Friday, July 10, 2009

Rhetorical Questions

Have you ever wondered what would happen if an agent’s answer to your rhetorical question was no? Or how rhetorical questions are really just filler and tell a reader nothing about your book? Have you thought about the fact that query letters should be informative and substantive and rhetorical questions are neither of those?

Agent Jessica Faust thought of these things and more as she rejected yet another query letter peppered with rhetorical questions. This letter, this author actually, asked if she ever wondered what it would be like if the world were run by goats. Since her answer was no she figured she didn’t have to read any further.

Strangely enough I remember the very moment I learned about the rhetorical question. Choir practice, sixth grade. The director asked a question and some smart-mouth from the back row answered, at which point we learned that the question was rhetorical. I wondered then and wonder now what is the point of a question you don’t expect or want an answer to?

I know other agents have blogged about a dislike for the rhetorical question, and while, truthfully, I have nothing against it, I just don’t see the point. At least once a week I receive a query in which the first paragraph is a laundry list of rhetorical questions, and I’ll tell you that, yes, I have rejected queries simply on the basis that my answer to those questions is a no. My assumption? If I have never wondered what would happen if goats ruled the world, then I would assume I have no interest in reading your book.

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.



Anonymous said...

So how was Thrillerfest? How many people attended? We'd like to know some industry news!

Anonymous said...

Writers are often advised in craft books to create "what if" questions when coming up with a premise for a book.

They're also advised to make their pitches seem glamorous, like the copy for book jackets. I think both of these things contribute to the use of rhetorical questions in query letter.

Sara J. Henry said...

You learn this early in journalism school or any feature writing class - never, ever, ever lead with a question the reader can answer No to. Because then you've just lost your reader.

But at least you've saved the time reading the query letter.

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

Anon 8:53:

Honestly I only went to agentfest and only got the chance to chat with one other agent so I'm afraid I've got no real news for you.


Rick Daley said...

If goats ruled the world, there would be a lot more kids.

Anonymous said...

Rick Daley--LOL. Thanks for that. You just made my day!

Unknown said...

I'm far too Type A for rhetorical questions

Liana Brooks said...

It's so easy to slip into rhetorical questions though...


At least I'm not querying today. There's still time to polish my query. Sometimes it seems that the query takes more work than polishing the manuscript.

Robena Grant said...

And to that Rick, I give you a head butt and say maaaaaaaaa. : )

I agree with Anon 8:54, rhetorical questions arose from the "what if" question for the premise of the book. However, asking "what if" was really meant to be for the writer's own use, a sentence to keep you on track as the writer, to remind you why you wrote this particular story. It was the original idea. I always type mine out and put it on the frame of my computer.

I think we writers misunderstood and then misused that sentence and incorporated the question within our pitch or query. I've removed the "what if" words from my one sentence original idea and created a statement so I don't fall back into that bad habit of asking a RQ.

Mira said...

Sara - that's an interesting point, and it's good to know.

I think writers use rhetorical questions to try to spark interest. But I think they also use them to change the rhythm of the piece and/or vary the style. So I get why writers are drawn to them - I personally find them fun to write.

But I can totally see why agents might dislike them. Rherorical questions can look like lazy writing - although they may not be. But a rhetorical question also requires extra effort on the part of the reader. The reader has to stop and dig for an answer. Not a big deal unless you're reading hundreds and hundreds of queries. That type of small irritation could add totally up, and work against the writer.

This is why it's so good to have dialogue between agents and writers. So, thanks Jessica.

On the other hand...I thought the world was already being run by goats. Did I miss something here?

Anonymous said...

Isnt the purpose of rhetorical questions in queries to build supense and pique interest? If an agent holds these in such distain, doesnt that simply say the ones they've read havent worked as inteneded? Do you really believe Ms. Faust doesnt understand the intent of these authors?

M. K. Clarke said...

Not all rhetorical Qs are wrong or bad to put in a query; it's knowing which rhetorical Qs the writer should ask, if at all, in a query.

If they ask typical rhetoric Qs in a query, it's possible the story's not fleshed enough to pose a fresh Q to the agent to not answer a resounding NO to.

Here's one: What if we writers left out the "what ifs" in the query? Those "what ifs" are for our eyes only, anyway :).


Mark Terry said...

On the other hand, I sent out a query for a freelance gig on Monday that began with: I wonder how many of your other respondents have written a book on the topic?

And I got a response back on Wednesday with high interest. I don't know if that's exactly rhetorical, but it worked.

So is this a rhetorical question that might catch your attention?

What if my last published novel sold 400,000 copies in hardcover and my agent just died from a papercut-induced infection and I'm looking for representation?

Hillsy said...

If you took a rhetorical question, shoved it in a bag, took it to to the top of the tallest tree in the forest and then, while no one was around, the tree fell down - would people realise that sometimes words should stay in their heads and not ejected into a public forum?

I've noticed modern Gameshow contestents exhibit this worrying trend now.

Word Verification - Mycli: Mowgli's sister

Meg Spencer said...

@Anonymous 9:47: I think not using rhetorical questions is a rule just like every single other rule. The rules are there to say "most people are going to get this wrong, so unless you really, really understand what you're doing, it's best not to go there."

At least, that's how I approach pretty much anything that's offered as a rule. Understand why it's a rule, and don't break it unless you have a really good reason.

Dara said...

I never understand the point of rhetorical questions either. I'm always the snarky one to give an answer when one is asked. :P

Kim Lionetti said...

I don't think that rhetorical questions are quite as problematic in a nonfiction query.

But there's something about using them in a fiction query that feels stiff and contrived, like a bad piece of dialogue. It's like using a gimmick to try to attract the agent's attention. Any kind of gimmick can make a person wary. It gives you a gut reaction that the gimmick's being used to cover up the lack of quality. If your query is strong and the story raises some interesting issues, then give the agent the benefit of the doubt that they're asking themselves those rhetorical questions without you prompting them.

Rick Daley said...

I just call 'em as I see 'em.

Some people say the glass is half empty. Some people say the glass is half full. I notice the glass is made of plastic and call it a cup.

Now, back on topic of rhetorical questions, if there was an episode of Jeopardy with all rhetorical questions, would all of the answer screens be blank?

Anonymous said...

Jessica or Kim,

I know you always say that rules aren't set in stone. What if your query does NOT begin with a rhetorical question. Instead, the hook and premise are all there, the way they should be, but you end the paragraph with a rhetorical question that emphasizes the problem/conflict the hero/heroine faces...kind of like a cliffhanger question. Can that work or will it turn you off...even if you loved the hook? I'm not talking about a "what if" question...more of a "will he/can he".

Kim Lionetti said...

Anonymous 12:37 --

You mean like "Can he get there in time to save the girl and still make it back to watch the game?" Those don't bother me so much that it would completely turn me off. But I think it's stronger to not use a question and say "He'll need to use Adrian Peterson-like speed to rescue his damsel from sure destruction and then return to his couch in time for Minnesota's kick-off and an ice cold beverage.

Mira said...

Kim - I thought that was well said.


I care about Rick D. I really do. We go way back, at least 6 months or maybe 7, so we're old buds.

But I just want to say that I made a joke too. I did. Rick made a joke, but so did I. And maybe it wasn't the funniest joke in the world, but it wasn't the worst one either. I've read much worse jokes. And some of them were even about goats.

So, in case people were wondering if I would get really upset when you mentioned that I made a joke, I want to reassure you, I would not.

I'm just saying. For future reference.

Adrienne said...

As someone who used rhetorical questions in her query, let me possibly illustrate an exception: When the rhetorical questions themselves are meant to demonstrate a sense of tone, and help explain the plot.

My letter did not begin with rhetorical questions, but ended with them. They were melodramatic, jokey, very much like the end of the old Batman series (Same Bat Time, Same Bat Channel) and meant to at the same time give yet more of the plot.

You see when the plot of your story is a very straightforward episodic adventure it can be difficult to concisely get what happens across without it seeming like a boring list.

Now of course I don't have it on any authority how well received my queries were, whether people requested my MS despite the rhetorical device, not because of it. But I'd say, like anything, it really depends.

Anyway, here is the rhetorical part to my query, feel free to analyse it, whether it works for you guys or not. I don't really care if you want to be negative as the book is already published. I just thought it could be interesting to discuss.

"But she must use her judgment carefully. Can she, for example, trust Lord Poppinjay or Coriander the Conjuror? Will Captain Magnanimous live up to his name or is it a clever misnomer? Will she ever elude the Daughters of the Founding Fathers’ Preservation Society? And what, oh what will she do when she finally comes face to face with Pirate Captain Steele the Inevitable, captain of the most deadly pirate ship this side of the equator (whichever side that may be) – the Ironic Gentleman?"

The Swivet said...

"My assumption? If I have never wondered what would happen if goats ruled the world, then I would assume I have no interest in reading your book."

Just fell off my chair laughing...

Anonymous said...


That's exactly what I meant and your example had me cracking up.

Thanks for the feedback!

Anon 12:37

Kim Lionetti said...


You're right. Context is key. And there are always excellent exceptions.

Yours seem to have helped illustrate the tone of the book, so their inclusion was appropriate.

Anonymous said...

I disagree that rhetorical question don't provide information. The example - This letter, this author actually, asked if she ever wondered what it would be like if the world were run by goats, tells me that the book is about our politicians.

Kristin Laughtin said...

Have you ever wondered what would happen if an agent’s answer to your rhetorical question was no?
This was the first thing I wondered in the first entry I ever read about using rhetorical questions in queries.

I'm sure there's some situation out there where a rhetorical question has worked/could work, but I think it's better if the query is written to make me want to read about a world ruled by goats rather than asking me if that's something I've wondered about before and would therefore possibly be interested in.

Anonymous said...


Maybe you should answer rhetorical question filled query letters with rhetorical questions of your own. "Have you ever wondered what it would feel like if I rejected your query? What would you do if I threw you in the slushpile?"

Just kidding, but couldn't resist. I could have been on the wrong end of that letter before this blog!

Anonymous said...

Rhetorical is way too passive of an approach for me.

Anonymous said...

The best, and for my $ the only way to start a pitch is the classic, "When a [occupation of main character] discovers [event/crime/whatever], s/he must [overcome bad crazy stuff].

Anything else is just messing around.

tashiana said...

Thanks for this. One day I would like to be an author, and it's nice to know what and what not to include in query letter.

Rhyanna said...

I think a few people should take writing classes, Critical Analysis comes to mind. hehehe...boring yes, but it may help.
I've usually started my query letter with "The Story begins... and then try to fit in as much detail as I can." I submitted a query-synopsis-first 58 pages a week ago, so fingers are crossed that i get to send the rest.
>>trying to get a minor in Interdisciplinary Writing Rhetoric. Owe the university so need to pay before can return. Only about 18 credits left to complete. In the meantim, I keep writing.

Sandra Cormier said...

I'm surprised Bill E. Goat hasn't dropped by today.

Andy Rooney introduced me to the Rhetorical Question. He was a master.

Mira said...

Ha. Sandra.

That was funny. Ha.


Rhyanna, I remember taking Rhetoric in college - absolutely the best class I ever took, ever. Taught me critical thinking and how to present an argument. How fun to be minoring in it.