Writing Reality: The Power of Persuasion

08/09/2013 at 20:58 (Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

When you are pitching a story to your audience, you’ll automatically use persuasive language without putting too much thought towards it. There’ll be appeals to the wider scope of an idea – say, for fantasy genres and campaign settings, a general world-building aspect will be outlined, with details filled in such as economical figures and racial demographics. When it comes to drama or romance, you’ll lean more heavily on the emotional perspectives of your characters; how their cause-reaction interplay with others will affect the plot, and vice versa.

Or perhaps you’ve got a real bad-ass of an anti-hero, who just happens to be slightly less reprehensible than the main antagonist, and has been lumped with the quest or case of a lifetime. He’s coming up with the goods in less orthodox ways than a stalwart protagonist might. How’re you going to convince your audience to back this guy though, when he’s rough to the touch and setting sparks off on either side of the narrative?

Convince. Persuade. Emote. These are key words, key elements of writing both fiction and non-fiction. I’m going to break things down a bit, because I get a kick out of finding a better understanding of literature by taking it to pieces, like a fully-functioning clock, before reassembling to find control and balance.

Let’s define the three core ingredients of Rhetoric, the art of speaking or writing effectively; more specifically, the aspect of these as a means of communication and/or persuasion (Webster’s Definition).

Aristotle knew how to swing an argument. It was he who proposed the three defining appeals of rhetoric, as Ethos, Pathos and Logos. Of the trio, you’ve probably used Pathos the most, in both literature and speech. It’s the emotional tweak of the senses, most notably where sympathy is concerned. Remember when you were a kid and still hungry after dinner? The wheedling language you’d have used on a parent – probably ratcheted up with exaggeration – would have been an appeal to their emotions. Depending on how strong your argument was, a second helping or desert would have been forthcoming. But there’s such a thing as overdoing it, or of using the wrong form of rhetoric, based on context.

Say you’re writing a gritty scene of death on a fictional battlefield. You’re trying to highlight the futile nature of war, the horrendously high number of fallen. You could try reeling off a set of statistics – but it’s most likely going to make your audience’s eyes glaze over, unless they happen to be researching factual effects of war. They’re not likely to be looking for those in a work of fiction.

What comes in handy here is the imagery of Pathos, the emotional appeal to the audience. Numbers can be counted in a metaphor – perhaps the description of rolling fields full of silent graves, row after row, with poppies bobbing above the fallen.

You only have to look at the dramaticatic decrease in global demographics immediately following WWI, to know the heavy losses suffered. The personal accounts of survivors and war heroes drive home the message with the authority of first-person perspective and experience. This is an example of Ethos tempered with Pathos; instilling credibility into an argument via specifics relative to experience, with the emotive language of one reaching out to another to make them understand. On a more professional level, it’s the equivalent of a doctor or scientist writing a medical breakdown of facts for a wider audience, using the correct research data (Logos) to push their argument but also, crucially, favouring denotation (literal definition) over connotation (emotionally-loaded) in the language used. This helps to convey their neutral authority on the matter. It’s far more subtle than verbally whacking an audience around the head with diplomas and degrees. Inferring, rather than continuously referencing, credibility.

These three appeals of persuasion are crucial to writers. You’ll be targeting not only a reading audience, but the marketing aspect of the literary world. Knowing what language to use, based on which form of rhetoric is applicable, can make all the difference to your pitch.

One of my favourite fictional examples to use when deconstructing the three appeals, is Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs. Though essentially crime fiction – which itself has the ethical basis of upholding the law – the antagonistic character Dr. Hannibal Lecter is allowed to escape at the novel’s end. The audience is persuaded to believe that this outcome is, though perhaps not for the greater good (considering his actions), at least acceptable and perhaps even positive.

I’ve always defined three antagonists. Buffalo Bill is the main objective, being the most active and uncontrollable at the point that the novel pitches the audience into Clarice Starling’s shoes.
Dr. Lecter, though by far the most advanced in intellect and self-control, is for a time annulled by imprisonment. That being said, the fact he has the mental capacity to unpin others’ psyche while still behind bars, is testament to what he’s capable of.
His self-proclaimed “nemesis”, Dr. Chilton, is the weakest antagonist but still influential enough to demoralize and distort truth, affecting events. Though supposedly one of the good guys – keeping Lecter away from society – his credibility becomes ever more undermined as he lapses into unprofessional behavior. This is his undoing, both in the eyes of the plot and audience favour; when the novel concludes, the inferrence is made that Lecter will be paying a visit to Chilton in the near future, and in such a way that it even comes across as wryly humourous:

“Next, he dropped a note to Dr. Frederick Chilton in federal protective custody, suggesting that he would be paying Dr. Chilton a visit in the near future. After this visit, he wrote, it would make sense for the hospital to tattoo feeding instructions on Chilton’s forehead to save paperwork.” – Pg 184.

Though written in third person POV, the novel is over Starling’s shoulder for much of the narrative progression, drawing on her perceptions. When it does deviate to take in the perspective of others, it serves as a reminder that this is an omnipresent construct. A wider range of opinions and appeals are drawn upon; there’s less chance of the audience feeling unpinned by an unreliable narrator. This creates a more credible Ethos, for both plot and narrative structures.

Opinion is cast against Lecter right from the off, through the words of Jack Crawford. This man is established as an authority figure – “Section Chief Crawford’s summons had said now” – in Starling’s professional life, from the second paragraph. He describes Lecter as a “monster”, using experience and facts (Logos, Ethos) to back up his argument:

“He gutted Will with a linoleum knife when Will caught up with him. It’s a wonder Will didn’t die. Remember the Red Dragon? Lecter turned Francis Dolarhyde onto Will and his family. Will’s face looks like damn Picasso drew him, thanks to Lecter. He tore a nurse up in the asylum.” Pgs 4/5.

Note the strong connotations of violence and abhorrence in the words used – “tore, gutted, die”. Crawford is impressing the dire nature of Lecter’s capabilities upon Clarice (and by proxy, the audience) in such a way as to make her understand (Pathos.) There’s an intense mixture of the three appeals. Harris has already upped the ante, in a bold early move to expose Lecter’s past. It creates an ominous mood, far more engaging than simply riffing facts.

As Lecter’s custodian, Dr. Chilton’s own experience allows him to paint a broader picture than Crawford is capable of:

“It takes an orderly at least ten minutes a day to remove the staples from the publications he receives. We tried to eliminate or reduce his subscriptions, but he wrote a brief and the court overruled us…We thought, ‘Here’s an opportunity to make a landmark study” – it’s so rare to get one alive… A pure sociopath, that’s obviously what he is.” Pgs 6/7.

Chinks appear in Chilton’s credibility, with Harris alluding towards his unreliable nature and unprofessional stance. Much of his dialogue hinges on personal aspect:
– “Crawford’s very clever – isn’t he – using you on Lecter … A young woman to ‘turn him on,’ I believe you call it. I don’t believe Lecter’s seen a woman in several years – he may have gotten a glimpse of one of the cleaning people. We generally keep women out of there. They’re trouble in detention.” Pg 7.
– “I hadn’t heard your voice in years – I suppose the last time was when you gave me all the misleading answers in my interviews and then ridiculed me in your Journal articles
– “Years of silence, and then Jack Crawford sends down his girl and you just went to jelly, didn’t you?” – Pg 90

Yet Chilton is permitted his own level of Pathos, as Harris tempers the negative connotations of his character with this rather pitiful image:
“I’m not a turnkey here, Miss Starling. I don’t come running down here at night just to let people in and out. I had a ticket to Holiday on Ice.”
He realized he’d said a ticket. In that instant Starling saw his life, and he knew it. She saw his bleak refrigerator, the crumbs on the TV tray where he ate alone, the still piles his things stayed in for months until he moved them.” – Pg 72

The slip of a word can be a powerful message; particularly when it’s plural to single.

Lecter is at first mocking of Clarice – emulating the accent she’s tried to hide, flipping between prefixes of her name in correlation with subject matter:
“You’re tough, aren’t you, Officer Starling?”
“Now that I think of it, I could make you very happy on Valentine’s Day, Clarice Starling.”
“A census taker tried to quantify me once. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a big Amarone. Go back to school, little Starling.” – Pgs 13/14.

All these serve to test, rather than demoralize her. Interesting to note is that for all this supposed derision, Harris is still at pains to display Lecter’s innate charm. He has a humane side to him, displayed through positive connotations that prove unsettling for any who wish to fall back on the simplicity of using “evil” as a faceless, nameless and potentially deniable aspect:

– “If the add-a-beads got tacky, what else will as you go along? You wonder don’t you, at night?” Dr. Lecter asked in the kindest of tones (note the use of a positive superlative)
– Hannibal Lecter, polite to the last, did not give her his back. – Pgs 13/14.

While much of the novel takes place inside the narrative of Clarice and Lecter, Harris maintains a dehumanizing distance from Buffalo Bill. There’s his habit of referring to victims as “It”, refusing to acknowledge their status as living, feeling creations:
“And an aside to the dog as the voice faded, ‘Yes it will get the hose, won’t it, Darlingheart, yes it will!”‘
And the nurturing of butterflies and moths, showing them tenderness and love, only to insert them in their pupae state down the throats of the women he has murdered and skinned, as an expression of his desire to break free into beauty.

The audience is not permitted to become overly familiar with his habits and thought processes. There’s less chance of finding humanity in him, compassion for him. That being said, there are still some jarring moments of Pathos woven into his narrative:

– “Gumb used the dishmop to tuck his penis and testicles back between his legs. He whipped the shower curtain aside and stood before the mirror, hitting a hipshot pose despite the grinding it caused in his private parts.”
– “A lot of electrolysis had removed Gumb’s beard and shaped his hairline into a widow’s peak, but he did not look like a woman. He looked like a man inclined to fight with his nails as well as his fists and feet. Whether his behavior was an earnest, inept attempt to swish or a hateful mocking would be hard to say on short acquaintance, and short acquaintances were the only kind he had.” Pgs 69/70.

This works in conjunction with Lecter’s own analysis:
“Sometimes you see a tendency to surgical addiction – cosmetically, transsexuals are hard to satisfy – but that’s about all. Billy’s not a real transsexual…Billy’s not a transsexual, Clarice, but he thinks he is, he tries to be. He’s tried to be a lot of things, I expect.”

Note the weave of the three appeals. Lecter asserts his authority (Ethos) with references to personal experience / research, via technical language (Logos), while inserting a certain level of Pathos into the final sentence with repetition of the words “tries/tried” and “not.” Pieced together is the image of a confused man, a tormented soul full of reprehensible deeds; able to show loving care towards his dog Precious, while just as capable of watching his latest prisoner sleep with her thumb in her mouth – an obvious play on the innocence of an infant – and still refer to her as “the material.”

But it’s the final meeting between Clarice and Lecter that pulls out the emotional stops, for a real subversion of character-audience expectations:

“They didn’t send me. I just came.”
“People will say we’re in love. Don’t you want to ask about Billy Rubin, Clarice?”
“Dr. Lecter, without in any way… impugning what you’ve told Senator Martin, would you advise me to go on with your idea about- ”
“Impugning – I love it. I wouldn’t advise you at all. You tried to fool me, Clarice. Do you think I’m playing with these people?”
“I think you were telling me the truth.”
“Pity you tried to fool me, isn’t it?” Dr. Letter’s face sank behind his arms until only his eyes were visible. “Pity Catherine Martin won’t ever see the sun again. The sun’s
a mattress fire her God died in, Clarice.”
“Pity you have to pander now and lick a few tears when you can,” Starling said.
“It’s a pity we didn’t get to finish what we were talking about. Your idea of the imago, the structure of it, had a kind of… elegance that’s hard to get away from. Now it’s like a ruin, half an arch standing there.”

A wonderful cadence of loaded words falls between them, vastly different to the cat-and-mouse discourse of technical-Logos and Ethos-experience used before.
Love. Fool. Pity. Tears. And that final gorgeous image of a half-built arch, an almost-relationship, now left to stand in silence and incomplete stasis, with the resonance of the word ruin.

Lecter has, after all, helped Clarice. He has issued her with belief and respect, where others have sought to waylay her attempts at ascension through the ranks, or have simply disregarded her credentials based on her inexperience and/or gender. The first-person account of Clarice’s unraveled secret of the lambs, adds the sort of emotive weight a third-person POV couldn’t administer.
The bittersweet dialogue makes the pain exquisite, with repetition of names almost chiming a lover’s song:

– “You still wake up sometimes, don’t you? Wake up in the iron dark with the lambs screaming?”
“Do you think if you caught Buffalo Bill yourself and if you made Catherine all right, you could make the lambs stop screaming, do you think they’d be all right too and
you wouldn’t wake up again in the dark and hear the lambs screaming?
– “Then why not finish the arch? Take your case file with you, Clarice, I won’t need it anymore.” He held it at arm’s length through the bars, his forefinger along the spine.
She reached across the barrier and took it. For an instant the tip of her forefinger touched Dr. Lecter’s. The touch crackled in his eyes.
“Thank you, Clarice.”
“Thank you, Dr. Lecter.
And that is how he remained in Starling’s mind. Caught in the instant when he did not mock. – Pg 118

There are appealing aspects of humanity in Lecter’s character, despite the audience’s better judgement; a continuous display of Ethos vs. Logos to produce Pathos, which only enhance the novel’s subversion of audience expectations.

– “First, he sent to Barney a generous tip and a thank-you note for his many courtesies at the asylum.”
– “I have no plans to call on you, Clarice, the world being more interesting with you in it. Be sure you extend me the same courtesy.” – Pg 184

The art of persuasion is a delicate finesse, a tightrope for an author to walk. With the correct blend of the three forms of rhetoric, Thomas Harris manages to achieve an altered perspective of Lecter, through subtle diminishing of his antagonists’ authority and the use of more favourable connotations when depicting his personality and dialogue. Lecter’s appeal is complete – defying the conventional Ethos of a crime fiction, with the antagonist winning out.

Look to your own writing, for the use of persuasive language in its three formats –
Logos for facts, world-building, consistency, authority, deduction;
Ethos for mindset, trust, strongly influential mood without resorting to the overly emotional, research, favouring denotation over connotation;
Pathos for touching the nerves of the audience, for invoking their most basic instincts, their own memories and experiences.

It’s about tapping into what counts and where; what makes a difference in the right context. Overly emotional language and imagery won’t fall well into a job application; this is where Ethos, constructive language and proof of credentials comes into play, to convince a potential employer that you’re worth hiring. Likewise, trying to quantify a disease in a medical journal via personally emotive discourse, is perhaps not the most effective way of transmitting vital information.

When it comes to depicting a scene – setting the stage for emotional reactions – Pathos comes into its own. The dancing of poppies against the sky, across a graveyard; the shine of lanolin on a man’s hand, from constant checking and rechecking of his image; the smallest physical contact between two souls, kept apart by circumstance but having met in the middle of life and so full of memory thereafter, of that one brief touch. Something not even the world, with its expectations and assumptions, can erase.

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