The Powerhouse Of Writing 4: The Question Mark

The Powerhouse Of Writing 4: The Question Mark

In our fourth post on the powerhouse of writing, we look at how question marks can strengthen your writing.

The Powerhouse Of Writing 4: The Question Mark

As a writer, you must know more than your ABCs, fancy words, or stylish phrases. You also need to know how to relate those words to your reader – that’s where punctuation kicks in.

Building on our successful series Punctuation For Beginners, we will now look beyond the grammar rules. What teachers usually don’t tell us is that those punctuation marks are the powerhouse of writing. Used correctly, punctuation can supercharge your text.

Today, we’ll look at question marks, or, as I call them, ‘the hooks’ (not just because of their shape). Please read this post first, if you’re looking for the basics: Punctuation For Beginners: Question & Exclamation Marks.

The Hook

As mentioned in The Powerhouse of Writing 3, exclamations and questions are real attention-grabbers. They’re secret weapons to activate the readers’ brains. How do they do that? They heavily influence speech patterns. Please read these sentences out loud and observe what happens with your voice:

Example 1: So, you want money. (factual, slight emphasis on money)

Example 2: So, you want money! (emotional, heavy emphasis on ‘money’)

Example 3: So, you want money? (question, heavy emphasis on ‘money’)

All three types of sentences have an emphasis on ‘money’. But in examples 2 and 3 (exclamation and question), the speech pattern is changed. Exclamations make voices drop in pitch, whereas questions make the pitch go up.

That’s their hook. But don’t overdo it. Every power has a danger to it (I’ll explain at the end).

The Power Of The Question Mark

If the pitch goes up at the end of a question, then this is an auditory signal that requires relief. The readers are hooked until they receive a second auditory signal, the full stop provided by the answer. Only then, can their attention relax. That’s the breather they’re waiting for!

Essentially, question marks create the need for relief. That makes them an ideal tool for writers. They make the readers’ attention span go from the question to the answer. That’s already at least two sentences.

This may not sound much at first. But think of our previous example again. Here, your attention span only needed to last for one sentence: a statement rests on its own, and an exclamation is just a shout you can react to or not. But a question truly engages you as a reader.

Why would writers want to sink that hook into readers’ brains? Here are some of the reasons:

  1. To make readers answer a question in their minds.
  2. To wait for the author’s answer.
  3. To create an emotional response to the question.
  4. To sow doubt and make readers wonder.
  5. To keep the readers busy and read on.

All these reasons make the readers’ brains come alive and interact with your text. Let’s look at two examples, comparing statements and questions:

Example 1:

We entered the treasure chamber and noticed it at once. The map we had been given was completely wrong. We had expected a vault. Yet we were facing a giant Chinese puzzle box. We didn’t have a clue how to open that.

Now that’s a straightforward text with lots of statements. Statements are facts, they make the text static. As readers, we can react to it, or not. It depends on the content whether the readers go on reading, or not. Do the readers like treasure chambers? Or puzzles? That’s the chance the author takes in example 1. But watch what happens when I insert questions:

Example 2:

We entered the treasure chamber. Guess what we noticed? The map we had been given was completely wrong. Where was the vault? Why was there a giant Chinese puzzle box in front of us? We didn’t have a clue how to open that. Did we ever?

See what the questions do? The first question conveys an element of surprise. It also delays the readers’ view of the treasure chamber, creating suspense. The second and third questions convey the thwarted expectations of the speaker. The last question sows doubt.

Just by inserting those questions, I change the tone of the text. Do you notice how the text becomes more conversational? That’s the author (me) engaging with the readers (you).

Don’t Overuse The Question Mark

There’s a danger in using question marks as well. I’ve already explained the unique speech pattern of the question mark, and how it makes the pitch go higher at the end.

This is the pull of the question mark. As readers, this auditory signal makes us want to find answers. That pitch needs to go down again in the answer for the readers (or listeners) to breathe and relax. This step is essential to keep on reading.

What happens if you have many questions in a row? If the first question is followed by a second? A third, and maybe even a fourth? If I go on with my questions, you’ll get desperate for that signal to relax. You’ll get breathless, and, what’s worse, maybe even restless. Impatience in readers can be a strong impulse to stop reading. So, don’t use too many question marks, please.

The Last Word

Questions are a great tool for any text. But remember: each question must be answered. If you bombard your readers with questions, then you’re sending them into mental overdrive. You’re literally taking their breath away.

Should your readers suspect you’re doing that because you are unable to provide resolution, then they’ll disengage from your text. They might not come back.

Make questions a go-to tool for your texts but know that the answer is just as powerful.

Next in our series is the number one tool to make your text come alive. It’s all about quotation marks. Until then, happy writing!

Further Reading

  1. The Powerhouse Of Writing 1: The Full Stop
  2. The Powerhouse Of Writing 2: The Comma
  3. The Powerhouse Of Writing 3: The Exclamation Mark
  4. The Powerhouse Of Writing 4: The Question Mark
  5. The Powerhouse Of Writing 5: Quotation Marks
  6. The Powerhouse Of Writing 6: Colons, Semicolons, & Dashes

Susanne Bennett

By Susanne Bennett.

Susanne  is a German-American writer who is a journalist by trade and a writer by heart. After years of working at German public radio and an online news portal, she has decided to accept challenges by Deadlines for Writers. Currently she is writing her first novel with them. She is known for overweight purses and carrying a novel everywhere. Follow her on Facebook.

More Posts From Susanne

  1. The Powerhouse of Writing 3: The Exclamation Mark
  2. The Powerhouse of Writing 2: The Comma
  3. The Powerhouse Of Writing 1: The Full Stop
  4. How To Play Surrealist Word Games
  5. How To Write Surrealist Poetry
  6. What Is Automatic Writing?
  7. Surrealism – What Every Writer Should Know
  8. How To Write Without Your Muse
  9. Why You Should Love Doing A Rewrite
  10. 10 Things That Stifle A Writer’s Creativity

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Posted on: 15th August 2022