Why I Hate Rhetorical Questions

There are a spectrum of different opinions about using rhetorical questions in a pitch for your novel, but the one I've seen most publishing professionals ascribe to is: rhetorical questions suck (see this post and this post and this very straight-to-the-point tweet). I'm personally in agreement with that opinion.

"But Ellie!" you might say. "Rhetorical questions will help readers put themselves in the world of my story!"

Will they, though? Take this rhetorical question, for example:

"What would you do if demon vampire monkeys attacked?"

That tells you nothing about the actual characters involved in your story. It only tells you that it contains demon vampire monkeys. But agents want to know about your main character and what their problem is -- not some abstract situation. A better way to start this query would be something like:

"When the demon vampire monkeys attack, Lily vows to stop them."

"Well, okay," you might say. "But putting a rhetorical question at the end of the query adds mystery and intrigue to my pitch. It makes people wonder what will happen next!"

Does it, though? Let's take a look at this question:

"Can Lily defeat the demon vampire monkeys and save the world?"

The answer is obviously yes -- otherwise, you wouldn't have a story. Imagine you're a literary agent who's read a gazillion pitches that day. You're tired. You're grumpy. You're gonna take one look at that rhetorical question, go "Well DUH, she's gonna save the world," and move on.

In most cases, your query will come across as more purposeful and powerful if you turn that question into a "must" statement, like so:

"Lily must defeat the demon vampire monkeys and save the world."

The bottom line is, when it comes to rhetorical questions, there's usually a better, more powerful way to convey the same information. Not to mention that, as Michelle Hauck wrote in a blog post about this subject, you're going to look like an amateur if professionals don't like rhetorical questions and you include them anyway.

For an example of a successful way to use questions in a pitch/blurb, see this post from Janet Reid. This particular example works because it's a genuine, horrifying question that doesn't have a predictable answer. In the vast majority of cases, though, I believe rhetorical questions can be rephrased in a more effective way.

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