Sunday, October 06, 2013

Nutshell Spoilers and the Rhetorical No-no.

Doing a ton of critiques for Writers Digest has been exhausting but fun, too. I'm in the home stretch -- 180 down, 20 to go -- and should finish in the next couple of days. I'll tell you this: 200 critiques in a row means common opening problems become crystal clear. I'm going to talk about a couple of pervasive ones today.

Please know, I AM NOT PICKING ON ANYONE. Everyone who sent in work to be critiqued is BRAVE and AMAZING, and this is NOT a negative reflection of any one person's work at all.

Out of 200 critiques, I'd say easily 85% of them had at least one, if not both, of these problems. Which means, obviously, they are common and easily fixable issues. . . and if this high a percentage of the WD crits had them, chances are, lots of people who did NOT get a crit may be helped by this info, too.


This is a very common problem in first drafts. It's where the author starts with a paragraph that tells the reader in a nutshell what is about to happen, and/or the lesson that the main character will learn by the end of the scene, chapter or even the end of the book. . . and then the actual scene starts. It's almost like the "thesis statement" we used to have to write in school essays. Like so:
It was a day like any other. Little did Moxie the Dog know, but her world was about to get rocked. Not only would a new person soon be moving in to the house . . . but that person was bringing a CAT. Moxie had never met a cat, and probably would like to eat cat. There was bound to be trouble. But the two will have to learn to get along and even be friends if they are going to get through the next six months.

The doorbell rang again. Moxie was barking ferociously and leaping at the door. "BE NICE, it's just my new roommate!" Jennifer the Human yelled. "You'd better get used to it, Moxie, because she is going to live here now."
Not only is this clunky example torn from the headlines (my sister and her cat are coming to stay at my house soon!), but it illustrates the problem: it tells the reader what is about to happen before it happens, or gives away the end before the story even starts. It's not foreshadowing, it's a tension-killer. Since the author has gone to the trouble of chewing and digesting the information for me, I don't have to read on.

The good news is, it's extremely easy to fix this. Just get out the ol' red pen and start with the actual beginning of the scene.


Often in drafts, the author peppers the main character's thoughts with rhetorical questions.

Here are some NON-rhetorical questions: When your character asks questions inside their own brain, who, exactly, is your character asking? Themselves? The reader? Are they breaking the fourth wall? If it is a thing where you have a very voicey narrator that is addressing the audience throughout the whole book, the occasional question is probably OK. Otherwise, can it.

Rhetorical questions make your character sound wishy-washy and confused. It reads like shorthand or filler; like you've left a note for yourself: "develop this later!" They're ALMOST ALWAYS better expressed as declarative statements. And recasting them as statements often gives you a chance to give us a taste of character or a sense of the stakes in an unobtrusive way.
ORIGINAL: "Can I even get this done in time? What if I blame it on Aliens?"

RECAST:  "There is no way I can get this done before school, and using the old 'Abducted by Aliens' routine isn't gonna fly this time around."

ORIGINAL: "I'd tried everything. Is it even possible to get rid of freckles? Is there such a thing as an anti-freckle potion?"

RECAST: "I'd scrubbed, rubbed, and even tried whipping up Freckle Juice like in that Judy Blume book we read in second grade. These blotches weren't going anywhere."
Like the Thesis Statement Spoilers above, rhetorical questions are another real tension-killer. There's a recent post on Mary Kole's blog that addresses problems with this tactic in much greater detail, but suffice to say: it's another way authors pre-chew the information for readers. It's almost like you are pointing the reader to what you want them to think or the conclusion you want them to draw, without allowing them the opportunity to piece the clues together themselves.

Trust your reader. We WANT to go on a journey with you and your characters! :-)


  1. Anonymous10:53 AM

    Ooh, the rhetorical questions thing is useful. I do that all the time... excuse me while I get my red pen.

  2. Anonymous12:07 PM

    Especially in short stories but also many novels, I love how you get to the end and realize the ending (sometimes the entire arc of the novel; see The Hunger Games) was already there on the first page. Not like these thesis statements, but in a code you don't know how to decipher UNTIL you've read the end. (I hope that makes sense. :) It is tough to do well, but worth the effort.

  3. The term "rhetorical question" confuses me a bit. To me, a rhetorical question is a question to which the asker and the audience are supposed to know the answer, and it is used to achieve a persuasive effect. I've noticed, though, that a lot of people in the book publishing industry use this term for any question asked by the point of view character as a kind of reflection on the situation, or - in queries - it is used by authors in an attempt to attract an agent's attention. I can understand that such questions in queries can be annoying to read, and I can also understand that a character thinking in questions all the time can become annoying, especially if the questions are obvious. But there are many books out there with characters thinking questions, and they serve a purpose. I've been going through my own manuscript to look for those questions, and though I found a few that worked better once changed into statements, there are still a reasonable few left that do not seem out of place and that seem to work well in a particular scene.

    So... sorry for the long story, but am I talking about the same kind of questions here, or are they different things?

    1. ARRGHH my long, thoughtful reply got eaten.

      Basically: I consider a rhetorical question to be any in which the asker does not require or expect an answer. That can be for dramatic flourish, or because it's just in their head, or for any other reason.

      It happens all the time. And in 9 out of 10 cases, the question would be stronger as a statement.

      As for asking questions in query letters . . . I'd avoid them. Highly overdone and highly irritating. They usually go like this: "Did you ever wonder why [highly ridiculous scenario]?" If the answer can be NO or a snarky comment, it's not a great first impression.

    2. Thank you for clarifying. :-)

  4. You know where folks are learning this, right? The Harry Potter novels are packed with the sort of tell-then-show technique that you call "spoiler alert." And rhetorical questions to communicate a character's inner state? Suzanne Collins is the queen of that. I don't think what you're reacting to are the techniques you describe, but rather to whether they're done well or not.

    1. Well, you're likely right. . . if they were done really well, I wouldn't notice them. :-)

  5. Anonymous10:19 PM

    Thanks for the insight. I'm inclined to believe someone who's been charged with the task of critiquing 200 submissions.

  6. I'll point out, though, that as writers we all know that (some) people regularly ask themselves questions in their heads. "Okay, how would this character react in that situation?" "What in the world should he say next?"

    And maybe I'm strange in this regard, but when I get into online debates, I often ask myself things like, "Wait a minute, am I guilty of the same thing I'm accusing this idiot of? Is it possible he has a point?"

    Now, these don't meet your definition of rhetorical questions, because after I ask them, I proceed to find answers. But some of your examples seem very much the same to me. I like the following recasting much better than the alternative you proposed: "Can I even get this done in time? 8:35 already ... oh, no way. What if I blame it on Aliens? Ha ha." In this version, the character is first experiencing legitimate doubts and resolving them, then spinning an actual rhetorical question as a means of defusing stress through humor. In your version, the character is leaping right to a conclusion without engaging in any contemplation, then implying that s/he has actually tried to use an 'Abducted by Aliens' excuse before. Why would the character tell him/herself not to do something that s/he has never done? I find the humorous rhetorical question much more believable than the nonreality-based overt statement.

    This is not to say that it's fine to use rhetorical questions as a crutch. Just that it's counterproductive to have an ironclad rule that characters aren't allowed to ask themselves questions in good writing.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Argh for some reason my comments are not working properly -- I answered below but I think it started it's own thread. I give up! *shakes fist at blog* ;-)

  7. I don't think of it as an "ironclad rule" -- more of a useful tip.

    There are times when a question is best. But most of the time, there's a stronger way to say it.

    My examples, I admit, are silly -- but I was showing a kid who has used every insane excuse in the book to excuse his tardiness, so much so that even the wildest are already used up. I didn't consider it "non-reality based" --but that's neither here nor there.

    At the end of the day, I think all writing "rules" are really just suggestions. There will come a time where you have to flout convention for the sake of voice or clarity. So take what resonates with you, and ignore what doesn't.

    1. Sorry if it sounded like I was trying to put the words "ironclad rule" into your mouth. I didn't think that was your intent. But too often I've seen people on writing boards take useful principles and turn them into inflexible dogma, so I just wanted to put in a word on behalf of properly done interior questions.

      Your excuse-making kid is a more interesting character than the ennui-ridden teen I was hearing in that line. : )

  8. Phew. Just checked. At least my current MG doesn't have *these* problems.

    Good luck with Cat and your sister, Jennifer.

  9. Dionna1:06 PM

    What am I going to do with this big, fat, puss-filled zit in the middle of my forehead?

    Will this zap-the-zit lotion work before 6 o'clock?

    Don't these type of questions build tension and anticipation?

    Why does Jennifer think so differently?

    Who does she think she is, anyway?

    (Do you think she knew I was kidding?)

  10. I'm bad with those questions! Thanks to a very helpful crit from an agent on an old MS, I've learned to watch out for them. But I still put a lot in first drafts and have to go back and chop chop chop. These two examples were great!

  11. A literary agent pointed out the questions thing to me, now those questins DIE. She was right, in every instance the line read stronger as a statement.


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