Pathos in Writing: Using it to Hook Readers & Write Better

Posted on Sep 8, 2021

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Written by Gloria Russell

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Have you ever seen an ASCPCA commercial? 

If you have, then you already know what I’m about to say–those commercials are sad. They often show dim footage of adorable, dirty animals in little cages–usually in the rain—while a sad song plays in the background.

The commercial begs you to go to your local shelter. Won’t you save this little kitten from the rain? Won’t you help? 

It’s a total guilt trip, but it’s effective. Why is it so effective? Because they’re making an appeal to pathos–and a really good one, at that. 

In this article, we’re going to talk about pathos. We’ll cover what it is, give you some examples of how it might look in writing a novel, and then talk about how you can use it in your own work. 

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What is pathos?

First things first: what is pathos, exactly? Let’s brush up on some literary devices

Pathos, Logos, and Ethos 

Aristotle outlined three major tools people use to persuade others: ethos, pathos, and logos. These are the things to which people appeal to make their point–in other words, it’s how we get people to believe us. 

Ethos is an appeal to credibility, or making the reader trust that you know what you’re talking about. Logos is an appeal to logic, or making the reader see the reason in your argument.

Pathos is an appeal to emotion. 

What does pathos do in writing to make it stronger? 

When it comes to debate, there’s this idea that appealing to a listener or a reader’s emotions is sort of a low blow. We tend to prioritize logic and credibility when we argue, and in a lot of cases, this is super effective, and super important–we want to make sure we’re weighing information and being fair and rational when we make decisions. 

However, pathos shouldn’t be overlooked. People are emotional creatures, and our emotions are overwhelmingly important in the decisions we make every day. There are plenty of ‘irrational’ things we do because they’re fun or they’ll help someone else. 

Plus, the best way to start a story is to get your reader emotionally involved from the very beginning.

So how does pathos work? 

1. Appeals to the Reader’s Emotions 

Most obviously, pathos appeals to a reader’s emotions. An effective argument from pathos will draw upon one specific emotion and target it to get a response from the listener. 

You may find that pathos commonly plays on darker emotions, like sadness, guilt, or anger. This isn’t a rule–pathos is an appeal to any emotion! But darker emotions are often a little stronger, and people generally want them resolved.

Which leads us to our next point… 

2. Pathos Creates a Problem 

People don’t like feeling these darker emotions, like guilt or anger. They want them managed or gone. And often, the best way to do that is to agree with the argument and seek the solution the argument proposes. Of course I’ll adopt a puppy, if it’ll help! 

With a more positive emotion, it looks similar. Someone might argue for a new playground to be built in the neighborhood, and they might remind their town committee how much fun they all had playing on the playground back when they were kids.

Drawing on those positive memories is a great way to soften those committee members up–of course they want the kids who live here now to experience that, too! Let’s build a park! 

Examples of Using Pathos in Writing

Let’s take a few sentences and show how appealing to pathos can make them just a little spicier. 

EXAMPLE: “Every week, some people have their houses burn down. This happens to about five families a week. We should hire more firefighters.” 

A reader might feel a little bad because they know it’s awful to have your house burn down, but we aren’t really targeting their emotions with this. It’s more like we’re politely informing them about the issue. Here’s how we appeal to pathos: 

EXAMPLE w/appeal to pathos): “Every week, horrible fires destroy the homes of our fellow citizens. Just last week, Susan and her family were forced to flee as a gas fire destroyed all of their belongings–now, they’re homeless, and they have nothing to their name. We need firefighters to solve this issue, and prevent more families from meeting the same fate.” 

We’ve used a specific family to make the issue more pressing, and we’ve included some graphic detail about the fire to convey how awful it is. This appeal to pathos makes the listener think “oh, wow! Well, anything to avoid that! That sounds awful!” And that’s what we want. 

Here are a few more examples of appeals to pathos:

  • “Can’t you tell I’m heartbroken right now? This is the worst pain I’ve ever felt, and you won’t even tell me the truth.” 
  • “I don’t know who I am without you. Every day is a nightmare, and the only thing that can help is if you’ll come back to live with me again.” 
  • “Do you remember how we used to hang out at the half-pipe? We had so much fun—-you even met your husband there, remember? Ugh, good times. Kids need places like that to hang out and be kids, you know? I think you should let Scooter go to the half-pipe with his buddies this weekend.” 

How to Best Balance Using Pathos in Writing for Emotional Impact

So, we’ve got a good sense of what pathos is, how it works, and what it looks like out in the wild. Now let’s talk about how to use this to our advantage. 

1. Identify the Feeling 

Remember, pathos targets specific emotions. To use it effectively, you want to know exactly what sort of response you want from your reader. 

Say you have a character, and you want to make the reader feel sorry for them. This means the emotion you want to evoke is pity. Knowing what you want to accomplish will help you decide how to portray that character–instead of sauntering around and cracking jokes, maybe they’re sweet but very shy, or maybe they’re undergoing some kind of tribulation your readers can relate to. 

When you’re writing, keep your audience’s reaction in mind. How do you want them to react to the scene you’ve written? How do you want them to feel about a specific character or plot point? Put that at the forefront of your drafting process, and you’ll have your reader along for the ride. 

2. Avoid Melodrama 

While you want to target your reader’s emotions, which involves some degree of getting, well, emotional, it’s easy to go overboard. Readers don’t want to be told how to feel, for one, and there’s only so much emotional connection they can do if the emotions have gotten too steep to keep track of. 

Melodrama is when the drama in a scene has become so excessive that it’s absurd. If someone says a scene is ‘melodramatic,’ they usually mean a scene is over the top. The emotions don’t feel real or believable because they’re way too far out there and not super relatable. 

For example: maybe a character is in a car accident, and it’s described in horrible detail. At first, the reader feels bad for the character. They want the character to get help, and they hope the character is okay. However, if the scene drags on and on with tons of dramatic detail about the pain, the fire, with constant dramatic dialogue along the lines of “No, Emily! I don’t want to lose you! We can’t lose hope!” 

Well, at that point, your reader probably doesn’t feel connected anymore. They’re a little emotionally worn-out, and the scene just doesn’t feel real.

This would be a bad use of pathos, because instead of appealing to specific emotions to get a specific response, we’re just turning all of the dials up to ten and expecting the reader to hang in there. 

3. Root Dramatic Scenes in Believable Characters 

Thankfully, there’s an easy fix for melodrama, and that’s rooting your scenes in believable characters

Pathos works if it’s believable. We really believe those animals are in trouble at the ASPCA, for example, and that’s why we feel so guilty when we see them. It’s the same in your own writing. If you want your reader to believe when your character is upset, we need to feel rooted in the scene.

Here’s how that looks: 

We want the circumstances for that emotion to be believable. For example, a gorgeous thirty-year-old woman probably knows she’s pretty, and your reader might have a hard time believing she genuinely feels ugly, especially if men are constantly throwing themselves at her. We won’t feel bad for her unlucky love life if, by all accounts, it seems lucky to us. 

On the other hand, you might have a character who isn’t so conventionally attractive. Maybe we watch them struggle socially and romantically and we can tell they don’t get a lot of romantic attention. When this character feels lonely, we’ll feel for them, because we can believe they feel lonely. 

Use The Writing Prompts + Pathos For Your Book!

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200+ Fiction Writing Prompts In the Most Profitable Genres

Come up with your NEXT great book idea with over 200 unique writing prompts spanning 8 different genres. Use for a story, scene, character inspo, and more!

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