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By Shanee Edwards · September 1, 2022
Ethos, pathos, and logos – what are they? Chances are you’ve heard of them before, but haven’t considered how they can help your screenwriting. Guess what — they can! These concepts can serve as writing tools that can help you communicate your story to the audience in a way that encourages them to suspend their disbelief and fully engage in your film.
Known as the rhetorical triangle, ethos, pathos, and logos are modes of audience persuasion that originated in ancient Greece and were defined by the philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE).
Every filmmaker has one main job: to get their audience involved in their story on an emotional level. As a storyteller, you must entice the audience to care about the characters in your story and agree to go on the hero’s journey with them. If you don’t succeed at convincing them, the audience will likely walk out of the theater or turn the TV channel.
That’s where ethos, pathos, and logos come in. Think of them as techniques of persuading your audience to keep watching or reading. Some people call these techniques craft. A good writer ideally crafts a character that’s sympathetic, relatable, or even despicable — but one the audience can get emotionally invested in. The triangle of rhetoric offers three specific ways to do this so let’s look at each one.
Pathos comes from the Greek word for suffering, but the word is generally considered to mean all emotions. Pathos is an appeal to an audience’s emotion – something all great writers must do.
If you’re a screenwriter, you’ve likely read the wildly popular screenwriting book Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder. The title of the book refers to Snyder’s concept of having a protagonist rescue a cat from a tree early in the story. Why? Because it makes the audience think the protagonist is a good person if they care about a helpless animal and take action to save it. This simple story element can persuade your audience to get on board with your character and make them want to go on a two-hour journey with them.
Logos refers to the logic of a story, or the elements that help your story make sense and feel real. This is expressed through deductive reasoning using a syllogism or an enthymeme.
Sure, narrative movies are fiction, but they still must make sense and feel like they could actually happen to someone like you. This is especially true for the genre of science fiction. Even if the story is set in the future with futuristic technology, there must be enough real science to get the audience to believe in your vision of the future.
Think of that scene in Interstellar where Matthew McConaughey’s character explains a wormhole by folding a piece of paper in half and doing a simple demonstration of how a shortcut in spacetime might actually work. This scene is a clear example of logos since it persuades the audience to believe in spacetime travel – a plot point central to the film.
Ethos appeals to the audience’s moral culture. It’s the idea that the so-called good guy wins in the end, because, as a society, we mostly agree on what is considered good and bad (being very general here).
This can be very apparent in courtroom dramas where the “little guy” goes up against a corporation with loads of cash or the government with endless resources. Think about Erin Brockovich. Somehow, she is going to prove her case to the jury and win because it’s the morally right thing. It’s also the cathartic outcome the audience is hoping for.
Let’s take the film Jaws. If you saw Jaws as a kid as I did, it likely traumatized you, instilling a deep fear of the ocean and its cold-blood predators. But even a master filmmaker like Steven Spielberg knew that it would take more than a few images of a rickety mechanical fish to emotionally scar you. In addition to the great John Williams soundtrack, he relied on ethos, pathos, and logos to support the storytelling structure in Jaws.
In the film, Amity Island is a popular beach where families like to spend their summers until a great white shark begins attacking beachgoers. Something must be done to restore order to the popular seaside destination, but what? For the audience to get on board, a logical plan, or the logos, must be put into place. The police chief Brody (Roy Scheider) doesn’t just go after the shark on his own – he doesn’t have the knowledge or tools to accomplish the task. So he enlists the help of a professional shark hunter (Robert Shaw) and a marine biologist (Richard Dreyfuss) to work together to stop the shark from killing again.
If Brody only had the help of the hardened shark hunter or just the book-smart marine biologist, the odds of catching or killing the shark may seem less feasible. But by having two different shark experts, a man with actual experience in the ocean and the other who’s studied sharks in-depth, the odds of defeating the shark become much more believable. Creating this believability is the logos. If Brody hired a surfer and a local souvenir shop owner to hunt down the shark, it’s unlikely the audience would get on board with the plan.
The ethos comes into play when we look at the central conflict of the story: the seaside town of Amity Island makes all its money from tourists and the local mayor wants to hide the threat of the shark from the community. Greed is putting the lives of beachgoers, including children, at risk. This is a clear moral dilemma that will no doubt fire up the audience who will see the mayor as the bad guy for prioritizing money over public safety – something public officials do all the time in real life. The ethos, or clear ethical conflict of the story, helps draw the audience in deeper, further persuading them to invest emotionally.
Finally, we have the pathos in Jaws which is fear. The film uses our primal fear of the ocean, perfectly-timed shots of the giant shark along with blood and gore to scare the living daylights out of us. The real success of Jaws is making the audience so afraid of the shark, some of the scariest scenes are said to be the ones where we don’t even see the shark.Download the Jaws script!
Combined use of ethos, pathos, and logos in your screenplay helps make your story more convincing, plausible, and satisfying. Once you’ve answered how each of these elements function in your story, you have time to really develop your characters so that they feel as authentic and interesting as possible.
At the end of the day, the point is to entertain the audience visually and emotionally, so it’s best to use all the tools possible.