Nathan Bransford, Author

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Verdict on Rhetorical Questions

Rhetorical questions are clever, clever foes. Following yesterday's blog post in which I stepped up my aerial bombardment and general attack mode against these pests, I subsequently had a night I will not soon forget. Not only did rhetorical questions convince UNNAMED CABLE PROVIDER WHO I LOATHE to mess up its programming guide so that I missed The Hills, RQ also enlisted hoards of mosquitoes to attack me throughout the night. Despite a 3:00 am counterattack in which I slayed 10 of these foul beasts with a dustbuster, I woke up with a bite on my eyelid.

Well played, rhetorical questions. Well played indeed.

But despite this additional setback, and despite the best efforts of you the intelligent and savvy readers and commenters, who put together some very intriguing rhetorical questions involving The Hills, peanut butter, and rhetorical questions about rhetorical questions, I am here to announce that there are two rhetorical questions that would officially circumvent my vendetta:

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

and reader burgy61 pointed out that the classic Bob Dylan song "Blowin' in the Wind" is all rhetorical questions, and I subsequently acknowledged that "How many roads does a man walk down before you call him a man?" would probably catch my attention.

So I have an announcement: Michael Chabon and Bob Dylan are officially exempt from this rule. Otherwise, my feeling about them stands. I remain unconvinced that an opening to a query can be said better with a rhetorical question than with a non-question, and therefore I feel well-justified in my bias against them.

Especially now that they have enlisted the insect world to their cause.


Dwight's Writing Manifesto said...

I've updated the notes on your profile accordingly.

Jen said...

Can't say as I blame you. I too, would hate any enemy that could call the bugs to arms.

Out of all the RQ's out there, I happen to dislike the "have you ever" or "what would you do" sort of ones. (and since I hate them so much, it is my humble opinion that these RQs are the ones who sent the bugs after you, Nathan.)

eric said...

Can there be a worse place to be bitten by a skeeter than on the eyelid?

Oops, that an RQ, isn't it?


jason evans said...

Now you've done it.

Those cockroach antennae may tickle in the darkness, but the fun squishes to a yellow halt when you realize what's in there with you.

The rhetorical question horde is relentless.

Danette Haworth said...

What do you think about queries that end the hook with questions? When I read them, It seems like the author is micromanaging the reader.

For example:

When twentysomething NY agent NB blasts the rhetorical question, he thinks it's just another blog post--but it's not.

It's war.

A universal paradigm shift occurs. Earth falls out of its orbit, and NB loses his cable connection, causing him to miss The Hills. If that wasn't bad enough, an RQ SWAT team attacks NB at night, savagely wounding his eyelid.

Will NB become so insatiably itchy that he must put toothpaste on his mosquito bites? Does NB possess the power to overcome the RQ minions? And, most importantly, will NB be home when the rerun plays?

Nathan Bransford said...


I don't mean to swear off rhetorical questions entirely, and in fact I use them myself. They can be used effectively in a query letter even, but there's something about leading off a query letter with them that just doesn't work.

Kylie said...

Enlisting the mosquitos - that's just low.

Messing up the T.V. schedule - WTF?!?

I hope you find someway to get back at those RQ's, Nathan. You can't let them get away with that.

burgy61 said...

Can there be a worse place to be bitten by a skeeter than on the eyelid?

Yes, and you're just going to have to trust me on this one. It's an experience that I wouldn't recommend.

Mr. Bransford, I have a suggestion for the next query you get that starts out with a RQ. Send them a rejection letter filled with RQ, make it a form letter and use it every time you get another one.

Just a thought.

Chumplet said...

I totally support your decision to stick to your guns.

Yes, there is definitely a worse place to be bitten by a mosquie.

Fortunately for me, they all attack my husband, leaving me unscathed.

Anonymous said...

Yow! Sorry about the mosquitoes, that eyelid thing is the worst. You can't even put anything on it...


Danette Haworth said...


I really did mean to ask your opinion on "cliffhanger" questions at the end of a hook in a query.

I've seen query samples (better than my attempt at humor above) in which the hook ends with a question or two asking the reader about what will happen next.

These cliffhanger questions, the ones I've seen anyway, seem a little sitcom-like (the influence of TV and movies, as someone else pointed out), like the questions voiced over at the end of the old Underdog or Batman series.

Do these "cliffhanger" questions work for you? Or would it be better to reconstruct the cliffhanger as you did with the RQ?

Patti Auburn said...

I was bitten on the eyelid by a mosquito once whilst camping in Havasupai - my eye was swollen shut for 3 days. They raise them nasty in Havasupai.

I feel your pain.

Nathan Bransford said...

Patti, I really feel for you! Thankfully my eyelid mosquito bite is not as painful as yours, it's just a bit itchy. I got off lucky this time.

Nathan Bransford said...


Yes, I see what you mean about being very Batman-ish, although I hesitated to come out too strongly against them because they really can be done well elsewhere in the query. For instance, in my blog post Anatomy of a Query Letter the author uses a rhetorical question in a good way: "Eventually, she must decide: is it time to pull the plug on faith?"

So while I don't think a series of questions at the end is going to be very effective and will sound like a 60's TV show, a well-placed question can work. Just as long as it's not placed at the beginning.

Danette Haworth said...

Thank you, Nathan.

I took another look at the post you mentioned and saw how it worked. There's a bit of subtlety there, unlike those loud voice-overs!

Anonymous said...

Hey, Nathan, are you trying to flake out on your homies?
You are so complicated. Like Justin Bobby.
Have you seen my helmet anywhere?

I'll give you a dollar if you know what CB stands for.
Clues: Colorado, Heidy, Spenser. It's on all the mugs.

Edward said...

I will admit there are some hackneyed ways to approach an agent, but as a newbie, I want to protest a little. I have an agent I want to offer my novel to, a ghost story I think is pretty good. She sold a novel to St. Martins that I like, and she says she's looking for supernatural suspense. Perfect. I realize I could be wrong about my work being pretty good, but I've tried to make the query as interesting as possible. When I send this thing out, I realize it may not be the story the agent wants, but if I'm going to be dismissed on quirks alone, then maybe the novel just belongs on the shelf for now. It's a good story; I'm a serious writer, but dadgum, I've never written a query to an agent before, and I won't have to again after I get an agent that fits. I may come up short on my query, but I'm all about the story--I'm not all about the query. So what's a boy to do?

Scott MacHaffie said...

Nathan, it seems like one of the problems is that the queries are starting with questions, not really rhetorical questions.

"Have you ever wanted..." is just a question, like "Is your favorite color blue?"

Rhetorical questions aren't my strength (and I won't be using any in my query), but it should be something more along the lines of: "How many empires has the world suffered?"

or (modifying Moore's poem):

Where is the harp that once through Tara ranged?

Welshcake said...

Have you heard the theory about mozzies preferring sweet blood, Nathan?

Perhaps if you turn into Mr Bitter and Nasty Literary Agent, the little buggers will leave you be?

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I'm still laughing out loud, here, alone in my study. My neighbor is looking at me funny.

Maureen McGowan said...

Yikes, mosquitoes? Aren't you in San Francisco? When I pine for the fiords--no, I mean the Bay Area--one of the reasons is no mosquitoes.

And I'm with you on the opening queries with a rhetorical question thing. They always sound cheesy to me. And why would people argue with you? It's your preference. One of the amazing things about agents who blog is one gets to find these things out. If writers are in love with their rhetorical question queries they can a) not query you, b) expect a rejection (which really should lead them back to a), but some folks are stubborn), or c) send it to everyone else, but amend their letter to you.

Anonymous said...

Interestingly, since changing my query to a "What if" format, requests for additional material have tripled.

Question: What if I change the query back to its original format?

Zen of Writing said...

Ah, but the real question is, did Fox steal the idea for a new series from Pete Hamill? And can the author recover anything?

(Sorry, waxing rhetorical, I guess.)

Zen of Writing said...

Oh - my favorite way to kill mosquitoes is to spray them with a plant mister containing plain water, make whistling noises as they plummet to the floor from the weight, then mash them.

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