In high school, I learned that there are basically three ways to get anybody to agree with you.
It would be much easier if they were just magic words. Or some kind of subliminal message you could write in light gray text in the margins of your essay. Actually, like most worthwhile things in life, this takes work. It involves Aristotle’s triangle of rhetoric.
If I didn’t lose you at that last sentence, you’re probably giving me one shot to make this interesting. Please take a moment to picture the triangle lit on fire, with a bunch of motorcyclists shooting arrows through it.
Very good. Thank you.
If you want a more philosophical explanation, read about it here. But these are the basics. When you’re writing or speaking something to persuade someone else, there are three general approaches that work together to make what you say more convincing.
One: Logos—listed as number one because we are such a big fan of this in Western culture. This is just what it sounds like: having a logical, coherent argument that makes sense.
Two: Ethos—which is more about an appeal to the audience’s character. Sometimes this has to do with the credibility of the author/speaker: do they trust you? It can also deal with moral and ethical lines of reasoning.
Three: Pathos—all about emotion. This is about making the audience feel something, because, like it or not, the choices we make are heavily influenced by our emotions, which is why story is often more powerful than statistics.
Okay, congratulations. There’s your dead Greek philosophy for the day.
Some of you are probably looking at the name of this blog and saying, “Hey, what does this have to do with fiction?” True, fiction should never be an essay with a thesis and characters who make long-winded sermons to pound in the author’s main points. But good fiction should contain truth, and the most persuasive way to present truth is by using these three approaches…but often in more subtle ways.
For example, ethos is no longer about establishing your credibility, but about creating characters who stand for things, who inspire readers to cheer for them. Logos involves making sure the plot feels realistic, and that dialogue rings true. Pathos means making me care about the outcome, raising the stakes high enough that it’ll feel like a loss if the protagonist fails.
Over the next three Wednesdays, I’m going to look at a different aspect of Aristotle’s triangle and talk about how it can be used in writing (and in life) to make a more powerful story. It's gonna be awesome.
If you master one of these approaches, you'll be a better speaker and writer. Master all three, and you could probably take over the world or something. So long as you use your powers for good, I guess I don't mind.