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Characters Asking Questions

December 31, 2017 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified January 1, 2018

This may be an odd topic, but it’s one that came up for me recently, so I thought it worth an article.

When we write fiction, we use every tool, every bit of experience and wisdom, to create a plot and characters that engage readers for the length of the story. We apply what we know about story structure. We learn everything we can about our characters so that they behave in character, moved by circumstances in a way that only they could be. And we use grammar and punctuation as part of our foundation and in ways that enhance mood, tone, emotions, and so forth.

Today I want to look at what is probably best described as a style issue blended with a punctuation issue. I want to look at the use of questions by characters.

There are the common, everyday questions that any character, any person, might ask over the course of a day:

What can I get you?

What did your ex do this time?

How old do you have to be to rent a car?

Like the rest of us, characters will ask questions. They’ll ask to elicit information, to put another character on the spot, to relax another character. They may ask questions if they’re nervous or to fill the silence.

We ask questions for many reasons, and for the most part, we probably don’t think about it when we have our characters ask questions. But I’m going to suggest that writers and editors should pay more attention to questions, especially those of a certain type.


Tag Questions/Question Tags

Tag questions are questions tagged onto the end of a sentence.

You fed the dog, didn’t you?

He’s going to the movies with us, isn’t he?

You can babysit on Friday, can’t you?

You’re likely to be familiar with this format. A question follows a statement, with the question set off by a comma. These questions after statements have a variety of purposes.

They can be used to elicit agreement, for emphasis, to reveal the speaker’s uncertainty. They can even be used to raise doubts in those who hear the question.

That’s one ugly dog, don’t you think? (elicit agreement)

You will pay me now, won’t you? (for emphasis)

It looks good, doesn’t it? (uncertainty)

She could have done better, don’t you agree? (raise doubts)

Question tags are obviously a valid tool for crafting sentences, yet their use can diffuse the certainty of the declarative element of the sentence. That’s a valid purpose for their use, of course. Yet when such sentences are used too often, they can dilute the power of declarations.

If a character is always appealing to other characters—don’t you think so, do you, can you, isn’t it—the first character can come across as wishy-washy, indecisive, or weak. Now, if that’s the point of using tag questions again and again, that’s a legitimate use. But we typically want to create strong declarations in our text. We want to have characters declare that someone else is something. Using tag questions is like making a declaration and then pulling it back. It’s like trying to be bold and then smoothing over that boldness with oil to soothe the sting.

For the same reason we limit hedge words and phrases—to make bold declarations undimmed by hesitance—so we should limit tag questions that only seem to deliver strong messages but which in reality soften the blow with the question.

Hedges—he seemed angry, she was a bit quiet, the boy sort of hollered—don’t pack the same emotional punch that bold declarations do. He raged, she was quiet, the boy bellowed all make bolder statements, and it’s those bold statements that create tension, conflict, and emotional impacts and that lead to character reactions which in turn push the story forward.

Making declarations without afterward backing out of the boldness by using tag questions also helps create tension, conflict, and powerful emotional impacts.

If you find characters again and again adding questions to their declarations, consider dropping those questions. Do use them when they’re necessary to create a desired effect or when a character is looking for information. Use them even to show the diffident personality of a single character. But understand how they leach power from the rest of a sentence and don’t allow all characters to continuously use them. And if the character who does use tag questions to moderate his speech is a character who grows and changes during your story, consider switching his non-declarations into true declarations as the story progresses.

Allow characters to be bold, to say what you’d never say in polite society. Don’t imagine that you need to censor your characters, that they can’t sound mean or impolite or rude or demanding. It’s those bold characters who are remembered. It’s the ones who make declarations who stand out. It’s the ones whose emotions are unleashed who move the reader.

If characters make declarations in one breath but take them back in the next, there is no impact from the initial declaration. The original declaration is nullified.

But our characters don’t have to be like us, doing everything they can to get along with others. They’re allowed to rub each other the wrong way. They’re allowed to be rough rather than smooth, honest rather than always polite. Honest characters and the emotions that push them drive plot forward and make fiction emotionally satisfying.

A character who doesn’t want to offend, who doesn’t speak the truth, is less likely to be remembered. I’m not talking about intentional liars here; liars can be great characters. I’m talking about characters that writers make too timid to be of any use. Characters too nice to produce reactions in others.

Using tag questions over and over is just one way that a powerful plot can be weakened by the story’s execution. If you find that you’ve hamstrung your characters by having them first speak declarations only to pull those declarations back a moment later with tag questions, consider rewriting for boldness. Use tag questions deliberately to create effects, but watch out for the unintended effect of weakening your sentences and characters. If you’re doing all you can to write bold sentences and strong characters, make sure that you’re not unintentionally enervating them with tag questions.

I’ll leave you with a few sentences to consider for comparison. Any one of these sentences might be the perfect one at any given moment in a story. But too many of one kind or using the wrong sentence at the wrong time could cause the impact to fizzle before it’s done its work.

He’s a snake, isn’t he?

He’s a snake.

That man is a snake.

Max Grock is a snake.

If you wanted to make an impact, maybe reveal both Max Grock and the personality, the attitude, or the current emotional level of the speaker/viewpoint character, the final few options would be be more effective than the first example.

I like the last option. The harsh name and the pairing of the K sounds—the consonance—creates a strong impact. Even a feeling of harshness. The speaker is making his feelings known.

Check your manuscripts for question tags. Make sure that you’re using them purposely and that the effect you’re using them for isn’t overshadowed by an unintended negative effect. Let your words ring with power, with potency. Let declarations stand as declarations.

edit well #2 83797AA0F48D684CBAC54FBF163B9699


Tags: ,     Posted in: Beyond the Basics, Craft & Style

10 Responses to “Characters Asking Questions”

  1. I’m so glad you had this thought and turned it into an article, because it covers one of those things that make the difference between a good manuscript and a great one.

    It’s the small efforts, like the one you have highlighted in this article, that show the author is/was prepared to do everything they could to raise the level of their writing.

    Thanks, Beth, for pointing readers to this important topic. Have a safe and fun New Year’s celebration!

    • Maria, it really is the small touches that add up to a great manuscript. We can teach and we can learn all the big components, but it’s the little details that make a story memorable. Thanks for the confirmation.

      And a happy new year to you as well. I hope it’s a productive and satisfying year for you.

  2. Peter says:

    Thanks very much, Beth. That’s one more excellent reason to review the manuscript one more time! Happy New Year to you and yours!

  3. I never thought of this before. You are absolutely right. It weakens the prose and the character saying it. Thanks so much. I’ve shared this post online. I wish you every success in the New Year! Thanks for helping writers with their manuscripts.

  4. Aloisa says:

    Interesting note. I will be paying attention now to see if I’ve done that.
    A similar thing I noticed recently in two books was a declaratory statement followed by the one-word question, “Surely?” I re-read the lines a couple of times because I just couldn’t imagine someone talking like that.

    • Aloisa, I recently came across a few one-word explanations that seemed quite odd too, including however. As we’ve known all along, it pays to check every sentence for clarity and meaning.

      • Phil H says:

        The beautiful thing about fiction is that we can write dialogue that works, as opposed to how we, and others, speak. Sit somewhere with your ears open, like a coffee shop, and listen to the vagaries of conversation. “Right” and “whatever” and “See what I mean” along with dozens of others and the nervous approval laugh that often accompanies a declaration. All of those can be missing in dialogue. There are words that a character might use to soften their language, or we use to help define them. If it’s a speech pattern unique to a character that’s supposed to irritate the reader, okay. Like slang, we run the risk of alienating readers who don’t want to spend all their time wondering what was said. Sometimes it’s better to get to the point than engage int the mythic quest for dialect “authenticity.”

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