Persuasion presents ideas in a logical manner using reason and common sense. Persuasion attempts to convince the reader that what’s happening in a novel, short story, poem, play, or even in academic/non-fiction writing makes sense and can be believed. Writers who effectively use persuasion make their opinions and literary decisions believable.
Definition of Persuasion
Persuasion is the act of writing content that readers believe, accept, and trust. Writers use several different types of persuasion to accomplish this (see more below). If they are successful, their audience will have no problem accepting their facts, opinions and suspending their disbelief in a story. If the writer is unsuccessful, readers will likely lose interest in their content and/or walk away feeling unconvinced and unmoved.
3 Types of Persuasion
Below are the definitions of the three different types of persuasion. These are known as the “Modes of Persuasion” as defined by Aristotle in Rhetoric.
Logos is the use of logic to create a persuasive argument. Writers attempt to appeal to readers’ logic or their idea of what’s rational and reasonable. It’s these elements that make logos engaging. It can be found in everything from academic writing to poetry. Aristotle believed logos outranked the other two in importance due to the fact that any argument, no matter where it’s made, needs logic to work. Examples can be found in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and 1984 by George Orwell.
Ethos refers to an argument that appeals to the audience through empathizing with the speaker’s credibility. The writer’s or speaker’s authority is what convinces the reader to believe the content. The speaker should be in a position of power and/or have specialized knowledge or experience. A writer or speaker who has credibility will also have authority, trustworthiness, and expertise. They will demonstrate their personal qualities, or moral character (as defined by Aristotle), to the reader or audience. Examples can be found in Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Pathos is an appeal made by the writer to the audience’s emotions in order to make them feel something. It is one of the most important components of literature. Without an emotional reaction, the author doesn’t have much more to work within the way of getting and keeping the reader’s attention. It is, Aristotle described a way of waking up people’s emotions in order to change their opinion. In the end, they should agree with whatever argument the writer is putting forward. Examples can be found in ‘Funeral Blues’ by W.H. Auden and ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night‘ by Dylan Thomas.
Examples of Persuasion in Literature
This poem is one of Thomas’s most famous, and for a good reason. It is a skillful appeal to the reader’s emotions. The poet uses pathos as his main mode of persuasion throughout this piece. Thomas directs his words to his dying father, asking him to fight to the bitter end and not give into death. The images he uses are emotional, beautiful, and hard to forget. Consider these lines:
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
The poem becomes even more emotional as readers dig into Thomas’s background and learn that he was, in fact, speaking towards his own father in these lines. This also adds an element of ethos to the poem. Thomas proves that he has an understanding of what watching someone he loves die is like.
Read poetry by Dylan Thomas.
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Steinbeck’s masterpiece is a great example of how ethos can come into play in fictional works of literature. The novel was published in 1952 and details two families, the Trasks and the Hamiltons, and their complex storylines. Steinbeck is usually considered to be the narrator of the novel, and even appears as a character in one poem. He incorporates some of his own views on freedom and free will as well. In the following passage, he expresses his thoughts on freedom:
And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual.
It should also be noted that the Hamilton family, who is central to the storyline, is based around Steinbeck’s own. He had an understanding of a specific type of family dynamic and could use it as a mode of persuasion to make the novel believable.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
In this classic of American literature, readers can look to specific scenes for good examples of logos. Lee when writing Atticus Finch’s dialogue. He argues on behalf of Tom Robinson, who he knows is innocent, but the world is ready to condemn. He is accused of attacking a woman, a crime that is highlighted by the fact that Robinson is black and the woman is white. Here is a bit of the text from that passage:
The state has not produced one iota of medical evidence to the effect that the crime Tom Robinson is charged with ever took place. It has relied instead upon the testimony of two witnesses whose evidence has not only been called into serious question on cross-examination, but has been flatly contradicted by the defendant.
Finch uses these facts, or lack thereof, to prove that there’s no reason to believe that Tom committed the crime. He uses his logic to appeal to the jury and show them the truth behind the prosecution’s fear-mongering.
Related Literary Terms
- Metaphor: used to describe an object, person, situation, or action in a way that helps a reader understand it without using “like” or “as.”
- Bias: undue favor or support to a particular person, group, race, or one argument over another.
- Paraphrasing: to simplify it down to its most basic elements, clarifying along the way and choosing a less complicated language.
- Bathos: a sudden, jolting change in the tone of a work. This could occur in a poem, play, story, or film.
- Read: The Three Elements of the Arts of Persuasion
- Listen: What is Pathos?
- Listen: What is Logos?
- Watch: How to use rhetoric to get what you want.