When I turned fourteen years old or so, the first dating advice I received from my mother was:
The last thing a girl wants
to hear on a date is the question,
She explained that girls want to date someone with a plan, someone who's got it together and is capable of leading.
I’ve learned since that when a woman asks, “Do you like the red dress or the blue dress?” she wants you to care enough to answer. Responding with “either is fine,” or “I like them both,” makes her think you’re dismissive or not interested in how she looks.
(When my wife asks me, “What do you think of that woman’s dress?” I always answer, “What woman?” I'm a smart man.)
What does this have to do with writing fiction?
Everything. Writing stories and living life are the same.
Your readers, just like the girls you date, want answers, not questions. Your readers want to be told how to feel and what to think. They want to be encouraged, not questioned.
The world is full of givers and takers. Our readers are the takers, and we, the authors, are the givers. We provide our readers with the vision and inspiration they so desperately need. If your characters ask too many rhetorical questions, your readers may end up feeling let down or even abandoned.
For example, which of the two excerpts would you prefer reading in a story:
Why am I walking to Susan’s house again? Tim thought. She won’t be there, anyway. Where does she go all the time? Or does she just not answer the door?
Tim walked down the road to Susan’s house again. He decided he’d keep trying until she opened the door. Then he would ask her what was going on.
There’s nothing wrong with Scenario 1 except it suggests that Tim is rather feeble and aimless. Scenario 1 feels passive, while Scenario 2 feels active. Active writing is generally preferred over passive writing.
Perhaps you want Tim to be uncertain and hesitant. Fine! Find some other way to show his uncertainty through his actions. You've heard the phrase, "Actions speak louder than words?" The literary variant goes like this: "Actions are better than thoughts."
As your story glides along the page, answer your readers’ questions the moment they pop into their heads. Yes, it’s mind-reading and it requires special powers. Unlike silly fictional wizards and Nordic demigods, writers really are magical.
Read the following three lines:
Jane hits Jack.
Jack reels backward against the desk.
Jane says, “That’s for last night.”
Jane answers the question, “Why did you hit me?” before Jack can ask it. She answers it for the readers, too, which is nice of her.
If Jack were allowed to ask either aloud or in his mind “Why did you hit me?”, Jane's explanation might have felt like she was defending herself or rationalizing her actions rather than being assertive. Rhetorical questions break up and weaken tension.
Of course, real stories are more nuanced and have competing and overlapping thoughts and conflicts. Nevertheless, keep this principle in mind.
Do you want richness?
Having your characters ask too many questions to your readers makes your stories shallower. For example, evaluate the following two cases where Tom finds himself in a pitch-dark room where he can’t find a door. Which of the two variations is more interesting:
“How do I get out of here?” Tom thinks.
Tom runs his fingers along the wall, feeling for the slightest seam with the hope of finding a hidden opening.
Having Tom feel the wall makes Tom a participant in the story. Seeing him take action is more interesting than reading a passive, rhetorical question.
A hike in the mountains
On your favorite forest path, as you smell the colorful flowers and grasses and pass lush green trees between granite boulders, do you see signs posted along the way that say,
Why is this tree here?
Why are the flowers purple?
Why doesn’t the streambed have running water in it?
You don’t because you’re fully capable of coming up with your own questions. You as the hiker get to decide what is important.
Readers are the same way.
Readers are in charge of doing the wondering (asking questions),
while the author is in charge of
filling their minds with what to wonder about.
Everything turns out better when everyone does their own job.
Are you okay?
There’s a three-word question that often occurs in movies and TV shows that I particularly dislike. I'm truly, deeply, angrily sick of hearing it in every show I see nowadays. And when it appears more than once in any show I'll call out, "Second time!" I do that only when I'm alone because those around me don't appreciate my abhorrence of cheap writing.
And I'm hearing the question more and more often. It throws me out of the story because it reveals the laziness of the writers. Why go through the heavy work of writing a thoughtful and caring exchange of character interaction when they can copy/paste a stiff, three-word query over and over?
“Are you okay?”
Or even worse,
Whenever I hear the stiff recitation either on the screen or in real life, I don’t feel heartfelt sympathy. Instead, what I hear is, “You’d better answer yes, or you’re a big whiner.” The question comes packaged with its own expected answer. It's emotional tyranny. There’s a word that describes the condition where a person may answer only one way without being a loser. That word is manipulation.
Manipulation is preferred over genuine caring? How awful is Hollywood becoming?
Furthermore, the clichéd words sound like they're phoned in. In case you didn’t know what phoning in means:
When an actor recites a line
with little attention or interest, as if he or she
delivered it over the phone from home.
someone drawing a knife or sword in movies or on TV always produces the same metallic sha-shing noise,
every gunshot in every show sounds the same,
taking eyeglasses off creates the same rattling noise (my eyeglasses have never rattled)
opening an old door always makes the same squeak, and
when people clasp hands for a handshake the same cupping noise is heard,
the words Are you okay? sound like they came from a website that provides, free sound effects.
Instead, how about employing these complex, intellectually imaginative variations:
“I’m sorry about that.”
“Let’s go out tonight.”
“You’ll get through this.”
"What are you thinking?"
(Give the troubled character a hug.)
"Why are you looking at me like that?"
The obvious lack of even a pretense of creativity tells me the people who make most movies and TV shows don’t care about their own work.
This is why people read novels. It's because authors actually do care!
UPDATE (10/02/2023): I'm hearing the question, "Are you okay?" with increasing frequency. I'm about to stop watching all TV shows and movies. Please, Hollywood, if you have any care or dignity for yourself or for your viewers, please stop writing repetitive, shallow, and thoughtless dialogue!
Don’t let down your readers. You may be their last hope at the end of their day after everything else has gone wrong. They want to give you their loyalty. Let them have their wish to adore you as you create rich characters who can think for themselves.
There’s no question about it.