Updated: Dec 25, 2022
The first dating advice my mother told me was this:
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 an answer. Responding with “either is fine,” or "I like them both," makes her think you’re uncaring.
(When my wife asks, “What do you think of that woman’s hat?” I always answer, “What woman?”)
What does this have to do with writing fiction?
Everything. Writing stories and living life are very nearly 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’re happy to provide our readers with the vision and inspiration they crave. If your narrator or 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 a bit 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! Then find some other way to show his uncertainty through his actions and thoughts.
As your story slips along the page, try to answer your readers’ questions the moment they pop into their heads. Yes, it’s mind-reading and it requires special powers. Unlike 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 “Why?” before she answers, then her explanation may feel like she’s defending herself or rationalizing her actions rather than being assertive.
Of course, this example is admittedly simple. Real stories are more nuanced and have competing and overlapping thoughts and conflicts. Nevertheless, you must 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 room where he can’t find a door. Which of the two variations is more interesting:
“How do I get out of here?” Tom asks.
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 him 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 stream bed have running water in it?
You don’t because you’re fully capable of coming up with your own questions.
Readers are the same way. They're in charge of doing the wondering, while you're in charge of filling their minds with what to wonder about. Everything turns out better when we each do our own job.
Are you okay?
There’s a three-word question that often occurs in movies and TV shows that I particularly dislike. When it appears more than once in any show I'll call out, "Second time!" or "Third time!" as applicable. I think my record is "Four times!" I do that only when I'm alone because those around me don't appreciate my abhorrence of cheap writing.
Unfortunately, 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 you 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. 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?
Furthermore, the clichéd words sound phoned in. In case you didn’t know what phoning in means:
Phoning in lines is when an actor recites a line
with little attention or interest, as if he
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 cheep 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.”
The troubled character gets a hug.
The obvious lack of even a pretense of creativity tells me the people who make most movies and TV shows don’t care.
This is why people read novels: authors actually do care!
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.