The Rhetorical Triangle for Writers

rhetorical triangle for writers Photo of a cute donkeyThe rhetorical triangle is a concept that rhetoricians developed from the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s idea that effective persuasive arguments contain three essential elements: logos, ethos, and pathos.

Its purpose? To inform, persuade, entertain — whatever the author wants the audience to believe, know, feel, or do.

All forms of communication use the tools of rhetoric to some degree. Though the rhetorical triangle sounds like it’s geared toward nonfiction writing, novelists can use it as a literary devise.


Logos establish reliability. We want readers to believe our main character. By using factual information and logic, we’re building connections in the reader’s mind.

An example of logos:

Facts: Mr. Duke owns a tea shop. He talks about his passion for tea.
Logic: Mr. Duke has liquid in a teacup. Because of his passion for tea and the fact that he owns the tea shop…
Conclusion: The liquid in his teacup must be tea.

Are we jumping to conclusions too soon? Maybe. Is any other information available? Does Mr. Duke slur his words? Then maybe there’s alcohol in that teacup. Or he has a medical issue. Given the social constructs and the available information, the reader concludes he’s drinking tea.

Logos do get more complicated, but it always retains these basic parts. And we, as writers, need to recognize the order in which readers draw conclusions. By doing so, we can manipulate the narrative to suit our needs.


Ethos boils down to one burning question: Can the reader trust you? If you write nonfiction, citations from reliable sources help build trust. Or you consistently share reliable information, leading your audience to trust what you say is true.

In fiction, ethos may simmer in the background, invisible to the reader. The MC shows the audience they are trustworthy through actions, reactions, and the choices they make.


Pathos is the emotional pull. Authors use pathos to evoke certain feelings from the reader. For our purposes, pathos is a literary device rather than a rhetorical one. Pathos establish tone or mood or make the reader feel sympathetic toward a character. By using pathos, we can trigger readers to feel happy, sad, angry, passionate, inspired, or miserable through word choices and plot development.

Pathos is a Greek word meaning “suffering” that has long been used to relay feelings of sadness or strong emotion. Adopted into the English language in the 16th century to describe a quality that stirs emotions, it’s often produced by real-life tragedy or moving language.

Pathos became the foundation for many other English words.

  • Empathy — the ability to understand and feel the emotions of others
  • Pathology — the study of disease, which can cause suffering
  • Pathetic — something that causes others to feel pity
  • Sympathy — the shared feeling of sadness
  • Sociopath — causing harm to society
  • Psychopath — suffering in the mind

Pathos is the basis for the art of persuasion.

Ever watch commercials for pet adoptions? The sad puppy dog eyes plead for a forever home. They rip your heart out, right? That’s pathos at work.

Most readers want to feel something when they crack open a novel. An emotion pull connects the reader to the characters, immerses them in story, and keeps them flipping pages. Pathos also explains why some stories are unforgettable — because we lived it with the characters! We feared for their safety. We cried over their heartbreaks. We cheered over their victories. The characters became our friends, maybe even family, and we miss them as soon as we close the cover.

Since it’s easier to spot pathos in music lyrics…

God Bless the USA by Lee Greenwood: “And I won’t forget the men who died who gave that right to me…”

Nothing Compares 2 U by Sinead O’Connor: “It’s been so lonely without you here, like a bird without a song.” Or “All the flowers that you planted in the backyard, Mama, all died when you left.”

To start your week off on the right foot, I’ll embed Happy by Pharrell Williams. An obvious pathos is: “Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth.”

Anyone who can sit still during this song might be dead inside. 😉

Did you spot other pathos in the video? Have you heard of the rhetorical triangle? What other ways might we use logos, ethos, and pathos?

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About Sue Coletta

Sue Coletta is an award-winning crime writer and an active member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. Feedspot and named her Murder Blog as “Best 100 Crime Blogs on the Net.” She also blogs at the Kill Zone (Writer's Digest "101 Best Websites for Writers") and Writers Helping Writers. Sue lives with her husband in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire. Her backlist includes psychological thrillers, the Mayhem Series (books 1-3) and Grafton County Series, and true crime/narrative nonfiction. Now, she exclusively writes eco-thrillers, Mayhem Series (books 4-7 and continuing). Sue's appeared on the Emmy award-winning true crime series, Storm of Suspicion, and three episodes of A Time to Kill on Investigation Discovery. Learn more about Sue and her books at

13 thoughts on “The Rhetorical Triangle for Writers

  1. This is right in my wheelhouse, Sue. I used to teach this triangle to trial lawyers. You have to have the jury’s trust and never let that be diluted by some smarmy move in court (ethos). In closing argument, you first appeal to their sense of duty as jurors, Inspire them (pathos). Once that’s done, you give them the way forward, the logos, the law that will allow them to do their duty. The best trial lawyers have the ability to do all of that.

    One problem in our current cultural moment is that everything is becoming pathos-based. Without the cooling influence of logos it’s inevitable that pathos turns pathological. Many a great novel has warned about exactly that, e.g., The Ox-Bow Incident, Animal Farm, To Kill a Mockingbird.

    Thanks for the early-morning Aristotelian engagement. That and my coffee are waking me up.

    • Great minds think alike, Jim! 😉 Yes, I agree. Society has become too pathos heavy. It seems everybody and their uncle try to tug at our heartstrings.

    • Jim,

      I can relate to your comment, and I can see how jurors may be put off by an attorney’s poor performance. I sat on a jury once where the defense attorney made some smarmy personal comments about the plaintiff. I realized I had to put aside my personal feelings and decide on the merits of the case itself. I’m not sure all the jurors came to the same conclusion.

        • Sitting in the jury room with the other eleven jurors was an eye-opening experience. Each person had his/her own perspective, and they were influenced by whether they leaned toward reasoning or emotion.

          Everybody should serve on a jury at least once in life.

  2. Thanks for a great post, Sue.

    This is a great way to organize and use persuasion, in fiction or nonfiction, particularly when we know which approach we want to use with which type of character. Interesting how we intuitively learn to approach real people based on which wavelength works best with them.

    Very helpful! Thanks!

    • Thanks, Steve. You raise an interesting point. Human interaction can be chameleon-like, with some people who bring out different sides of ourselves. Character interaction works the same way.

      Hope you have a terrific week!

  3. Thanks for a great breakdown, Sue.

    Mystery writers often conceal the villain by leading readers to draw a conclusion based on logic. X is lying dead on the sidewalk. Y is standing over X with a gun. Therefore Y must have killed X. But the conclusion is wrong b/c of other factors the writer builds in, like Z, the real killer, somehow set Y up.

    Purposeful misdirection works well as long as the author plays fair with the reader. The author led the reader to deduce logically that a fact was true but also seeded in clues that subtly indicate the fact is not true.

    If authors play fair, I admire their skill. If they cheat, I lose respect for them.

  4. Sue, thanks for starting the week off with a thought-provoking post!

    As a writer of mysteries, I lean toward logos in my writing. After all, the purpose is for the main character (and the reader) to reason through the various clues and figure out who done it. However, I hope there’s enough pathos to engage the reader emotionally.

    • You make a good point, Kay. Mysteries need clues that make sense or the author will lose all credibility.

      Ideally, a novel should comprise all three sides of the triangle. Ethos for trust, logos for logic, and pathos for the emotional pull.

  5. It occurred to me that Mister Duke could just as easily be caught in the act of setting his tea shop on fire with a cup of gasoline because he lost his roll on the ponies and owes more than he has to the local loan sharks.

    Facts are like icebergs, 90 per cent of them are hidden.

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