Thursday, November 18, 2010

Twelve Types of Questions to Liven Up Your Dialogue

Readers (and editors) like dialogue. They want it cramming the pages so they can stick their ears into the action. Next to “show, don’t tell,” learning to write engaging dialogue may be the most important skill you can develop to help your scenes come alive.

If I scratched my head long enough, I could probably come up with a half-dozen things I know to do to enliven dialogue. Hmmm, maybe half a half-dozen? So I was delighted to find a source that addressed using questions—twelve different types of them, mind you—to spice up dialogue. Uh-huh, I thought a question was a question, nothing more, but the way you frame one will affect how the questionee responds, and that’s where you get the zing.

So here we go—a short explanation of each, followed by an example:

1. Wh-Questions: the good ol’ who, what, when, why, where ones. They demand an answer that isn’t a simple “yes” or “no.”

“Who told you that? What’d he want to know? Why’s he asking you instead of me?”

2. Yes/No Questions: they demand the listener choose between only two possible answers, yes or no.

“Were you alone last night?” “Did you miss me?”

3. Declarative Questions: a twist on the yes/no question, it is framed as a declarative sentence that, when spoken, has a rising intonation at the end

“You lied to me again?” “You ate all my chocolate ice cream?”

4. Tag Questions: a question is added to a declarative sentence, usually at the end.

“The money would make you happy, wouldn’t it?”

5. Alternative Questions: often spoken with a falling intonation at the end, this type of question offers the listener a choice between two answers.

“Do you want me to drive you home, or call a taxi?”

6. Echo Questions: a direct question that repeats part or all of something just said.

“I hide my money in a cookie jar.”

“A cookie jar?”

7. Embedded Questions: a question that shows up inside a declarative sentence or another question. Typically it is a phrase such as “could you tell me” or “I wonder” or “do you know.”

“For once, could you tell me the truth?” “Sam, I wonder if I could talk to you?”

8. Polite Imperatives: a demand or request stated as a question to avoid giving offense.

“Will you ask the waiter to bring us the check, please?”

9. Leading Questions: a question that contains or implies its own answer.

“Isn’t that your fingerprint on the window pane?” “Wasn’t it your idea to steal the money?”

10. Answered Questions: the speaker both raises a question and answers it.

“Do you know what you sound like? A big baby, that’s what!”

11. Repeated Questions: repetitive questions phrased differently each time to emphasize a point.

“Aren’t you going to eat?”

“Not right now.”

“Are you going to eat in a little while?”


“Are you going to eat at all today?”

“Not planning on it.”

“Then I’m going to starve with you.”

12. Rhetorical Questions: a question asked merely for effect, with no answer expected.

“Do you know how sick and tired I am of all these questions?”

Uh, yeah, so there you have them….

Questions in dialogue not only set up a handy dandy interaction, but how they’re asked can take them beyond mere requests for information. Ask a good question and you can add color and drama by subtly conveying the questioner’s attitude and emotions.

How about you? Do you already make good use of this palette of questions, or, like me, do you need to grab a paintbrush and start adding depth, dimension, and color to your dialogue questions?

Steph Prichard            


  1. Very interesting and helpful! I think I use quite a few of these, but it's nice to see them all laid out so I can make sure to add variety. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I'm currently reading Don Brown's Naval Justice series about JAG officer Zack Brewer. I noticed how the author uses questions posed to to people on the witness stand in court to evoke such reactions as anger, indignation, outrage, embarrassment, humor, etc. So in addition to pushing the story along, questions in dialogue can deepen the emotional aspect of a character and of the scene in general. Thanks Steph!

  3. I didn't realize there were so many types of questions, many of which can increase the tension and interest of the scene with simple adjustments. Yay!

  4. I like the idea that the reader can catch the rising/falling intonations at the end of declarative and alternative questions--a subtle way to get him to participate in the action on the page.
    Thanks for your comments. :)

  5. Great stuff. I'm going to copy/paste this in my "keeper" file. This reminds me of some of the sales books I've read where the salesman controls the conversation with questions to get the desired answer.