January 27th, 2011 / 8:05 pm
Craft Notes

Joan Crawford Says No Rhetorical Questions

All too often, when a writer wants to express some kind of doubt or curiosity or insecurity in their characters, they will invoke a plaintive rhetorical question like, “Ella loved her husband, didn’t she?” or “What was he thinking?” or “This wasn’t really her life, was it?” or “Did that really happen?” These  interrogatory  moments are a facile way of introducing tension, of letting the audience know an internal debate is taking place, of pandering in really annoying ways, of stating the blatantly obvious. Are rhetorical questions necessary though? I think not. They are lazy writing, using the questions to drive the narrative forward when that same forward motion could be achieved by just telling the damn story and showing that doubt or insecurity in other ways.  I have been seeing a rash of rhetorical questions lately. I now often cringe. I am even more troubled when a story begins or ends with a rhetorical question. In these instances, I am left with the impression that the writer is lacking confidence or that the writer is unsure of how to begin or where to end their story. Every one has a different set of rules for writing but I have to insist that two of those unbreakable rules must be: 1) do not use rhetorical questions unless absolutely necessary and 2) never begin or end your story with a question. It’s your writing. You (should) know the answers. Am I the only one who is driven crazy by rhetorical questions?

Wait. See what I just did there?

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  1. wrongtable

      Watch out. You’ll end up becoming an old fusspot, muttering to yourself with pharisaical glee over the crosswords. The darkest kind of fusspot.

  2. Roxane

      I am well on my way!

  3. Robert Alan Wendeborn

      (insert clever rhetorical question here)?

  4. seth

      Any definition of “absolutely necessary” is just going to be wrong. As with all things in writing, it seems like we should really just take it on a case-by-case basis and do away with any sort of rule-making whatsoever.

  5. seth

      And after writing that comment, I’ve decided that I’m never going to use a hyphen again.

  6. seth

      And after writing that comment, I’ve decided that I’m never going to use a hyphen again.

  7. seth

      And after writing that comment, I’ve decided that I’m never going to use a hyphen again.

  8. Sean

      Fuck. I just finished a story where the whole damn thing turns on a rhetorical question. The character says, “Can this be my life?” Now that line is lame without your post, but now it just seems clown lame.

      So, uh, thanks.

  9. david miller

      not sure if your story is lame or not, but ‘can this be my life?’ is (at least in the context of logic / linguistics) not a true rhetorical question.

      it’s a kind of ‘musing’.

      rhetorical questions are never really defined properly in rg’s post above.

      my definition: rhetorical questions are constructs that exploit a reader’s emotions in an attempt to point him/her towards a particular answer / response / argument.

      example, you say: ‘who doesn’t like a rhetorical question?’

      this then implies 1. that you as its author ‘speak’ for other people, 2. that this group of people ‘believes’ rhetorical questions are ‘likable’ and 3. this group is the majority or something–-you’re implying that it’s somehow out of the ordinary to ‘not like’ a rhetorical question.

      but you could’ve just as easily written the sentence to work the other way, for example:

      “who hasn’t read enough meaningless rhetorical questions?”

      in this case, the sentence uses the same construction, only leading the reader in the opposite direction, implying that rhetorical questions are somehow ‘not likable.’

      rhetorical questions are classic examples of fallacious arguments / logical fallacies.

      in the context of a narrator thinking out loud / questioning him/herself, it’s no longer a rhetorical construction.

  10. Sean

      I see your point. I’ll keep the line. Sort of easy since I was going to keep the line. But still.

  11. shaun gannon

      Is this not my beautiful workshop feedback?

  12. Josh

      “What made me take this trip to Africa?”

      Technically, according to David Miller’s post, this is not a rhetorical question, but I think it might be one of the type of questions that annoy Roxane and I thought I’d throw it out there. I can see her point about clumsy questions that are used as easy fixes, but this opening line of Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King made me immediately want to know why Henderson did go to Africa.

  13. Kyle Minor

      I think a lot of the time (in the hands of skilled writers who know how to use them), the questions aren’t rhetorical. They’re indirect feeds from the interior life of the character in the present moment. And they’re a lot more elegant than the overuse of italicized interior monologue directly quoted. And if you push them far enough (as Stephen Dixon has), they can become the entire story.

  14. Roxane

      Absolutely. Skilled writers can use these kinds of questions to excellent effect. I do find, however, that it is a rare occurrence.

  15. phmadore
  16. phmadore

      Guess I broke like more than one MFA rule in that story, reading over it. It’s second-person, talks about drugs, is chauvinistic, and all of that. Remains one of my favorite stories ever.

  17. BAC

      People internally ask questions all the time.

      Would it be okay if the narrator said something along the lines of “I wondered what he was thinking?” instead of “What was he thinking?”

      It’s the same info. just stated in a different way. Less words. More economical. And who doesn’t use these types of questions in real life anyway?

  18. deadgod

      I think these musings are accurate, though I’d phrase that last remark differently.

      A “rhetorical question” is actually not a “question” at all, because there’s no variety of possible answers; the question is actually an assertion, phrased ‘rhetorically’ as a question.

      (- which doesn’t mean that the questioned person couldn’t interfere with the (fake) questioner’s train of suasion by contradicting the assertion (present in the fake “question”). – just as an assertion can be contradicted with a counter-assertion.)

      A musing “question” with which, knowing the destination, one is taking fake-questioning steps to get there: that would be a “rhetorical question”. – at least, that’s my understanding: a “leading question” is meant to be a “rhetorical question” – the ‘lead’ admitting of the possibility of disruption, in addition to expressing the force of ‘leadership’.

      But a musing “question” that actually asks, that summons perspective and so admits of variety in answers and makes present the questioner’s lack of absolute control of the destination of the conversation, that question is not a “rhetorical question”.

      (Socratic questioning is, as I see it, not a kind of “rhetorical questioning” – though, after the fact of a Socratic conversation, it might seem so – , because the ‘Socratic’ questioner is open to going where the responder goes, regardless of that questioner’s interest in or perspective of some particular goal. (This is often denied – I think: wrongly – of Plato’s “Socrates”.))

      But every question is ‘rhetorical’ in the sense that all discourse is rhetorical. The phrase “rhetorical question”, which “question” entails ‘not even a “question”‘, unhappily traffics in an equivocation of the adjective ‘rhetorical’.

  19. Sherry Soule

      Totally agree. Great post. A lot of writers abuse rhetorical and/or internal questions in their prose and it smacks of author intrusion…plus it gets annoying for the reader.