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  • Writer's pictureNicole Arch

Are You Weakening Your Writing? 5 Risks of Rhetorical Questions

Many writers use rhetorical questions in their manuscript in order to add tension, create mystery, or show the reader a glimpse of their POV character’s mental state. And, when the intention of this device actually aligns with its effect, it can be a powerful writing tool. However, rhetorical questions also weaken your writing in five serious ways… several of which undermine your intention for using rhetorical questions altogether.

Confused boy with question marks and swirls around him, beneath a label that reads "Are You Weakening Your Writing? 5 Risks of Rhetorical Questions"

So what are rhetorical questions, and why do they hurt your manuscript?


According to Merriam Webster, a rhetorical question “is a question that is asked for effect rather than from a desire to know the answer.” Authors often use rhetorical questions like this in order to “show, not tell” readers about the POV character’s thoughts, feelings, or observations by having the character wonder about that information. Alternatively, rhetorical questions may be intended to make a point or add mystery and tension. For example:


I sighed. Would she ever love me the way I loved her? Or would I always be Alicia’s backup plan?

You may be wondering what’s so wrong with that. And, yes, nothing is technically wrong with that example. But rhetorical questions like the above—especially weak or overabundant ones—actually pose five serious risks to your story. Rhetorical questions can undercut tension and character choice, show the reader less detail instead of more, signal you don’t know your character well enough, bump the reader from your story, and waste valuable space in your manuscript or query letter.


1. Undercut tension and character choice

Rhetorical questions add tension and mystery, right? Actually, not so much. According to award-winning writer Lisa Hall Wilson, too many rhetorical questions “allows the character to waffle” or hesitate indefinitely, making the character more difficult for readers to root for or relate to. Since plot is moved forward by characters making active choices and sticking with them, letting characters sit on the fence or flip-flop their stance indefinitely with rhetorical questions will actually weaken your character’s arc and undercut the sense of drama and suspense you want to build in your story.


2. Show the reader less detail instead of more

Another purpose of rhetorical questions is to show the reader a deeper glimpse into the POV character’s individual mind or perspective. However, overusing this device can actually have the opposite effect. According to Angie Hodapp, Director of Literary Development at Nelson Literary Agency, “When you look at the device more closely, you can see that it fails to give meaningful insights into how a character thinks—that is, what makes that character unique and interesting. In other words, if they’re asking themselves the same questions anyone would ask themselves in the scene’s particular situation, they risk becoming everyman or template characters.” In short, you're not showing the detailed mind of your character at all—you're providing less detail and asking the reader to fill in the blanks for you.


3. Signal you don’t know your character enough

If you notice one particular POV character asking rhetorical questions every other sentence or paragraph, or generally using this device far more than your other POV characters, you should consider whether you know that character well enough. Ask yourself: Did you use that rhetorical question because your character would really do so, or did you use it because you weren’t sure about some aspect of that character’s mindset, like how they would react or what their motivations are? If you answered the latter, then you’re waffling around instead of digging deeper into your character… and your readers can and will be able to tell!


4. Bump the reader from your story

Sometimes, authors clearly target a rhetorical question at the reader more than the character. This kind of rhetorical question risks coming off as a patronizing and condescending form of “telling,” because the reader interprets it as the author’s aside for his or her audience instead of a realistic character thought. Rhetorical questions also threaten to add melodrama or seem over the top, especially when used back to back or in scenes with high, intense emotion. Since both melodrama and weak instances of “telling” can jar readers and bump them from your story, you should be very careful about which rhetorical questions you decide to keep as you revise!


5. Waste valuable space in your manuscript or query letter

You have, on average, about 80,000 words to tell your story. In a query letter, you have far less. So why waste space with weak or fluffy writing? Take it from literary agent Jessica Faust: “In a query you have one page to give all the pertinent information about your book that you can. One page to wow and entice an agent, so don’t waste any of that page with a paragraph of filler… and no matter how you spin it, those rhetorical questions are nothing but filler.”


But how can I avoid all these pesky rhetorical questions? How to avoid those pesky rhetorical questions


When you catch yourself writing a rhetorical question, or if you come across one in your revision, try digging a little deeper into your character and actually thinking of the character's response. For example, let’s reconsider my original rhetorical questions:

I sighed. Would she ever love me the way I loved her? Or would I always be Alicia’s backup plan?

This version identifies what’s on the character’s mind, which gives us a great starting point for revision. But the character waffles, sitting on the fence with rhetorical questions instead of taking a stance or coming to a conclusion. As a reader, I want to know: How does that character actually decide to answer that thought? Let’s consider a simple revision:

I sighed. She would never love me the way I loved her. I would always be Alicia’s backup plan.

Here, I rewrote the questions as statements, showing how the character would respond to the questions. Sure, the phrasing could be better (for example, I’m more partial to “For Alicia, I was nothing more than a backup plan”). BUT the point I want to make here is that sometimes, you don’t need to change that much. Simply writing the same content as definitive statements allows the character to take a stance, creating a more dramatic, engaging, and character-driven interiority instead of just sitting on the fence with question after question. These statements also paint a clearer, more specific picture of the character’s mindset, avoiding the creation of a template character by not forcing the reader to answer the questions on the character’s behalf.


Struggling to identify how the questioning character would respond? You may not know that character well enough. Try going back to the drawing board and really fleshing out their wants, needs, emotions, and anything else you find unclear about them, especially if it’s pertinent to the scene. Then take another go at answering the question for the character. You may be surprised by what you discover!


Of course, some characters may just be more prone to rhetorical questions. After all, the internal life of an uncertain, hesitant, and anxious character will sound very different from that of a more assertive, confident, and decisive character. But even for the most doubtful or nervous character, rhetorical questions should rarely, if ever, be popping up in every other sentence or paragraph. Instead, balance your use of this device with other writing tools and techniques to show your character’s emotions. Check out my editorial article on showing vs telling emotions for more ideas.


In Conclusion

Rhetorical questions can be a useful tool for showing character confusion or making a dramatic point. But more times than not, I see writers using this device as a crutch, essentially creating a choose-your-own-adventure story by asking the reader to infer the answer. Instead, develop your character and your plot by allowing the character to take a stance instead of posing rhetorical questions. You'll paint a clearer picture of your character and plot while strengthening your writing... and who doesn't want that, right?


Still have questions?

Let me know! I'm always happy to answer comments, or you can reach out to me at my contact page.


Sources

Rhetorical Questions. Jessica Faust.

Rhetorical Question. Merriam Webster.


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