Pub Rants

Category: Prose

Rhetorical Story Development

This month, let’s tackle a narrative device that lots of fiction writers use, one I’m calling “rhetorical story development.” It’s when writers have characters ask themselves rhetorical questions as a means to deliver character or scene information to the reader. Here’s how to recognize this device, understand why it tends to lack depth, decide when to use it (and when not to), and approach revision.

A rhetorical question is one that’s asked merely for effect with no answer expected. Here’s an example of how fiction writers use it as a narrative device:

James stared at Rob, fists at his sides. How could Rob accuse Anna of such terrible things? Didn’t Rob know that Anna was the love of his life? Didn’t he care that after this they could never be friends again? “Take it back,” he said through clenched teeth.

Here’s another:

I stared at the mysterious symbols carved into the tree. The last symbol was an arrow pointing into the woods. I shivered. Should I follow the arrow? Allow myself to be swallowed up by the shadows? What choice did I have? This was the first clue I’d found in months. Was there any other way to find out what really happened to my sister? I squared my shoulders and marched toward the treeline.

­Writers who use this device are giving us a glimpse of what’s going on inside the POV character’s head in moments of confusion or indecision. Nothing wrong with that, per se. In fact, fiction writers should give us that glimpse; otherwise, if they’re only writing what can be seen and heard, they’re probably writing scripts in prose form rather than fully developed fiction. (Which is why “show don’t tell” can result in bad scene work, but that’s a topic for another day.)

However, here’s a caution. When the rhetorical-question device is used too often, a piece of fiction can begin to sound like a choose-your-own-adventure story narrated by someone outside the scene rather than in it, living it, being acted upon by it. When you look at the device more closely, you can see that it fails to give meaningful insights into how a character thinks—that is, what makes that character unique and interesting. In other words, if they’re asking themselves the same questions anyone would ask themselves in the scene’s particular situation, they risk becoming everyman or template characters.

In the immortal words of Jo Bennett to Dwight Schrute on The Office, “Stop asking yourself easy questions so you can look like a genius.”

OK, a little comic relief there. I get that characters aren’t pulling a Dwight and trying to look like geniuses—they’re often just trying to figure out what to do. But easy questions make for weak narrative. One way to do get your characters to stop asking themselves easy questions is to simply turn those questions into statements. Complete thoughts. Instead of showing us your character’s confusion or indecision, show us their belief or their resolve. Then show us how they’re applying that resolve to their decision about what to do or say next. If you do, then right away, you’ll be opening the door to more meaningful character development.

Let’s take a stab at revising our examples:

James stared at Rob, fists at his sides. No way would he let Rob get away with accusing Anna of such terrible things. Sure, he and Rob had been best friends since kindergarten, but Anna was the love of his life. No one—especially not Rob, who always got every girl he ever wanted—got to talk about Anna that way. “Take it back,” he said through clenched teeth.

Notice how James comes across as much more resolved in this revision. He skips over the questions and gets straight to the heart of what he’s really thinking in that moment. But what if James is the type of character who really is always questioning himself? Then try:

James stared at Rob, fists at his sides. He had two options. One, back down the way he always did, walk away and let Rob’s lies about Anna hang in the air between them. Or two, stand up for himself and the love of his life once and for all, thirty years of so-called friendship be damned. “Take it back,” he said through clenched teeth.

There are myriad ways to develop or stay true to a character in a moment of analysis and decision without using the rhetorical-questions device.

Let’s revise the second example:

I stared at the mysterious symbols carved into the tree. The last symbol was an arrow pointing into the woods, where shadows hung like shrouds from gnarled branches. I shivered. Everything in me wanted to turn and run, but this was the first clue I’d found in months. Someone in those woods knew what happened to my sister. Soon, I would know too. I squared my shoulders and marched toward the trees.

In this case, questions like “Should I follow the arrow? Allow myself to be swallowed up by the shadows?” can just be cut. They waste space that otherwise can be used to paint atmosphere (“shadows hung like shrouds from gnarled branches”), clearly express internal conflict (“Everything in me wanted to turn and run”), or develop tension (“Someone in those woods knew”).

None of this is meant to say that you can never use this device or have your characters ask themselves rhetorical questions. It’s just to point out that overuse of any device is a good thing for writers to be aware of and, hopefully, add another tool to your self-editing toolbox.

(Header Photo by Olya Kobruseva)

A few years ago, I presented at the monthly meeting of a writing organization that wanted to know more about what agents are (and aren’t) looking for when they read submissions. I ended up talking about how premise, plot, and prose make a three-legged stool, and how when one leg is missing, the stool falls over—and the submission is likely to get a rejection. I’ve always wanted to expand on that idea for a more general fiction-writing audience. So this month, that’s what I decided to do.

+Premise +Plot -Prose

A manuscript that falls into this category promises a cool, unique premise, hook, or concept, and it’s well structured, moving along at a good, genre-appropriate clip…or at least it appears to be at first. Agents aren’t going to make it very far into this manuscript because the prose itself is a problem.

When I say prose here, I’m talking about two things. I’m talking about craft: spelling, grammar, semantics, syntax, mechanics, punctuation, etc. I’m also talking about art: voice, style, rhythm, imagery, symbolism, use of poetic devices, and so on.

A writer’s mastery of craft is relatively easy to assess. There are rules and standards about such things, after all, and a writer’s ability to demonstrate functional knowledge of those rules and standards should be requisite for professional-level publication. However, judging a writer’s mastery of art is far more subjective. One human’s Elmore Leonard is another’s Cormac McCarthy. Furthermore, the relative artistry of a writer’s prose is examined differently through the various lenses of genre and intended audience.

Style aside, what agents are looking for when they’re reading sample pages is the feeling that they’re in good hands. They want the sense that the writer knows what they’re doing, that they’ve both mastered craft and delivered artistry that will satisfy the expectations of a particular market.

Improve Your Prose

+Premise -Plot +Prose

This manuscript is built on a mind-blowing, never-been-seen-before idea, and the prose is gorgeous, but there’s no plot. No sequence of events leading one into the other in a logical, plausible way that builds suspense, raises stakes, and keeps readers turning pages. No cliffhangers, turning points, or reversals. No artfully planted clues that give the reader a fair shake. No satisfying sense of wholeness or completeness. No connections between the first half of the manuscript and the second.

This manuscript can often be summarized “characters doing stuff, having conversations, and thinking thoughts.” It rambles. It indulges the author’s whims. It feels like an early draft.

Plotting a novel is not the same thing as writing down a list of things that will happen in your story or summarizing scenes on stacks of notecards. No, plotting a novel is like trying to solve a puzzle. It’s a painstaking back-and-forth between working on the whole and working on its parts. It’s about making connections and ensuring that every character, scene, description, internalization, line of dialogue, etc., has a job to do and earns its real estate on the page. Even pantsing (writing by the seat of one’s pants) is a method of plotting—pantsers, too, must eventually arrive at a structure that the human brain recognizes as “story.” It’s just that a pantser’s process is to get there by writing multiple drafts.

Agents will read further into this type of manuscript than they will the previous type. If you’ve hooked them with a great premise and masterful prose, then they’re more likely to stick with your story to see if the plot is sound—if the story hangs together and if you nailed the landing. But if you haven’t, you’re likely to receive a pass.

Improve Your Plot

-Premise +Plot +Prose

This manuscript is well written with an airtight plot, but it feels bland. Derivative. Predictable. A little too tropey. Like it rolled off the assembly line into a bin marked “Stories We’ve All Seen Before.”

Of all three types of manuscripts in this article, this one is most likely to get represented and published. It’s a “good” book, a “competent” book. That makes it a safe bet for a lot of agents and editors. But will it be a standout or become a bestseller? Will it earn out its advance (if an advance was offered)? Will its sales bring you subsequent contracts with improved terms? Without a twisty, unique premise, probably not.

Note that for the sake of this article, I’m using “premise” as a synonym for “concept,” which brings the idea of “high concept” into play. There’s lots of info online about high concept (what it is and why it rises to the top of slush piles), but I’m not going into that here. What I do want to say here is that if you’ve mastered prose and plot, don’t stop there. Do the work—and it is work!—of developing one-of-a-kind ideas, premises, hooks, or concepts. As Larry Brooks writes in the book I’m recommending below, “At the professional level to which you aspire, you really cannot, with great confidence, sit down and write just any old thing that appeals to you.”

Improve Your Premise

This month, take some time to assess where you are with all this. Rank premise, plot, and prose in order of your greatest strength to your greatest opportunity. Pick up one of the recommended books and commit to exploring how you can give your next manuscript the best possible chance at becoming a bestseller!

Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels