Your Voice 1: Pathos

If you really want to make people cry, you’ll kill a puppy or something adorable like that.

Spiders that dedicate their lives to keeping a piglet out of the frying pan might work on children, but shouldn’t impact most adults in the same way. Jack may have mostly froze before Rose let him sink to the bottom of the glaciating ocean, but truthfully, he died because she was a selfish cow.

Bambi’s mother never came back after she sent him away (who names their son Bambi, anyway?) and that’s because she was shot by some stupid white guy who was clearly desperate and didn’t need a rack to hang above his fireplace. I bet he never told his buddies what he shot that season- what a waste.

Crappy writers and geniuses alike have a wretched tendency to place too much emphasis on pathos, or emotion. They abuse already tired conventions to make us feel a particular way and it’s cheap. Not only that, but it’s easy. We all cry when a loved one dies. It can feel almost as bad when we’re 300 pages deep in a novel and our protagonist’s lover gets shot, stabbed, run over, dies from any number or outrageous and rare diseases or falls prey to any other unconventional circumstance. Death takes the cake for most abused, but then we get to dreams gone by, relationships lost, failure and all the other bad emotions. Unfortunately, I haven’t touched any positive feelings yet.

Love and romance can quicken the beating of our desirous hearts and leave us breathless, wondering when we’ll have a moment like the one when Patrick Swayze messed up the pot that Demi Moore was working on in that terrible romance Ghost and they started making out because there was nothing else to do.

Do you see where I’m going? Too much emotion will leave people laughing at you later. I sometimes write because arson is a felony and I wouldn’t fare well in prison, but I have to go back and check myself, and make sure that I wasn’t hunting for pity or misrepresenting my generally neutral-to-crabby self.

Here’s my advice. Write with an honest level of emotion, because people will relate to it, but don’t overdo it- and if you’re going to try, please consider your metaphors, symbols and circumstances. Don’t use something that’s already been done unless you’re going to flip it on its head.

Pathos is one third of the rhetorical trio used to convince people. The other two (posts on their way, my friends) are ethos and logos. All three are important in our writing today but can’t be used alone because on their own, we have incomplete, poorly supported arguments and stories and we look like crappy writers.

Filed under: writing

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Dustin La Mont, Jake Lee. Jake Lee said: It's probably one of the more fun posts I've written lately! [...]
  2. Happy you are sticking to writing (which I do enjoy).....and leaving the matches in the cupboard.
    • jake
      I love it. Yeah, I'd never really do anything terrible like that, but those types of threats are good at communicating emotion, don't you think? Thanks Michelle!
  3. Love how you emote, Jake. My eldest used to cry when his grandpa would shoot rabbits in the yard, knowing full well the Easter Bunny wouldn't come the next year. Scarred him for life. Well, until we started laughing about it.
    • jake
      That's awesome. I was never around when my grandparents or uncles had to kill something at one of their ranches, with the exception of one rooster they killed because I broke the idiot's wing... long story on that one. But I can remember a time when my sister watched a cat get hit by a car... she came unglued and started screaming and crying. We laugh about that now...
  4. Holy Cow! That was just....brilliant.
    • jake
      Thanks lady! That's one of my recent favorite words!! I have no problem with using emotion in anything, I think it's SUPER important, but sometimes, we just do it the wrong way, and it's gross.
  5. Great new series! And I totally agree...Pathos is a powerful tool in the hand of the artist of rhetoric. Scary powerful. Silly creatures, we are, that the gateways to our thinking (ears, eyes, heart) require imaginative engagement. Our hearts must be pricked, our ears peaked, and our eyes opened before our minds are persuaded. The best writers (in my humble opinion) are the most effective at first engaging our emotions with authenticity to their unique voice (i.e. your opening statement regarding "killing puppies"-that's so Jake Lee:). A balanced approach, with honest amounts of emotion & logic, seem to work for balanced people. But what do we do about the other 95% of society that seem to fail at the logic part? We sell them stuff!! Commercials are genius at this...I've definitely wanted to buy an iPhone after watching their video call commercials where the grandparent sees baby for the first time. Or wanted to buy Folgers after the brother comes home from the military for Christmas. These are obviously effective because they know their audience and are shameless about their message...two things that I also think are key for the writer when creating a piece, and determining the pathos to logos ratio that will work for it.
    • jake
      Truth should be able to speak for itself and in fact, it can... it just needs to be presented in an appealing way. It's unfortunate, but true. Otherwise, it just seems that the only messages that get any attention are those which are outrageous and exaggerated. I'm excited for the other two parts of the series and hope we can all learn to build creative, balanced stories and arguments! Jenn, you're one of my favorite people, thanks for the comment!!
  6. Whoa, I just learned something today.
    • jake
      Tony, THAT is one of the best compliments I could ever get. Thank you, sir!
  7. "Patrick Swayze messed up the pot that Demi Moore was working on ... and they started making out because there was nothing else to do." That's totally what I was thinking when it was happening! And I AM a total romantic. Are you a fan of MysteryScienceTheatre by any chance. Uh-huh.
    • jake
      I might have it backward, I can't recall which one was the artist, that movie was ridic though. I love Whoopi but I never got into the romance part of it. And Mystery Science Theater? Can you say, Lunchtime entertainment at the office?! Bonnie, the romantic stories on your site are a MILLION times better than that movie. Just so you know :)
  8. Verymuchlater... [...] something about verymuchlater[...]...
  9. This is my first time here, popped over from Kathy's. I like your message. I look forward to reading the rest of the series. But hey, I have to admit something... I'm a (former) Vandal. ;-) Blessings.
    • jmlee
      I'm glad you stopped by! Thanks for the comment, I'm always happy to see them. And no worries, SOME BSU alumni are a little self-righteous, I'm not to be found among that crowd. I love my Broncos, but I also happen to think that U of I is a good school too.
  10. [...] qualm with this whole inspiration business comes from abuse of pathos . I’m completely skeptical of anything that makes me want to emote, unless it pisses me off, [...]
  11. I can't believe I missed this? Where was I? I would have sworn I haven't missed one of your posts in close to a year! I guess I would have been wrong... Again... Good stuff, I'm probably a little guilty of this at times. Although, I do it with my eyes wide open. Those are the times when it's more about me getting something out or off my chest. Yeah, I know, it is pretty selfish. The one good thing is that if someone does laugh later, I just don't care much... Know what I mean? This is an excellent observation. Good job.
    • jake
      Floyd, you're a better man than I am. I struggle to keep up with everyone's blogs- I really want to read and comment on it all, too. I think it's alright to use pathos- if you know that you're doing it and you understand the results/consequences. Not only that, but I think emotion is necessary to compel people, because logic alone isn't excessively sexy. So we have two of the three-fold cord covered there. Lastly, you've got to have some level of credibility. Even the truth has the potential to look like a lie when it comes out of the mouth of a scoundrel, know?
  12. [...] it comes to public speaking, I’m skeptical of emotion. Most of the time, it seems that dead puppies come as a substitute for real information . Somehow, many people accept this as passable or even [...]