The Elements of Persuasion

A part of the leadership training program I used to teach addressed the importance of shaping a message. This is critical, whether dealing with the media or with legislators.

The object of shaping the message is to persuade others to your point of view in a matter.

As writers, it is also our job to persuade. Walt Morton wrote a great piece for us on the suspense of disbelief. I’d like to go a little more in depth here and discuss some of the specific strategies we can (and do) employ to that effect.

It was Aristotle who identified three elements of persuasion: logos, ethos, and pathos. In the very briefest sense, logos is logic, ethos is fairness, and pathos is compassion. We can use all these elements of persuasion to draw readers effectively into our stories.

A logical error is different than a technical inaccuracy. It manifests in the timeline and the character arc. When something seems tacked on, out of place, or missing, you have an error of logic. Basically, an error of this type is anything that makes your reader go “Whaaat?”

Here are some sure signs of logical errors:

The essence of a key relationship changes without explanation. (How did these people fall in love without their fundamental conflicts being resolved?)

A character figures something out without really having sufficient information to do so. (The author forgot to give the detective access to the DNA report, but he seems to know all about it.)

A character suddenly develops traits, characteristics, or skills that were nowhere in evidence or incongruous in some way with the nature of the character. (The waitress suddenly became a ninja how?)

A threat or situation is introduced that is unresolved or unaddressed by the conclusion. (What happened to the vial of anthrax the villain planted in the mall air conditioning ducts in chapter six?)

Think through the various actions and reactions of the characters to the events in the story. Does it unfold credibly? Do the characters respond in a realistic and relatable way to the threats and opportunities you present?

The issue of fairness or justice comes into play when we shape the characters and resolve the plot. A good guy may need a lot of undeserved misery heaped on his shoulders to rationalize the actions that will drive the story forward. In real life, justice is often absent or denied, but people still crave it in the stories they read. They want someone or something to cheer for. That doesn’t mean the ending has to be happy, but it has to be fair. The protagonist can still die at the end, but not before satisfying the moral imperative of the story.

Failure in this area generally results in characters that are two-dimensional. The good guy is really good and the bad guy is really evil, but without understanding why they are that way, readers may have trouble investing in the characters and the story.

This is the emotional dimension of the story. This is where you want the reader to be able to relate to the range of emotions your characters experience, so don’t forget to give them some. Feel free to use more than one color in the palette here. If your main character is an adrenaline junky, that’s fine, everybody probably knows one. Other characters are different people though, so they should have different reactions. Spread it around to give your reading audience the best chance to lock on to a character they can relate to, even if it’s a character you kill off. The emotional reactions of any given character should be realistic and consistent with the character’s personality.

Make sure all three elements of persuasion are included in your writing. You will find your stories enriched, and so will your readers.

Author: Stephen Hise

Stephen Hise is the Evil Mastermind and founder of Indies Unlimited. Hise is an independent author and an avid supporter of the indie author movement. Learn more about Stephen at his website or his Amazon author page.

13 thoughts on “The Elements of Persuasion”

  1. The Rhetorical Triangle provides a great overview at a glance the elements inherent to balanced writing. The terms logos, ethos, and pathos often trip me up, and I gravitate toward more user-friendly terms. Logos or logic relates to the message of the text. Ethos or character ties into how well the writer manages to come across as credible and trustworthy. Pathos or suffering deals the reader and how well the writer is able to appeal to their emotions, values, and interests. The context or environment the message or story occurs in also plays an important role. At times, one element can be skewed to create a desired effect, though I definitely agree that paying attention to all three can only enrich the reading experience.

  2. Excellent, and highly informative article, Stephen. I have an upcoming talk to a local writers group, do you mind if I quote and reference you?

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