Writers in the Storm

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September 28, 2022

Why Rhetorical Questions Help You Go Deeper With Emotions

by Lisa Hall-Wilson

Ever figure out a solution to a problem, and then way over-use it? That’s what happens with rhetorical questions when we’re trying to avoid author intrusion!

Once you become aware of author intrusion, of what that looks like in either limited third person, first person, or deep POV, the easy workaround becomes a rhetorical question. A rhetorical question is used to create dramatic effect or make a point rather than elicit an answer. Instead of telling the reader how the character feels or inserting information into the story, have the character wonder about the information instead.

Here’s a paragraph from a mss I’ve stuffed in a drawer.

Laurel slunk deeper into her seat. The two other reporters and the admin glanced at her, but mostly they stared at their notebooks. She straightened in her seat and hooked her hair behind her ears. Why was everyone acting so sullen?

There it is. The rhetorical question that’s slipped in to replace the bit of author intrusion I had there. Problem solved, right? Maybe. Except, when I do a search for question marks, there’s 22 rhetorical questions in eight pages. TWENTY-TWO?? Hmmm…

Maybe you’ve done this too?

Here’s a whole paragraph of rhetorical questions:

But could she do it? Could she go back to the farm—to him? Could they fix their marriage? Did she even want to?

I saw this trend of overusing rhetorical questions in my student’s work too and the question marks began jumping off the page at me. The problem is that the author intrusion or narrator voice we’re trying to avoid by using rhetorical questions, ends up being a crutch that prevents us from taking that next step to go deeper with our character.

So, I challenged myself to limit the rhetorical questions to one a chapter. One. And here are the benefits of stretching yourself in this way.

Rhetorical Questions Aren’t Wrong

Rhetorical questions have their place in internal dialogue, the goal shouldn’t be to completely eliminate them (mostly rhetorical questions are fair game in dialogue). They can offer great surprise for the reader.

Most of the time the character’s rhetorical questions are offering information the reader already knows the character is thinking about. I’m repeating information instead of moving the story ahead. You’ve just tied an anchor to the pace of your novel right there. Why am I wasting valuable space on the page repeating things the reader already knows?

Flip Flopping

Readers want characters that stand for something. They want characters who have decided to press on towards a particular goal no matter what the cost – there’s no turning back. To do this well, your character needs to plant a flag, draw a line in the sand, pick a path, choose a side.

While we hope rhetorical questions help us create tension and uncertainty in characters (and therefore readers), over-using them allows the character to waffle. This waffling or hesitation makes the character harder to cheer for, harder to relate to. Instead, force them to be decisive and live with the consequences. Take a rhetorical question in your mss, and have the character think of the answer to the question instead.

Could she trust him?

Could become: He’d betrayed her before and nothing stopped him from doing it again. But maybe he was her only chance at a relationship. The ache in her chest kicked up, a sharp penetrating throb over her sternum. No, she couldn’t trust him, but she didn’t trust herself to make a good decision either.

The rhetorical question is a shortcut that’s meant to increase tension, but many times the shortcut undermines the emotional potential in a scene. It’s a lost opportunity to go deeper. There’s more emotional depth to the answer than the rhetorical question offered.

Try Starting With The Rhetorical Question

Back to back rhetorical questions point to weak writing or undeveloped characters. I’m a pantser at heart, so my first drafts are riddled with rhetorical questions. Case in point:

But could she do it? Could she go back to the farm—to him? Could they fix their marriage? Did she even want to?

I have begun to see these paragraphs as fluorescent sticky tabs marking a place where I need to come back to and go deeper with the emotions.  

In revisions, get curious about how the character would answer those questions. Start with the rhetorical question as a launching point for going deeper. What are the implications of one or more possible answers?

In the paragraph above, the female character is trying to decide if she should give her marriage another chance. There’s so much depth to plumb there. If she goes back to him, what kind of person does that make her? Would her opinion of herself change if it doesn’t work out? Why is it so hard to decide – what’s at risk? What parts of herself are upset and why is she refusing to listen to them? What would a stronger person do? Why can’t she do that?

Are The Rhetorical Questions Always Coming From One Character?

This was a pretty humbling question to ask myself, because I saw a trend in my first drafts where there was always one POV character who overused rhetorical questions to an embarrassing level. The other POV characters would have a reasonable use of rhetorical questions, but there would be one with back to back paragraphs of rhetorical questions. *womp womp*

Has this happened to you too? It’s a signal to me that I don’t know my character well enough. I don’t know WHY they’re doing/thinking certain things, what’s motivating them, what emotions are involved or at risk, or even what they really want. The rhetorical questions allowed me to waffle and skim, to avoid the hard work of going deeper. I had to stop being a lazy writer and get curious about aspects of this character I didn’t have an answer for yet.

Going deeper with the emotions in a scene is where the reader connects with the character.

Rhetorical questions can be a great starting point to diving deep into emotions, so don’t be discouraged if you find quite a few. Just nod. Maybe do a search and highlight what you find. This is a new starting point. OK, I know what that’s about now and I know how to fix it.

Try it yourself. Pick a random chapter in your WIP and search for question marks. How many rhetorical questions did you find? Have you ever used rhetorical questions as a launch pad to go deeper with emotions?

About Lisa

Lisa Hall-Wilson is a writing teacher and award-winning writer and author. She’s the author of Method Acting For Writers: Learn Deep Point Of View Using Emotional Layers. Her blog, Beyond Basics For Writers, explores all facets of the popular writing style deep point of view and offers practical tips for writers. 

She runs the free Facebook group Going Deeper With Emotions where she shares tips and videos on writing in deep point of view. 

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17 comments on “Why Rhetorical Questions Help You Go Deeper With Emotions”

  1. A vein in my temple begins to throb. Did I send my final manuscript to the publisher with paragraphs full of rhetorical questions? Will an editor catch my error? Will she see what I've known all along--that I'm a sorry excuse for a writer? There go my hopes for a NY Times review.

    Thanks, Lisa, for this thought and question-provoking post!

    1. Ha! I hope you don't psych yourself out too much. Let's stop and reflect on the magicalness... You. Finished. Your. Book. And you sold it. That's a bigger achievement than many people manage in their lifetime. 🙂

  2. This is fantastic. I don't use rhetorical questions a lot (I don't think, but will check now) but it really challenges me to do, as you say, the HARD WORK when I don't know a character well enough and go deeper. Also another eye opener is the statement about readers not wanting a character who waffles back and forth. Readers want a character who plants her flag and stands for something. Okay, that is a big problem for me so that paragraph was a real forehead slap. Thanks. Please keep up your insightful and challenging posts.

  3. Interesting post, Lisa. I'm glad you shared this. I typically got rid of rhetorical all together, but I can see they have a significant place in the writer toolbox!

    Kris

    1. I see it a lot when ppl are trying to write in deep POV. Rhetorical questions are an easy workaround, and they are helpful to a point. It's the overuse that's a problem. 😀

  4. I just ran that search, and I totally do some of this. This is a terrific exercise, Lisa. Thank you!

    Also, I love this paragraph:

    "Readers want characters that stand for something. They want characters who have decided to press on towards a particular goal no matter what the cost – there’s no turning back. To do this well, your character needs to plant a flag, draw a line in the sand, pick a path, choose a side."

    1. I was similarly challenged by a crit partner and it really opened my eyes a while back! And yes! The waffling - I finally figured out why crit partners said they couldn't connect with my characters at times -- they needed to plant a flag and stand for something (which meant I had to know what they wanted, why they wanted it, and what they stood to lose). I've learned so many of writing problems stem from not knowing my characters well enough.

  5. This is great, Lisa! I'd never thought about rhetorical questions as lazy writing, but they are--light bulb moment. I checked my WIP and one of my scenes left readers with 3 rhetorical in a row! I have a great opportunity to dive deeper into the implications of the answer and how that might affect my character. Thank you for a most helpful post!

  6. It's fantastic to see an article about this topic, Lisa.
    I like your balanced approach.
    I'm a big fan of minimising rhetorical questions in favour of providing information.

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