Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, August 27, 2007

Death, Locusts, Plagues, Queries Beginning With Rhetorical Questions

Lock the doors. Close the windows. Make sure the kids are safe. And for the love of Justin Bobby, stay away from the computer. There is a scourge sweeping the nation.

My stance on queries beginning with rhetorical questions is well-documented. Normally I am a mild-mannered fellow. I always wave "thanks" when a driver lets me into their lane, and when pigeons hit me in the face with their wings when they fly by me, I blame myself -- pigeons just don't understand how I walk.

Queries beginning with rhetorical questions, however... this I cannot bear.

And I have some bad news. I'm losing. The frequency of queries beginning with rhetorical questions is rising. Sweet Magnolia cupcakes, I'm losing!

I know, I know - what a strange battle to be shedding tears over (yes, I cry every time I receive one of these letters. Leave me alone). But I will riddle you this: there is no way to make a rhetorical question an interesting start to a query.

The more extreme the rhetorical question (Have you ever wondered if space aliens live in your underwear drawer?) the more I want to say, "NO." The more mundane the rhetorical question (Have you ever felt sad?) the more I want to say, "NO." Only the second no is more of a sarcastic no, like noooooo, rather than the first no, which is more of a serious no. It's all about inflection, people.

Some have pointed out that very good ad campaigns have utilized rhetorical questions. Some have pointed out that movie pitches often use rhetorical questions. True and true. Query letters and rhetorical questions, however, go together like peanut butter and asphalt.

So I have a challenge for you today: maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I should surrender the battle and pledge fealty to my rhetorical question overlords. Should you have the talent, the wit, the hardy constitution, write a rhetorical question that would make a great beginning to a query letter. Let's see if it can be done. I'm ready to be convinced.

Or you could craft the wildest, craziest, most hilarious rhetorical question that would ever grace my inbox. You know. Whichever one you would find more fun.


Graham said...

Have you ever had a quest against rhetorical questions?

(HA! I found one you had to say YES to!)

Nathan Bransford said...


You are correct! I did say, "Yes." Then I tapped my fingers together and said, "Tell me more about this.... quest."

Although given the way my quest is going, I don't think it's going to have a happy ending.

amanda h said...

Were you ever taught that rhetorical questions were not meant to be answered?

(another one that deserves a YES!)

MLM said...


Aren't rhetorical questions ones for which formal answers aren't required or expected? And, no, that's *not* a rhetorical question. :O)

In case you haven't already had your daily allowance of totally useless trivia: According to EATS, SHOOTS & LEAVES (hilarious title, eh?), "In the 1580s, English printer Henry Denham invented a 'rhetorical question mark' for use at the end of a rhetorical question; however, it died out of use in the 1600s. It was the reverse of an ordinary question mark, so that instead of the main opening pointing back into the sentence, it opened away from it."

Hmm...if your would-be authors used this rhetorical question mark, perhaps their queries would be more interesting? :o)

Nathan Bransford said...

Amanda and MLM,

You are correct that rhetorical questions aren't meant to be answered, but I never claimed to be normal.

Kylie said...

Aren't you glad I'm not going to type a rhetorical question?

(AHAHA! I've always wanted to do that. Sorry, Nathan.)

The Anti-Wife said...

Have you ever wondered if adding cow manure to asphalt would create an odor so obnoxious that no one would want to drive anymore and would therefore decrease the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere?

Lawrence said...

"Are you perhaps wondering why I, Michael Chabon, am sending you this query?"

serenity said...

From O.J. Simpson: "Dear Editor, what if I did do it?"

(not that I'm condoning - just trying to win the game)

Dwight's Writing Manifesto said...

"Have you ever wondered what it would be like to duct tape Andy Rooney to a chair and beat him to death with a plastic Wiffleball bat?"

Niteowl said...


"What happens when a narcissistic frat-boy and a chimpanzee who's up to no good team up to fight crime, correct fashion sense, and save the world from Aunty O'Moldy's Genuine™ Lard substitute?"

"What would you do if your mind was locked inside a man-eating robot the size of three football fields?"

"Do you often wonder why erotic vampire lit could not be married to a steampunk version of Robo-tech?"

"What if all your fears had been made real, and were hiding under the hat of a short squat man who wore only brown tweed suits"


Why exercise when you can Pancakerate™?

Having trouble visualizing your success-path and how it prioritizes with regards to your daily action items?

Have you been looking for a much-maligned System of Success that can have you doubly fabulous, doubly good-looking, and doubly-rich with you lifting a finger?

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Not that I'd start my query like this, but it fits:

"What's a boy to do when his own tits attack?"

Dwight's Writing Manifesto said...

"Am I the only one who wonders why there isn't more literary erotica written featuring protagonists romancing farm animals dressed up in high heeled shoes and corsets?"

Jen said...

Have you ever wondered how to win a war against rhetorical questions?

This sounds like the beginning of an ad campaign to me....yes, that's it, scroll down to find out how you can by the Rhetorical Question Blaster kit...

Scott said...

Can you imagine a world where your mom's underwear had never been munched by aliens?

Nathan Bransford said...


You see! That's a great rhetorical question, but which one would you prefer:

Can you imagine a world where your mom's underwear had never been munched by aliens?


It was just a normal day until Scott saw space aliens eating his mom's underwear.

I guess my follow-up question would be -- is there ever a time when an opening is better because it's a rhetorical question? It always seems like a non-rhetorical question opening makes it more interesting. But again, I could be wrong.

C.J. said...

what happens when one man's psudo-obsession with jellyfish tanks becomes a murderous obsession?

cyn said...

nathan, you've swayed me. when i write the dreaded query letter, i will not cannot may not start with a rhetorical question. cross my heart pinky swear, etc.

so hey, it's nathan: 1
rhetorical question : 1,000,000,000

it ain't so bad. =)

jason evans said...

Is it wrong when Ricky wants to shake his mother into jello for suggesting, yet again, he'd be better off in law school? This literary agent's sleepness nights just got a dose of warm milk on acid. The Manuscript that Kicked Me in the Jewels is a slip stream, fantasy drama of 80,000 words.

Jen said...

Nathan -

I think you're right. Opening lines do sound better without rhetorical questions.

I wasn't sure before, but after reading that last example you just gave, I think I've got to agree. It sounds more focused.

You’ve convinced me.

Now you’ve just got like 10,000 more people to convince, so they’ll stop sending you RQ’s.

ellis said...

Consider the freakin' lilies of the field, who neither toil or spindle.
Is spindling something the manufacturer forbids? Along with 'do not fold, spindle or mutilate'?

Anonymous said...

If a whipsmart literary agent were dispensing invaluable advice about the world of querying, would you be smart enough to follow it?

'drew said...

You'd think it would be hard to write an entire book in rhetorical questions, wouldn't you? Doesn't it sound like the kind of weird experiment that someone like Beckett would try? But what if someone pulled it off really well? In my novel Don't You Think?, a famous female singer-songwriter named Paulana Dorrissette (does that sound like someone you know about?) writes a song entirely in rhetorical questions--but who would listen to such a song? And what if this song is the only thing that can stop the imminent destruction of the Earth? Don't you suppose this scenario would lead to a gripping and hilarious 70,000-word novel?

Wouldn't you like to read the manuscript? Can you contact me at the information below if so? Is it all right if I thank you for your time?

Nathan Bransford said...


I just lit myself on fire after reading your pitch.

(actually it's very funny. Your pitch, not the burns)

Dwight's Writing Manifesto said...

Wow. I actually had a contest entry censored and deleted.

Nathan, you're not really Snark, are you?

Nathan Bransford said...


Yes, indeed. Please see me after class.

Kimber An said...

Hmmm, maybe you should post a warning label about this at the top of your blog. All Snarklings know we're supposed to do our homework first.

burgy61 said...

Actually Bob Dylan,s song "Blowin in the Wind' is a series of rhetorical questions, according to Wiki.

Nathan Bransford said...



That's a good point. "How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?" is a actually good example of a line that is better because it's a rhetorical question.

Ok, so -- we can make a rhetorical questions ecxeption for Bob Dylan.

wanderer said...

Have you ever had really good asphalt peanut brittle?

Danette Haworth said...

Jen, Nathan
I agree with you.

Too funny!

Anonymous said...


I think for the rhetorical question queries you should take a big red Sharpie and write "NO" across it and then send it back.

That might begin to make a dent in your crusade.

Wouldn't make you any friends though.

Robbie H said...

Or how about a twist to the time honored fav: Have you ever wondered what life would be like if there were no such thing as hypothetical questions?

Kim Stagliano said...

"What would you do for a Klondike bar?"

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Just rewrite your standard rejection notice to read:

Do you wonder why I'm rejecting you?

Luc2 said...

In reaction to the latest anon post:

What if this query was accompanied by the best 3 chapters you've ever read? Would you write NO across it, as a matter of principle? My male ennui novel, "Agent of the devil" follows a blogging agent who's trying to change the writing world. Will he stick to his principles, or represent reprehensible authors, who just keep querying with rhetorical questions?

Scott said...


>Can you imagine a world where your
>mom's underwear had never been
>munched by aliens?
>It was just a normal day until Scott
>saw space aliens eating his mom's

But there's a difference. In my version, having mom's underwear munched by aliens is normal, and in yours, it's what makes the day abnormal.

I guess I'd have to say something like:

It was a normal day until Nathan noticed that aliens had not munched his mom's underwear.

I agree with you about rhetorical questions, but there's something in my first version that's lacking in the second.

Guess I'd better work on the second before I submit a query about a world where it's normal to have your mom's underwear be munched by aliens. If you light yourself on fire too many more times, well, people might start to talk.

Brandi. said...

My bit was along the same lines as 'drew (although his is much funnier and mine would only work as a book for writers):

Don't you just hate it when newbie writers send query letters stacked with rhetorical questions? How do they think they'll ever get published? HOW DO I GET OUT OF THE SLUSH PILE? offers the best writing advice ever given in a succient, yet humorous, way. Written by now-crazy-man and former esteemed literary agent Nathan Bransford, this 22,000 word manuscript is sure to make editors and agents weep with joy.

Scott said...

I got it:

Nathan couldn't imagine a world where his mother's underwear had never been munched by aliens.

Hmm. I think I might be on to something...

Christopher M. Park said...

I'm with Nathan on this one. I can't think of any rhetorical question that isn't more vivid in simple statement form. The nature of being asked a questing like that is simply distracting at the start of a query.

Of course, before I saw that everyone else had the same idea, I was tempted to submit:

"Have you ever wondered why we keep submitting rhetorical questions to you?"

Of course, that would require a pretty substantive followup, now that I've hooked your interest...

Scott said...

One more, and then I think I'll shut up--until the next one.

In rewriting my rhetorical question as a statement, I think I landed on the reason rhetorical questions don't work. They address "you" instead of being based on the character.

When you read a question, you might think something like, "Who cares what I can imagine? Who is your character and what's his problem?"

Subservient No More said...

I'm not even going to try to be clever and come up with a rhetorical question today, but I was thinking perhaps the plague was started by movie trailers. I notice a lot of them begin with the guy with the deep, scary voice asking some sort of rhetorical question.

Anonymous said...

Thank goodness my agent writes my cover letters now.

Scott said...

Subservient No More might be on to something.

Forget about rhetorical questions for a minute. How many queries do you get that start with "In a world where..."?

Nathan Bransford said...

Subservient No More and Scott-

I definitely think movie parlance has invaded people's notions of a query letter (and some people even provide a logline in their query), but you may be surprised to know that I get very few letters that begin with "In a world where..."

I'm as surprised as you are.

Loquacious Me said...


Obviously then, we need to start a trend of audio-queries, like the greeting cards that play music when opened. The aversion to rhetorical questions is obviously just a matter of delivery.


Anonymous said...

Hi Nathan,

How do you feel about starting a query with a question that isn't rhetorical? I started my query with this question: How can you tell if your doctor cares more about keeping your HMO happy than keeping you healthy? I hit paydirt. Multiple agents were interested, and I got representation.

By the way, I don't have connections, so agents selected my query from their slush piles.

Thanks in advance for your answer.

Josephine Damian said...

OK. I've been in school all day so I can see the jelly tank idea has already been used by cj, but I'll use it anyway with a slightly differnt spin:

Dear Agent Nathan,

What if you returned home from work and found an evil albino trapped inside your jellyfish tank?

Do you think the first words out of your mouth would be: Sweet, my answer is get out of my car?


katemoss said...

Have you ever wondered what percentage of the population is trying to write the Great American Novel at this very moment? Unfortunately this is all in vain. Why, you might ask? Because you're holding the Great American Novel in your hands at this very moment.

Two questions. Cliche. Repetition of cliches. Arrogance. Yep, looks like all the basic elements of the agent-getting query letter are here... wouldn't you agree?

Tammie said...

Subservient has a point, you ask a question and you come off sounding like the "movie guy" voice and if you start of with the "Have you ever wondered?" You come off sounding like Andy Rooney.

Too funny.

LitWitch said...

"How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?"

Heck, it's not original, but then again, none of Nathan's rejected query letters due to rhetorical questions are, either! ;-)

Ello said...

What hair color does a bald man put on his license plate?

Why does belly button lint smell like cheese?

What is the air speed velocity of an African Swallow?

Holey hole in a donut! Will the dynamic duo escape the inescapable doom trap as they are suspended over a vat of molten lava by the time we tune in at the same bat time and bat station?

Anna said...

What would you do if the fate of the world was in Justin Bobby's hands? Would you buy a homeboy phone and a jelly fish tank and spend your last days chillin'? Or would you join Justin Bobby in the epic battle of good vs. evil thereby becoming Nathan Bobby?

Jen A. said...

Does truth and time really tell all?

Anonymous said...

In a world where a two-named boy - pretty as a young Rob Lowe and who wears combat boots to the beach - ditches a woman hotter than he is for a devastatingly easy party girl, what might it take for the boy - the nefarious Justin-Bobby - to leave his transparent, bad-boy persona behind in favor of multi-syllabic words, voice inflection, and a clue?

L.C.McCabe said...


You said, "I never claimed to be normal."

And my reply to you is:

Why be normal?

That was the slogan of a button I wore while I worked as a waitress at a college town bar. I almost bought, "You're ugly and your momma dresses you funny" but I thought the first one might generate more conversation with patrons and thus better tips.

It also reminded me of Young Frankenstein and the brain from Abby something.

Good luck on your Sisyphean task of eradicating rhetorical questions darkening your inbox.


Edward said...

The great flagellations you've had, what do you remember most about them?

Anne Dayton said...

Nathan, will you marry me?

I think that sounds better as a question. Oh, but you're talking about rhetorical questions. Sorry, I get confused.

No, but seriously, will you?

Stephen Parrish said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Does anyone have any lingering doubts as to whether Nathan Bransford is one of the most charming agents on the planet?


Danette Haworth said...

Susan, Anne,

I saw him first. Oh wait, he's engaged.


Like Susan and Anne? In a world of more than six hundred agents, why do beautiful ladies who happen to be excellent writers fall for one already engaged agent? And why are we sword fighting in a dark warehouse?

brian_ohio said...

Got milk?


Have you ever really cared what happens on The Hills?

David L. McAfee said...

How 'bout this one:

Have you ever thought you were a literary agent only to learn you were actually an English teacher to a horde of aspiring novelists?

Jess said...

I'm a new reader, have popped in here on and off. Hi!

I had to comment on this one - I NEVER understand the use of the RQ. I always want to answer it, too. I think it's even worse when the RQ details a choice. "What if you had to choose between saving your sister's life, or seven hundred innocent strangers?" ... Just doesn't do it for me.

I'll be sticking around the comment trails now that I've introduced myself. ^_^

Isak said...

Two different ones...

Have you ever smelled something so awful it made your eyes water?

or, how about a question within a question:

Have you ever asked yourself, 'Where have all my daydreams gone?'

Anonymous said...

Too bad there's no web site called 101 Reasons to Stop Writing Rhetorical Questions. :)

Church Lady said...

Have you ever wondered what people do on Friday afternoons in 'Chop-Chop' square in downtown Riyadh?

I liked Serendipity's hypothetical rhetorical.

Southern Writer said...

Which is more intimate, a kiss, or a sentence well-spoken?

Ray said...

Have you ever breezed past 4chan /b/ and wept for humanity, but less than you might have wept for those wasted sacrifices of Bright Eyes,and his pet rat, Thomas?

I know I have.

Omi said...

I will absolutely remember to preface my query to you with "In a world where..."

Hmm perhaps it will be like this:

In a world where elves rule and humans are almost mythical, an intrepid young girl from Earth finds herself thrust into a magical quest to save the world...

(Notes: yes, that is my story. no, that is not my query for it. XDD ... unless it's to you. I shall specifically point this post out in it.

"Dear Mr. Bransford,

I am a longtime reader of your blog, which brings me to the beginning of my query.

In a world where elves rule and ...")

scruffziller said...

I have found that rhetorical questions on serve best as insider communication; as a phrase of endearment for an inside joke. Such as, "Where's Roger at tonight?" But my meaning is, "why isn't Roger here?" Or just acknowledging his absence. Not literally wanting to know where and what he is doing in place of his absence. If you ask this rhetorical question to someone who doesn't like you and/or Roger(you don't know this person has a beef with you or Roger), they will try to insult you by answering the question as if it was literal. "He's at home I imagine, I don't let him know what I'm doing on my days off." The best thing to do those people is not to ask of said person at all. You're right Nate, Rhetorical Questions are EEEEVVVVVIIIILLLLLL!!!! If you are brave enough, you can ask them, but be prepared to be humiliated or throw it back in their face by saying, "In that case, FUCK YOU! And GOOD DAY!!"

EricLeb010 said...

Don't you just hate when you send something and notice something wrong about it right after?

I just sent my query with a rhetorical question as a first line. Then this just so happens to be the first page I read after sending it.


Jean Yi said...

Are you Nathan Bransford?

If you are, do you want to offer me representation for this book? Do you think it will be fun? I think it's Hello, Cow, a 45,00-word children's picture book, but what do you think? What do you think about the main character? Why should she go on a quest to stop McDonald's from taking over the world with their poisonous Big Macs? Should she accept the help of Gwen Pattywright, an avid hater of McDonald's? In this book, do you like the fact that the menu is written entirely out of rhetorical questions? Can I illustrate the 300-page book?

Should I tell you that I have no credentials? I love the Lakers, do you? I think you will like this story, so should I tell everyone that it will be the next Harry Potter?

Can I thank you for your time? Should I tell you that my name is Jean Yi?

The Randomist said...

I was actually tempted to start my query with "Have you ever had your head rolled up in a car window?"

"Have you ever let go of your sister's wheelchair while going down a hill?"

"Have you ever burnt your own ear with a cigarette?"

There are two burning rhetorical questions in my mind though.

Why does Sally sell shells by the sea shore if you can just walk down there and pick them up for free?


Why don't they sell broccoli in cans?

Elizabeth said...

So I'm guessing I should not start my first query with this:

How far would you go to chase your dreams? Well, fifteen year-old Ellec, just an average boy from the village of Shimahee, wants to find out. His dream? The Sapphire, a magical gem located somewhere in the mountains in the far reaches of Terranom.

And I'm thinking I should change it to:

When fifteen year-old Ellec decides to see how far he must go to chase his dreams-and escape the responsibilities of his village- he realizes he may not be the only one racing to find the Sapphire, though he might be the only who can find it in time and push back the darkness rising in Terranom.

Yeah... I like the second one better. You may be on to something. Thank you!

Related Posts with Thumbnails