Why is it some movies just hit us right in the feels, while others can fall flat, even when the characters on screen are going through the most emotionally devastating experiences?
Aristotle’s rhetorical technique of pathos can help us decipher it.
You can use pathos to make compelling and passionate characters, plot points, and themes in your next short film.
In part 4, I share how to use pathos in your next film to create story points, characters, and thematic elements that emotionally resonate with your audience and help make the moral argument at the heart of your story.
But first, what is pathos and why is important to storytelling?
What is pathos?
Pathos is what Aristotle referred to as an appeal to the audience’s emotions. We’ve all heard passionate presenters making morally resonant cases for, or against, all manner of important subjects.
It’s not just the level of passion in your delivery that counts as pathos, though. You can use different rhetorical tricks like word choice and metaphors to strengthen an emotional appeal as well.
Think about the difference between these two sentences:
- “Weed can hinder energy levels and also potentially damage your lungs.” (no pathos)
- “Weed destroys your ambition, turning you into a sluggish and depressed shell of yourself, and the negative effects of the smoke on your lungs is like wearing a suit of magnets and walking through a knife factory!” (with pathos)
Makes a difference, doesn’t it?
How do you use pathos in your screenwriting?
The best way to use pathos in your screenwriting is to strengthen the emotional appeal of your characters, plot points, and themes.
Do this well, and you persuade the audience to invest their emotions in the characters’ world as if they were real people experiencing real events.
Pete Docter, Chief Creative Officer at Pixar, said it this way: “What you’re trying to do when you tell a story is to write about an event in your life that made you feel some particular way. And what you’re trying to do, when you tell a story, is to get the audience to have that same feeling.”
It’s why we sometimes cry when we see characters in pain – it’s our pain, too.
Breaking this down a bit further, here are the three main ways to utilize pathos in your next short film or screenplay: amplify the characters, dramatize the plot, and fortify the thematic resonance.
How do you use pathos to amplify the characters in your short film or screenplay?
The best way to use pathos to amplify the characters in your next story is by giving them strong character traits that we, as fellow humans, can recognize in ourselves.
When we watch movies and television, the thing that keeps us hooked is how much we invest ourselves in the trials, aspirations, hopes, and fears of the main character(s).
To invest, we need to relate to some aspect of the human condition playing out on screen.
In part 1 of this series, we discussed how a character like Ron Weasley embodies pathos as a character who is intensely emotional with every emotion, like his sense of humor, his bravery, and his fear. Ron is a passionate guy and wears his heart on his sleeve.
Not every character has to be as emotional as Ron Weasley for us to relate to them, however.
It’s actually not that hard to get an audience to relate to a character, even characters that are “unlikable.”
All you have to do is give them a strong want, or goal; a strong fear; and a strong flaw.
How do you give a character a strong goal?
Andrew Stanton, a director, writer, and producer for Pixar, once gave a great talk at my film school about writing as Pixar does.
He mentioned that all Disney animators were taught that every Disney movie had some version of “the Wishing song.” What better example for a wishing song is there than the original from Snow White?
Check it out below thanks to Youtuber DisneyMusics:
While pretty basic, the wishing song is essentially a structural tool used by the original Disney animators to set up a strong “wish” for the princess character that established her goal of finding a prince and escaping the boring life of her normal world.
Every Disney movie since Snow White has had a similar structural setup – by about the first 10 minutes or so, the main character will have their own version of a wishing song that establishes their goal.
The “goal” of establishing a strong goal is to give the audience something to root for. As long as we can identify what they want, and relate to how badly they want it, then we can follow along and want that for them.
You don’t have to do this in a song; as Andrew pointed out in his talk, one thing Pixar didn’t want to do was create more wishing songs!
Instead, Pixar uses the same logic of the “wishing song” to instill in the audience a similarly powerful “wish” that the character wants more than anything.
This goal is the motivation that will power the character, and the audience, through the rest of the movie.
How do you give a character a strong fear?
Give your characters a strong fear by setting high stakes for what happens to the character if they never achieve their goal.
Fear can be just as powerful a motivator as hope and aspiration, sometimes more powerful. Beyond the character just “wanting” something, ask what happens to them if they don’t get it?
Let’s say the character wants to become a famous musician. That’s a little abstract. They can dream of being a famous musician, sure, but that’s not enough motivation for a powerful story.
Instead, what if there’s an important singing competition where they can win a million dollars and a record deal, and they need to win to help pay for their dying mother’s cancer surgery.
That’s a powerful goal because it’s motivated by a powerful fear – the fear of their mother dying.
Fear doesn’t always have to be so on the nose. Fears can be more existential, like the fear of failure or the fear of living a meaningless life because you’ve never amounted to much.
The important thing with fear is that it raises the stakes, doubling the motivation of the character.
How do you give a character a strong flaw?
You can give your characters a strong flaw by rooting their failure in the central lesson they need to learn to get what they want. Show the audience a manifestation of this early on in the story that they can recognize and point to.
A flaw is an internal obstacle blocking the character from growing. It’s something that they don’t want to or can’t recognize in themselves that is holding them back from getting what they need.
There’s a difference between what a character wants and what a character needs. Oftentimes, the conflict between those two things is what makes a great conflict for your story (which we’ll get into more in a minute).
Show us this flaw early on by having the characters attempt to get what they want and fail at it early on in your story.
Showing them fail is another important way to use pathos to get the audience on the character’s side. As another storytelling rule from Pixar goes, “we as the audience admire a character for trying more than for their success.”
It’s not enough to have external obstacles hold them back, though. The more we see that something internal is holding the character back, the more we can relate their struggle to our own struggles to overcome our flaws. This makes us root for the character to succeed even if we can’t.
How to use pathos to dramatize the plot better
In the same way that you set up your characters with strong goals, fears, and flaws, you can use pathos to dramatize the plot by making every plot point hinge on achieving, facing, and overcoming those individual elements.
Use pathos to write plot points that hinge on a character achieving their goal
Because the audience loves underdogs and admires effort more than results, you can use pathos to make your characters extremely passionate about their goal.
Not only does the urgency of their need matter, but the story should be written in such a way that every scene allows them to achieve their goal and yet keeps them from achieving it at the same time.
To do this, when you write any scene, whether it’s a short film, feature, or TV pilot, you should be asking yourself how this scene will either result in the character achieving their goal or failing to achieve their goal.
Forcing your characters to make active choices keeps them driven on a path intent on getting what they want and failing all the way.
Horror movies are a great resource to reference for this particular subject because the characters in these films usually have a straightforward and fundamental goal: stay alive!
The film A Quiet Place excels at the above for one simple reason: every character’s main goal in every scene is to be quiet, or they will die.
Every second of every scene of this film, the family has a life or death urgency to be as quiet as possible to achieve their ultimate thematic goal of keeping their family together.
To keep the family together, they have to stay alive, and to stay alive, they have to be quiet.
How then do you dramatize the plot with pathos?
Create obstacles that force the characters to make decisions that lead to them succeeding or failing to achieve their goal – and stack the freaking deck against them to succeed.
The harder you make success, and the more driven you make the characters, the more passionately the audience will root for them!
Now, if this were any other movie, the audience might get bored of characters that barely talk to each other, but A Quiet Place works because it sets up the stakes very early on in the film by showing us up close and personal what it is we should be afraid of.
How can you use pathos so the characters face their fears throughout every scene?
While not every scene in your movie will feature a moment where a family is running for their lives from some big bad monster, you can still use pathos to keep your character’s fear top of mind in every scene in subtle ways by establishing a visual manifestation of it early on.
In A Quiet Place, we learn at the very beginning of the film what happens when a character is too loud in a visceral and horrifying sequence. Because it happens to a character very close to the family, it becomes an emotionally resonant moment for us and becomes our fear as well.
The thing about fear is that it can be irrational. Oftentimes, our fears stem from something we saw, heard about, or thought of only once before, but it stuck with us as something to be afraid of ever since.
That’s how fear works in the movies as well – not every moment of the movie has to show us something that the character is afraid of, but show it to us once, and we’ll be thinking about it throughout the rest of the movie. This is what we mean when we talk about “raising the stakes.”
By setting the stakes as high as you can, even if the stakes aren’t life or death but feel that way to the character, you can write the film in such a way that every decision that character makes can lead to them either achieving their goal or succumbing to their fear.
How can you use pathos in your story so the character overcoming their flaw is central to every scene?
Strong external obstacles are important to good drama, but strong internal obstacles are more important, so the best way to use pathos to make overcoming your character’s flaw central to every scene is by personifying the internal through the external.
In A Quiet Place, the family’s central wound is that they don’t listen to each other, which is how it came to be that they suffered such a heavy loss at the beginning of the film.
Not listening to one another is ironic for a movie that’s all about being quiet to stay alive, but also right on the money.
How does the film personify the internal with the external?
The daughter character is deaf, and the dad character is constantly trying to fix her hearing aid, which becomes a source of tension between them that personifies the tension over what happened to their missing family member.
The beautiful aspect of the story is that both characters feel responsible for what happened, but can’t communicate that to one another in a way that shows their love and commitment to the family.
Instead, their anger and frustration with themselves become external conflicts as they clash with one another.
In your own writing, you should look for similar ways you can make the external conflicts of your story reflect the internal conflicts of the characters.
If you do that right, then overcoming the external obstacles will require overcoming the internal flaw that’s holding each character back.
How to use pathos to fortify the resonance of your story’s theme
The last way you can use pathos to fortify the emotional resonance of your story’s theme and make a point that sticks with your audience is by tying every plot element, every character goal, every character fear, and every character flaw to the central theme of the story.
Every time we set out to write something, there’s a reason burning inside of us that wants to cauterize itself onto every word on the page. This is the heart of your story and the theme that you’re trying to convey. Lean into this feeling, and take out everything that doesn’t fit.
We write thematically because every story has an inherent lesson to be learned. As we shared at the start of this series, the origins of storytelling began as a way for older generations to pass on lessons to younger generations.
The more passionately an elder told a story, the more the listener would be engaged and think to understand the story’s purpose.
If you want your story to feel cohesive, if you want your central argument to be conclusive, and if you want your audience to feel compulsive, reread your story after you finish writing the first draft and make sure that every line in the script is leading the audience and the characters to the same ultimate end.
The more passionately you can argue your case, the more likely the audience will walk away thinking about what you had to say.
The best thing a film can do, just like any ideological ideal, moral argument, or creative idea, is to start a conversation in the viewer’s head. It’s up to them to finish that dialogue on their own and decide where they stand.
It’s through communicating our ideas and sharing our hearts, be it through physical dialogue or the universal language of film, that we learn from one another.
And hopefully, conversation by conversation, little bit by little bit, new stories will keep changing the world for the better like old tales has done it for centuries using the rhetorical tools of Aristotle.