Narrative Questions: Meh.

When you’re walking around all up in your own head, are you narrating your activities to yourself? Hm. More specifically, are you asking yourself questions about what you’re doing? (What’s that grinding noise? Could it be the brake pads are worn off? What if I get stuck by the side of the road? What if—gasp—I don’t get home in time for dinner?)

Me either. So why in the world are your characters doing it?

Lately I’ve seen lots of manuscripts loaded down with questions (like my silly example above)—page after page of questions peppering the narrative. It seems to be a trend, and I’m not too fond of it. It’s lazy writing, kids.

This phenomenon appears to be all tied up with the Secret Fiction Rule Book. That is, someone has decreed that all the “thought verbs” (thought, knew, pondered, wondered, understood, realized, remembered, believed, felt, wanted, imagined … and on and on) are off limits. I love this article from Chuck Palahniuk (which I’ve mentioned before), but you understand he’s trying to make a point, right? (Hint: the point isn’t that you must remove every single one of these words from your manuscript now and forever more.)

But folks take this stuff to heart. And before you know it, some earnest blogger somewhere (I know, I know: point a finger, and there are three fingers pointing back at yourself) says, Oh! I know! Go deep into the character’s mind! If he’s wondering something, just use the question instead. That’s the ticket!

And then we’re right back where we started above, at lazy writing. Narrative questions* are an easy way to cover a lot of ground, to lead readers by the nose to questions or facts the author wants raised. (Did she have any idea how beautiful she was? Or: Was he my knight in shining armor? Perhaps: I smelled yeast. Was there a bakery in the neighborhood?) Or the writer is simply trying to amp up the drama. (What would his mother think if he didn’t make the team?) Sometimes it seems like the author is just passing time. (She took a long walk in the green hills of Ireland before she left. Did grass even grow in Arizona? Would she be able to walk barefoot there? Oh, stop.)

In a recent conversation with an author whose manuscript had too many narrative questions, I realized he was confusing narrative with inner monologue. His novel was in first person, so he assumed everything was happening in the protagonist’s head. And since the Secret Fiction Rule Book says not to use thought verbs, well …

That way lies madness, friends. Whether you’re in first, second, or third, there is a distinction between being in a character’s head and hearing his thoughts, and the story he’s telling. (I’ve written a little bit about that here. If you want to really get into this discussion, read How Fiction Works by James Wood.)

Now before you get all up in arms about my editorial opinion on this, listen: I’m not against this type of narrative question (nor am I against a character asking himself a question or two). I just signed off on a 348-page manuscript by a skilled author, and I would have been fine with a few narrative questions sprinkled into it, but as it turns out it had just one. In this scene, an amnesiac has arrived in a town that might hold clues for her, though it isn’t clear:

When they arrived at the mouth of the Altamaha River, she could smell the water and feel the slick humidity of the air across her skin. She felt … content. How could that be? [She] looked around her with heightened senses. It wasn’t familiar. But it was comfortable.

This narrative question, then, is just foreshadowing. It works. (So does the “thought verb.”)

Remember, though, that only the most important of your character’s thoughts (implicit or explicit) should be highlighted in a question. Perhaps choose a reason specific to the character to use this device—for example, something that’s worrying him, a decision that has to be made, or something that needs to be learned.

But don’t overdo it. The repeated use of questions in the narrative draws attention to them, which breaks the fictive dream.** I’ve even read questions that are never answered, which is something you really don’t want to do. They lose their effectiveness as a narrative device when there’s a question (or several) in consecutive paragraphs, on consecutive pages. And be aware of sending an unintended message: when a character is constantly questioning, it might make it seem as if he isn’t a strong person, like he’s unsure of himself. Just rephrase questions into statements and see what happens.

Look again at the examples in that Chuck Palahniuk article. Does he use narrative questions? No, he doesn’t. Just beautiful, evocative prose. “Don’t take shortcuts,” he says. Too often, narrative questions are shortcuts.

Bottom line, I don’t object to narrative questions in principle but this should be just one of many tools in your tool box—and one you use infrequently so it is really special and meaningful, full of portent, when you do.

* I’m just calling them this because I don’t know if there’s a word for them. One author I know calls them QNIDs (Questions Not In Dialogue). If there’s an official word for them, by all means, let me know!

** That is, pulls the reader out of the story and makes him aware of the storytelling method, rather than remaining lost in the story.


Tweet: Narrative questions are a lazy way to amp up the drama, especially when there is none.
Tweet: Use narrative questions infrequently so they are special & meaningful, full of portent.
Tweet: Only the most important of a character’s thoughts should be highlighted in a question.

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  1. Stephanie Kane says:

    Backspacing those questions into the ether. Thank you.

    • Jamie says:

      Remember, SOME are fine. But making a habit of it is not so fine. So be choosy. :) Thanks for reading and commenting!