“Use the question mark to generate reader curiosity and narrative energy”- Peter Roy Clark
How easy is that? How bad could that be? How good is that? What couldn’t be better? Who wouldn’t want that? Why not make it better?
In this post, we explore the power of the question mark, the grammatical symbol that invites participation or declares conclusion.
These are rhetorical questions classically used in persuasive speeches, but also in cooking shows and cookbooks.
Look at those questions, powered all by those initial question words: How? What? Who? Why? Together, interrogative words serve an unofficial guide to the recipe and cooking show narrative. They act as little promises from the teller: “if you keep reading my cookbook or watching the tv show, I promise that these important questions, and others, will be answered for you.”
The question mark, when used well, may be the most profoundly human form of interaction. Unlike other punctuation marks, the question mark imagines the Other. It invites communication that is interactive and conversational, not fixed and uncompromising.
The question is the opening of discussions, of secrets to be divulged, of sharing between teacher and student, of anticipation and explanation. There are information-seeking questions which have set answers. And then there are rhetorical questions, where the one doing the asking already knows the question. Instead of seeking information, rhetorical questions seek the perspective of others. The open-ended questions invite the other, the reader/viewer/listener, to respond and take the role as the expert in telling her own experience.
Information-seeking questions are also called closed questions. These generally have a right or wrong answer and is fact based. Short versions of closed questions are simple Yes/No type:”Do you take coffee with sugar? No” or may be limited within a list of options: “Do you want the butternut squash pasta or the grilled salmon?”
Information-seeking questions are often implied on cooking shows with the host giving answers and demonstrating how to cook successful and delicious recipes.
Other times, questions are explicitly asked from viewers on cooking shows. This typically occurs in segmented Q & A sections on the show. Here is such an example from Ina Garten’s Food Network show Barefoot Contessa.
Question (submitted by a viewer): “Hi Ina. My husband and I are not big into desserts but the only dessert we love are brownies. (Ina comments: Good one to love.) Please, can you give me tips to get soft, gooey brownies? And how to store them?”
Answer (given by Ina): Ina: “So, there are two things that are important about gooey brownies. One is actually if you under bake them a little bit, the center is a little gooier, which is great. And the second one is what we do with Barefoot Contessa brownies. I fold semisweet chocolate chips into the batter and then when they bake they get really gooey. Those are two good tips. Ok, about storing them, I’ll show you what I do…”
This question and answer format weaves in cooking shows in both the host’s verbal explanation and demonstration. Text, such as the ingredient, measurement, such as “1/2 cup of blueberries,” or recipe title, “Whole Wheat Belgian Waffles”, are sometimes displayed on the screen, adding a third component to the answer as reinforcement and clarification.
The cooking demonstration decreases the subjectivity in the answer. “Cook waffles until golden brown” is subjective until we see how brown is “golden” brown. We have a better understanding of the recipe and are better cooks as a result.
Rachael Ray frequently exclaims with enthusiasm: “How good does that look?!”
The rhetorical question promotes how delicious the food looks and tastes. It doesn’t require an answer but engages the listener to think about it. Rhetorical questions are commonly used by speakers in presentations- politicians, church leaders, motivational speakers, etc. Celebrity chefs also use rhetorical questions to promote a certain way of thinking, such as being excited to cook.
Ina makes Truffled Popcorn, and states, “You do butter with popcorn. Why not truffle butter? I love this high and low thing, y’know, kind of life caviar and potatoes.” Ina’s question, “why not truffle butter?” reinforces her idea. She cues us to listen to her cooking philosophy.
Rhetorical questions can also elicit laughter and explicitly point out something that’s funny for the listener to pick up on.
In making bacon-wrapped fillet of beef, Ree Drummond of The Pioneer Woman show confesses:
“I was a vegetarian for about seven years before I met my cattle-rancher of a husband. How’s that for irony?”
The question “how’s that for irony” draws attention to the humorous element in the story (that Ree, who initially avoided meat, lives for meat). The listener is able to understand the joke easily and realize the incongruity.
- Master the question mark for effective engagement with others.
- Provide answers to frequently asked questions to help readers/viewers/listeners learn a new skill or experience. Ina has a cooking show series called “Ask Ina” where she answers questions from her viewers. Have a specific time built into each presentation for questions.
- The best questions are open ended. Even though the questioner often knows the answer in advance, questions invite dialogue and interaction.
- The best stories are formed around a question that peaks curiosity and interest in the reader/viewer/listener: Will he flip the omelet successfully? Will she win the competition?
- Questions can help the listener pick up on jokes.