What Are You Thinking?

Rhetorical questions are something I run across much too often and are yet another place I want to yell, “Show, don’t tell!” They pull readers where you want them to go, rather than subtly pointing the way. Trust readers to follow your breadcrumbs. And let them be surprised.

Here’s an example of what I mean.  “And then I’d had the freaky dream about that  purple cat again. Did it have something to do with Tony? Could it have been a message from him? Could he be trying to communicate from another world? And how had he escaped that evil bouncy-house anyway?”

Chances are, your readers are already wondering these things. So reiterating them in questions is making a beautiful allusion and then explaining it. Like if poetry came with a translation.

If we’d been shown that Tony had somehow escaped the evil bouncy house, and then the MC had this dream that seemed out of place, and that’s all we knew, well, I think that’s much more interesting than the author handing over all the pieces, saying “you should think about these things.”

You’re giving hints. And unless readers (beta, critiquers, etc.) have asked for hints, they most likely don’t want them. Or need them. Because readers are smart, and appreciate a little mystery.

A few rhetorical questions are fine. Sometimes it’s key to a moment of interiority. But when they’re overused, it’s taking away that sense of accomplishment that comes along with reading a really great book. If your reader can get to the end and say “I knew it! I was right!” that’s awesome. If they get to the end and are totally blown away by surprises, “I never saw that coming but it makes total sense!” that is even better.

Do you think I got my point across? Are the writers feeling inspired? Do I have something in my teeth?


  1. Mary Zisk · January 14, 2016

    Why was Heather the first mentor to warn me about rhetorical questions? What did she know that others didn’t? But why do I see rhetorical questions in so many published books, especially first- person middle grade novels? When I read them in novels, why do I want to yell “See Heather!”? And why is Heather always sitting on my shoulder saying “No, no,no…”?


  2. ddominikwickles · January 15, 2016

    Do you think I should open the cellar door? Do you think it will change my life? Do you think I’m stupid? 🙂


  3. Sheila M. Averbuch · January 21, 2016

    Ouch. And yes, exactly what I needed now. Thanks Heather! I love how you put your finger on things that don’t work, or diminish the reading experience, AND you explain why the diminish it. – Sheila


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