The Rhetorical Question

Authors are constantly looking for ways to involve a reader in their story, and one of the devices is asking the reader a question. It works, since a reader likes to get inside the head of a lead character. Plus, a question breaks up the rhythm of the narration, which is usually dominated by a point of view that is trying to make the fictional seem real.

Yet the device tends to be used sparingly, and there are good reasons for that. The best one is that it can appear to too transparently gin up tension. What can be done to avert such terrible misfortune? might sum up the general drift of such usage. The reader is, like, come on, do you expect me to go for that? In other words, it amounts to another form of foreshadowing: Myra couldn’t know the terrible consequences of that simple decision. Yawn.

Much better is placing the question within a character’s thoughts. What am I going to do now? feels authentic, because that is what the reader is asking at that moment. In addition, we frequently ask ourselves questions within our real life. They are part of our everyday inner monologue that patters so incessantly. 

Even here, though, an author can easily overstep by asking questions back to back. What am I going to do now? Could I really steal a car? Again, the reader starts to become offended. Okay, okay, enough with the questions. Why don’t you get out there and do something?

One variety that I like to see is the philosophical query. The fact is, categorical statements about life are bunk. As a male teenager you might be awed by Henry Miller’s statement that all women are whores—so deep, dude—but further reflection about your own experiences makes it laughable. If you voice a concern as a question, though, you leave the thought open-ended. If she says I’m cute, does that mean she thinks I’m a joke? leaves it up to the reader to decide.  

Exercise: As you review a draft, look for the occasional spot where a rhetorical question could form a point of emphasis. It can be effective, for instance, when it counters the narrative flow in a paragraph that contains heightened tension. You can also look for statements that seem overbearing. If you reversed the subject and verb, would the intent to provoke remain while not seeming so ponderous?

“Art has always been this—pure interrogation, rhetorical question less the rhetoric—whatever else it may have been obliged by social reality to appear.” —Samuel Beckett

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.