Ethos, Logos, Pathos

This is the fourth post in my Story Gridding Nonfiction series.  To read the first, click here.  To read the second, click here. To read the third, click here.

We’ve been exploring Story Grid as it relates to nonfiction. And we’ve come up with four big categories/genres of nonfiction: Academic, How-To, Narrative Nonfiction and the Big Idea Book. As the Big Idea Book, at its best, is an elaborate combination plate of the other three, let’s pick it apart a bit more and see if we can suss out its secrets.

Where did the nonfiction Big Idea Book come from? That is, from what form did it emerge? What’s the tadpole version that has the potential to morph into a complex frog?

Fiction has shorter forms than the novel right? There are novellas and short stories. So nonfiction must have equivalent shorter forms.  Thinking about a smaller version of a Big Idea Book will narrow my focus and give me some clues about why one works and another doesn’t (Story Grid’s raison d’etre) as well as how to create one of my own.

I’d say that Ph.D. dissertations (Academic) and Operating Manuals (How-To) and Extended Essays (Narrative Nonfiction and Big Idea) would be the medium forms of Nonfiction. And fiction’s short story equivalents for nonfiction would be research papers (Academic), driving directions or Ikea furniture assembly diagrams (How-To) and short form reporting pieces like W.C Heinz’s classic “Death of a Racehorse” (Narrative Nonfiction) and Tom Wolfe’s “The Me Decade” (Big Idea).

But where did all of those things come from? Is there some Nonfiction form from which these all sprang forth?

I think there is. It’s one of those inevitable, but surprising reveals too.

It’s the form of the High School Thesis paper.

You remember those, right?

The 2,000 to 5,000 word, dry as dust compositions our English Lit teachers put us through in High School and our Professors put us through in College?

As you’ll recall, the structure of a thesis paper looks like this:

Thesis Paper Form

Thesis Paper Form

  1. Start with an inverse pyramid, moving the statements from global to specific, and then transition into
  1. Three or more boxes of supporting evidence/data/examples and then round it out with
  1. A pyramid moving from specific to general.

That’s basically it.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the three parts mirror the Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff in fiction.

But how do you construct these three Nonfiction Beginnings, Middles and Ends? How do you make an argument? How do you persuade someone to believe you? How do you persuade them to act?

Let’s go all the way back to Aristotle for the answer. Because his was a very good one. Aristotle suggested that there are three forms of persuasion: ethos, logos and pathos. And I think these are the three building blocks for Nonfiction Scenes.

Ethos is all about the bona fides of the arguer. Does the writer have the character and background to be someone worthy of trust? Is he principled? Does he have experience in the arena in which he writes? Is he an expert?

Logos is all about the evidence/the data/the backup material that the arguer/writer uses to support his conclusions. Because of the following data/examples/case studies, logically we can conclude…

Pathos is the writer appealing to the emotions of his audience to get them on his side, arousing readers’ anger or appealing to their self-interest or sense of identity. As you’ll surmise, employing a fiction writer’s Story technique is crucial for this form of persuasion.  New Journalism’s pantheon (Wolfe, Talese, Didion, etc.) knows how to create Pathos as do the Erik Larsons and Malcolm Gladwells of the world.

Getting readers to “like” the writer or “root” for him to succeed in his argument is another way of making a Pathos based argument.

Or, on the other end of the spectrum, perhaps the writer wishes his readers to “fear” his “Oz-like” all-knowingness. In this case, the reader’s inability to understand is not the failure of the genius writer’s erudition, but of the novice reading the material. This approach is intellectual sado-masochism. Gore Vidal was a master of this kind of “I’m smarter than you” school.

Both “hey, we’re all in this together” and “hey, I know more than you so try and keep up” can work.

Whether they know it or not, arguers/writers confront that old Machiavellian rhetorical question Is it better to be loved or feared? with every mission statement/project they take on. Their preference (their desire to be loved or feared) reveals itself by their choices among these three fundamental forms of persuasion.

Do they include all three persuasion techniques in their global argument? Or do they rely more on their reputation (ethos) than data (logos) or story (pathos)?

How well do they transition from one form of persuasion to another?

And of course, how do they execute each technique?

With this in mind, here’s my take on the building blocks of Big Idea Nonfiction…

  • Ethos Scenes (the writer/narrator takes center stage and dispenses his wisdom)
  • Logos Scenes (the evidence takes center stage) and
  • Pathos Scenes (an emotional appeal to the reader through Story takes center stage)

Steven Pressfield masterfully uses all three kinds of persuasion in The War of Art. And he weaves his narrative in and out of one to the other in practically invisible ways.

But that’s not what makes The War of Art a book that people hold dear to their hearts. Nor is it what makes the book an evergreen bestseller.

What makes it both of those things is The War of Art’s Internal Genre, not its External BIG IDEA BOOK Genre.

More on that next.


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  1. Mary Doyle on April 28, 2017 at 6:19 am

    Wow – I wish this post could be sent to every high school English teacher in the country! As always, thanks Shawn.

  2. Mary Scriver on April 28, 2017 at 9:04 am

    You have completely overlooked what is right in your lap: long form blogs. I write a minimum 1,000 words daily blog that follows several threads: Blackfeet history, stories, ideas and people; “religious” or spiritual history, theory and material; geology/sociology/psychology; and personal experience. Others as the occasion arises. This practice developed out of preaching when I was in the ministry. In those days (typewriter days) I composed 8 double-spaced pages every Sunday, meant to be spoken, which another category of non-fiction. At least the way I do it.

    I WAS a high school English teacher in the beginning, 1961-70.

  3. Troy B Kechely on April 29, 2017 at 6:15 am

    Excellent post Shawn. It motivates me to go back and take a hard look at my first non-fiction book. I already have people encouraging me to reprint it but now, if I do, I will want to apply these lessons. Thanks for the insight.

  4. James Haul on October 12, 2020 at 11:19 pm

    Keeping up the attention and focus of readers is very challenging for the authors when they are writing some sort of Ethos and Logos. I believe that a writer should not use the wrong strategies for catching the attention of readers. I really glad that I read an article about real life casinos that was really eye-catching content one can also check it out now and have tips and tricks to win real casino and earn money through it.

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