DISCLOSURE: AS AN AMAZON ASSOCIATE I EARN FROM QUALIFYING PURCHASES.
THIS POST MAY CONTAIN AFFILIATE LINKS, MEANING, AT NO ADDITIONAL COST TO YOU, I EARN FROM QUALIFYING PURCHASES. AFFILIATE LINKS ARE MARKED WITH #ad. "I" IN THIS CASE MEANS THE OWNER OF FILMDAFT.COM. PLEASE READ THE FULL DISCLOSURE FOR MORE INFO.
This is Part 2 of a series, where I discuss the rhetorical appeals logos, ethos, and pathos for screenwriters. Read Part 1 here.
Why is it that some movies with a message resonate so powerfully, while others feel like they are grasping into thin air and unable to come up with anything tangible to say?
This is because some movies are missing a powerful and compelling moral argument. That can all be fixed by imploring the rhetorical technique defined by Aristotle as ethos.
Here, in part 2, I share how to use ethos in your next short film to build a convincing story world full of compelling characters that all follow their own ethics and rules.
But first, what is ethos and why is important to storytelling?
What is Ethos and why is it important to storytelling?
Ethos is what Aristotle referred to as an appeal to credibility or authority. When you use ethos in your story, you may establish credibility from the ethical standpoint of morals and goodness.
You may also establish credibility through other means, like status, education, experience, or character.
When giving a speech, it’s important to establish your own credibility on a subject using ethos. If an audience can see that you are a credible source on a subject, you will win over their attention and suspend their disbelief, if only momentarily.
Establishing ethos doesn’t mean that you can say anything and get away with it; instead, think of applying ethos as laying down a track for your audience to follow you on just long enough to get to a set destination in your script.
How to use ethos in your screenplay
In film, ethos can be used to measure how well your film convinces your audience of your credibility as a storyteller.
This doesn’t mean ethos is behind how cool your shots are or how visionary your… “vision” is.
Instead, it’s about how well you command your craft to point the audience in the direction you want them to go to best experience the story you are telling.
Let’s break that down into three parts: establishing “world,” establishing “character,” and establishing “tone.”
As a screenwriter, you must establish a credible world populated with credible characters in a story told with a credible tone.
In this sense, believability can also be a substitute for credibility. The world, the characters, and the tone must all feel believable.
Why ethos is important to your story’s world and tone
You can establish the world, characters, and tone of your story, during the first 10 pages of your feature screenplay’s first act. The various page lengths for shorts and TV pilots vary, but the same rule applies to those formats as well.
During the initial setup, where you establish the “normal world” of your story, you have the freedom to put the rules of the world into place.
You should establish the tone, world, and characters right at the top of the story. If you do this properly, the audience will follow along.
For the world, if your story is set in a world where monsters and humans live together in harmony, as long as you establish it at the top of the film, the audience will go along for the ride.
For the tone, if it’s a dark and gritty western, set the tone at the top. If it’s a light and bubble rom-com, the same rules apply.
If your film treads the delicate tonal line between comedy and tragedy, as long as you establish both in the first ten pages, your audience will at least know that your story is going to be a nuanced and complicated film – emotionally speaking.
Why ethos is important to your characters
Ethos also manifests itself as a dominant trait in a particular character, which establishes their “credibility” as a unique individual. In other words, is your character believable from the start? If not, it will have an impact on your film.
Later in your story, you should be careful not to deviate from what’s already been established as “in character” without a reason to change… the action will be viewed as “out of character,” and it will hurt the character’s credibility.
Example 1: How the character’s credibility in the movie Hot Fuzz is established through ethos
I shared the example of Harry Potter as a character that exemplifies ethos in part 1 of this series, but the character of Nicholas Angel in writer-director Edgar Wright’s genius film Hot Fuzz is another exemplary choice.
Nicholas’ zealot-like commitment to the rule of law as a big city police officer sent to the countryside to police a small town with supposedly no crime creates instant drama – but ends up paying off big when the town’s thinly veiled secrets are finally revealed.
Watch how the very opening of the film establishes Nicholas’ character in one of the most brilliant character introduction montages ever written and filmed (thanks to Youtuber That One Guy):
Right away, you know exactly what type of cop Nicholas is: by the book, and fierce as hell.
In fact, as we learn right after this montage, Nicholas is so good that he’s making the rest of the department look bad, which in turn, causes them to ostracize him out to the countryside.
Now, not every film can use ethos to introduce their characters with a montage. In fact, as writers, we’re told to show, not tell. It just so happens that it works in Hot Fuzz because he recalls his credentials in an interview setting. It makes sense because it fits the scene.
When writing your next short film or feature, think about how you can establish your character’s most dominant trait in the very first moment the audience meets them.
For instance, if your character is an alcoholic with a heart of gold, maybe they could stumble out into the street from the bar and give a homeless person the rest of the money in their wallet.
It’s only when they stumble off and flag a taxi that they realize they now can’t afford the fare home and end up spending the night on the street. As the audience, we know right away who they are and their flaw: alcoholism combined with giving to a fault.
Example 2: How Hot Fuzz uses ethos to establish the world of the story
Hot Fuzz is a very fast-moving script that quickly dives Nicholas Angel into the new world of the story.
But because this “new world” is actually a sleepy village where nothing seems to happen, the film smartly takes its time establishing the world’s rules through the characters that maintain it.
Here’s a short clip establishing many of the characters that Nicholas will interact with later in the movie. By populating the world with people who know who he is while he knows nothing about them creates an exciting dynamic from the start.
Check it out (thanks, once again, to Youtuber That One Guy):
The film shows us straightaway, using dialogue and character tropes, that the world of Sandford is populated with villagers who seem jovial and kind but always throw in the same line that everything’s for “the greater good.”
As Nicholas gets used to the town, he sees petty crime wherever he goes, but every townsfolk he meets is quick to write it off as nothing to worry about.
In fact, each character and scenario Nicholas encounters is a piece of a puzzle, as when accidents start going awry, Nicholas begins to suspect foul play.
These “rules” come back to bite both Nicholas for breaking them and the villagers who play by them – which is partly how Hot Fuzz spins a tight-knit tail full of plants and payoffs.
How to use ethos to build your own film world
Remember that ethos is all about establishing credibility. Whatever rules you set up about the world of your story have to be honored throughout, so consider them carefully.
For instance, if you know one of your characters will develop superpowers later in the film, you would be wise to establish a world where strange occurrences happen early on.
If your story is all about high powered lawyers riding roughshod over the law, establish early on that the law has its limits, and those limits can be broken, tested, or upheld based entirely on the skill of the one doing the arguing.
Or if a previously antagonistic character is going to show up and save the day in the end, make sure you set them up as having a moment of doubt as they question their cause before they leave the story.
Establish the rules of the world early on
Whatever the story’s world may be, it’s important to lay the track down early so the audience can jump aboard. If suddenly, at the end of the film, something random happens that feels completely forced and out of nowhere, you haven’t established enough credibility for it to be believable in the world of this story.
For those of you worried about being too expositional, I have a tip for that as well. Let’s say the world of your story has a very complicated set of rules. Maybe it’s a parallel universe to ours, but with different cultural differences: duels are legal here, and everyone carries a pistol at all times.
Show us the rules of these duels by staging a gunfight early on. No need to explain the rules in dialogue – show them in action.
Maybe someone breaks the rules of the duel to win, and they get shot by a third party observer. Now we know at least one of the parameters of what is or isn’t allowed.
An important note: if your film is going to have a surprise twist, particularly one that changes the tone from one half to the other, it would be wise to consider establishing the tone and any tonal switching back and forth at the same time you establish the rules of the world.
Example 3: How Hot Fuzz establishes the tone of the film using ethos
After establishing Nicholas’ character, the Hot Fuzz script masterfully sets up the transition from the old world into the new world with a series of short shots.
Not quite a montage, screenwriter, and director Edgar Wright briskly whisk us through the process of getting to the sleepy little village of Sandford.
There are a couple of directorial points worth mentioning as well, so watch the scene below first courtesy of Youtuber Sana Lime:
As you can see, Edgar Wright uses static framing, depressing lighting, and creepy music alongside Simon Pegg’s genius deadpan acting to establish that this transition to the countryside is basically the worst thing that’s ever happened to Nicholas.
However, using an editing style of quick jump cuts, the directing here keep what would be an otherwise boring sequence feeling lively and engaging. Between this and the establishing montage, Edgar Wright has established an active and amplified tone befitting the action genre.
Because Hot Fuzz is a hyperbolic parody and simultaneous love letter to the action movie cop duo genre, this editing style totally works to establish that tone, even openly referencing films like Bad Boys 2 and Point Break by having the characters watch said movies.
It isn’t just the start of the film either.
Throughout the movie, Edgar Wright uses action-style directing and editing to make epic sequences out of cops chasing down a shoplifter or trying to catch a rogue goose.
This is partially for laughs and partially to keep the tone consistent in a world that supposedly has no crime. But of course, not all is what it seems…
All of this works in tandem to create the credibility of the film’s tone that pays off exceptionally well at the end.
Of course, not every screen story relies on genre conventions. How then, can you, as the writer, use ethos to establish the tone of your movie?
How to use ethos to establish tone of writing
You can use ethos to establish a sense of tone in your screenplay.
For instance, if you want to establish a genre-heavy action tone like the sequences in Hot Fuzz, focus on writing in short, staccato-style bursts.
If you want to establish a more lyrical, slice-of-life style tone, write morel lyrical sentences, focusing on making the minutiae of the moment feel active and important. Focus on describing small things, like how the raindrops race down the windowpane while the character looks wistfully out the window.
This might feel like bad screenwriting advice, but it’s not so long as you keep every line visually stimulating and active on the page. It’s not just about flowery language, but powerful language. Invest in small details and make them feel big.
If the stage description or setting is boring, make the dialogue jovial and alive. If the dialogue is matter of fact, make the stage description and body language tell a story all its own.
Do this, and you can convey the tone to anyone who reads it – which will help anyone directing it other than you see your vision more clearly, too.
Establish a believable world full of believable characters, and the audience will believe your story.
When we invest in stories, we suspend our disbelief and use our imagination to believe what we see on screen is our reality.
And as a storyteller, you have the power to make that process easier or more difficult for us. It all depends on the choices you make.
Establishing ethos is about laying a credible foundation for a great story, then sticking to the blueprint.
Of course, there should be deviations that surprise us. But in any great script like Hot Fuzz, every beat feels surprising and not surprising because when you look back, you see that it was entirely set up.
If you can set up authoritative characters, create a credible world full of specific rules, and write in a consistent tone, you will have used ethos to effectively tell a believable story – even if there are monsters or magic or rogue killer geese!
Now let’s move on, and take a look at how to use logos in film.
Grant Harvey is a freelance writer, screenwriter, and filmmaker based out of Los Angeles. When he’s not working on his own feature-length screenplays and television pilots, Grant uses his passion and experience in film and videography to help others learn the tools, strategies, and equipment needed to create high-quality videos as a filmmaker of any skill level.