turned about that they need to stop and ask the reader for pointers. Neither one of these serves your story.
And regardless of whether you’re writing in first, second, or third person, rhetorical questions clutter up the narrative. They provide no information, but they take up a fair amount of space, especially since writers who are fond of them tend to use several in a row. Removing them will almost always make your writing more concise and faster paced.
How to fix this problem
Due to their low information content, rhetorical questions can usually be cut outright. It’s pretty rare to find a case where they cannot be cut without also removing something crucial to the reader’s understanding of the story. Especially if you’re posing a question that the reader already knows the answer to, either because it’s not difficult, or because the information was given to a different POV character earlier.
Instead, show us that the question is worth asking, and then demonstrate the character’s curiosity. Allow them to ask the questions aloud so that others can react. Or let them chase down an answer. Their curiosity will be contagious.
But you use rhetorical questions in your blog all the time.
Yes. I do. I also use them when I speak, and I use them in fiction when my characters are speaking. And you can too. Like all things, rhetorical questions are not always bad, and there are certain contexts in which you can use them without making trouble.
Places rhetorical questions belong:
- In spoken language.
- In your characters’ speech. As I’ve said before, whatever comes out of your characters’ mouths is fair game. This includes in-world documents written by characters.
- In certain types of non-fiction rhetoric, especially speeches.
- In non-fiction that takes a casual tone.
- Anywhere you damn well feel like it, if and only if you happen to be Martin Luther King Jr.
Places where they don’t:
- In your narrative, especially if you have a third person narrator.
- In your query letter.
- In a scholarly essay.
- Wherever you’re afraid someone might try to answer it.