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Bringing Pathos (Emotion) to Your Writing

In general terms, pathos is a term that means emotion or compassion. It is often included in speeches and articles, particularly those that serve to persuade someone to do something, in an effort to tug at the heart strings, thus evoking action. Pathos can also serve to enthrall a reader, engaging them and drawing them into your story. A good usage of pathos can make a story timeless.

pa•thos (p th s , -thôs ) n. 1. A quality, as of an experience or a work of art, that arouses feelings of pity, sympathy, tenderness, or sorrow.
2. The feeling, as of sympathy or pity, so aroused. [Greek, suffering; see kwent(h)- in Indo-European roots.]

You can see good examples of articles that are based on pathos by reading many of the emotion laden email forwards that are on the internet. If you have received a forwarded story in your email inbox and it brought a tear to your eye - that was the pathos talking. You may not want your readers crying like babies, but a strong emotional reaction can certainly serve to make your story stronger and even more appealing. Plus, when you add emotion to your story, you bring a sense of realism to your piece. You take your story from a flat collection of words to a three dimensional piece that speaks to it readers.

Using pathos is not difficult; these tips can help you breathe life into your story:

1.  Imagery
This requires a delicate balance because you don't want to overdo it, otherwise you will overwhelm your reader and they will get lost in the details instead of getting lost in your story.  Use words and phrases that show your reader what you mean.  Instead of saying "the little brown house," you might say, "the quaint brown cottage that stood at the edge of the wood…"  The two phrases mean the same, but the second one has much more visual appeal, evoking a warmer mental picture.

2.  Emotional words and phrases
Color your story with words.  Use words and phrases that are emotional.  Instead of saying "I was sad when my grandmother died," you may say something like "I was heartbroken when I learned that my grandmother passed away.  All my life I had felt that she was the only one who truly understood and accepted me - now she was gone and there was a gaping void in my world."  The difference in the two examples is striking.  The second obviously evokes a stronger emotional response.

This type of writing gives you much more room to use words and expressions that create pictures with words. You can be more creative. Experiment with different ways of saying things.  Ask your friends which bring about a stronger emotional response. You can learn a great deal from the feedback that your readers provide.

3.  Speak to their hearts

When you are writing with pathos, this is not the time to bring in a great clinical voice.  While logic can be incorporated into your piece, you don't want the logical voice to override the emotional one, particularly if you are writing a pathos-focused piece. Speak to the hearts of your readers, then to their minds. Instead of saying, "living in the depression made me more aware of saving money." Try something like "Growing up during the Great Depression really made me appreciate the value of a dollar. We struggled and scraped and sometimes we barely got by but we did it as a family. We did it together." Don't be afraid to use words to draw a picture and don't be afraid to use a few more words to get your point across. Pathos requires the use of more words, but it can really bring your story to life.