Storytelling Basics #2: The Three Parts of the Rhetorical Triangle

In my last post we talked about the three parts of storytelling. You can read that post here. That post focused on the act of storytelling— but what is underlying the story? Before we talk about plot or character, we need to discuss Rhetoric.

The rhetorical triangle is one of the most important lessons I taught to my students while I was a teacher. Every story, every blog, every news article, every ad, every presentation— every act of communication uses the tools of rhetoric.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

Pathos/Emotional Pull

We’ll start with the most common and most powerful tool of rhetoric. Pathos, using people’s emotions, is everywhere.

You likely see the uses of pathos most in ads. These ads want to either make you want to be like the people they show, “with” the people they show, or to not be like the people they show.

Want to feel powerful? Buy our car. Want to date this sexy lady? Join our gym. Don’t want the country to end in fire and destruction? Vote for our party.

My favorite brand of pathos is comedy. Look up Doritos commercials and you’ll understand pathos pretty quickly. They aren’t trying to make any logical argument or say that 9/10 doctors recommend— they’re Doritos. They want you to laugh and then go buy a bag.

Another great example of ads using pathos? Most anti-smoking ads use logos and ethos (which we’re about to get into), but they use something heart wrenching or horrifying as pathos to really drive the message home.

Whether you are trying to make a sale, deliver a political speech, or tell a story, you need to keep in mind how you want your audience to feel by the end of your message— especially for any kind of argument you want your audience to act on.

To add a little mud to the water: we want to minimize pathos as much as possible in some places. Particularly, we do not want arguments and messages fueled mostly or entirely by pathos when it comes to our news and academia. Journalists who are relying overly on pathos are being little more than propagandists for their side; academics who get too tied into their emotions and don’t rely on the facts could find false conclusions.

For an example of pathos at work, here is a sad TV ad and a funny one.

Photo by Redrecords u00a9ufe0f on


The simplest tool of rhetoric ought to be Logos: factual information and the use of logic.

(I say ought to be. Misinformation is a major issue– and one I might deal with later. There is also the issue of logical fallacies, which I know I will deal with.)

If you are writing something that uses logos, you will need to use both parts, the facts and the logic, to create conclusions which follow.

Let’s use an example:

Facts: Mr. Oliver has a coffee cup. Mr. Oliver talks about his coffee addiction.

Logic: Mr. Oliver has an unidentified liquid in a coffee cup. Because it is a coffee cup and he talks about his overt love of coffee…

Conclusion: Mr. Oliver has coffee in his coffee cup.

Perhaps we are making a judgement too early? Is there information we could use to change our mind? Does Mr. Oliver begin to slur his words after imbibing his drink? Does it smell like mint? Then it could be an alcoholic beverage. Or mint tea. But, given social constructs, and the information at hand, Mr. Oliver is probably drinking his beloved coffee.

Logos does get more complicated, but it always retains these parts.

Journalists and academics use this as an essential part of their jobs. Those in marketing will include information on how much better cleaner A is than cleaner B.

Secret tip for finding logos? If there are numbers, they’re probably talking facts aka, they’re using logos. Check out this toothpaste commercial as an example.

But what about those telling fictional stories?

Facts can be what really hits home with a fictional story. I’ll never forget watching the movie Blood Diamond and seeing the information on the diamond trade at the end. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle created a moving story based on real events.

Even fantasy writers need to be aware of logos. While there are obviously going to be facts about their created world that are different from the real world, there has to be an internal consistency, a logic, to how things work or readers will become confused or, worse, frustrated.

Ethos at work for a job interview: dress like you belong there. Photo by nappy on


The last tool from the rhetorical triangle to make sure you understand is Ethos. Ethos boils down to this: can you be trusted? If not you, is there someone else’s information you’re using that we should trust?

My favorite kind of source, the best for ethos, is an expert source. If you watched the toothpaste commercial, you might have noticed that they mention how many dentists recommend the toothpaste. Dentists ought to know something about dental health, therefore their toothpaste recommendation should be trustworthy. I’m not a dentist. I can recommend you a toothpaste, but without some clout in the field, you should probably find one certified by dentists. Similarly, if a doctor says you need to do something better for your health or an engineer says a bridge needs repair, you need to listen.

We also have a habit of trusting two kinds of sources that are not experts: brands and celebrities. Brands run primarily on name recognition, similar to celebrities, but are usually corporations. So, that commercial for toothpaste may not be as necessary for a lot of people– after all, who hasn’t heard of Colgate? But if you’re looking for a new toothpaste after using a different kind, seeing a commercial might push you to buy it. (Especially when it uses such great rhetoric.)

My favorite commercial to show ethos is a little mean. It’s of a young Michael Jordan, before he was comfortable on-screen. There is nothing about this commercial that is particularly strong– except that it uses one of the biggest names in basketball to try to keep kids off drugs. Here it is.

I know what you’re thinking: how can I get me some of that ethos? Is there a pill? Do I need to use a different toothpaste? What if I get that car or wear those clothes?

No– you’ll need to be trustworthy and cite your sources in your work. This is the baseline you have or are learning in your English class. Citation, avoiding plagiarism either accidentally or on purpose, is the most important lesson you can learn. Later on, we’ll talk about trustworthy sources– and how some sources are trustworthy in one way, but not in all ways.

Perhaps another aspect of yourself to think about in terms of ethos is morality. I know, that one word already conjures up a litany of ought and ought nots. Enough to fill a religion. Morality can become a sticky subject very quickly, so I’ll keep it brief here: try your best to be a good person– because if people see you as a hypocrite, they will not believe your work and they probably won’t want to read what you write.

For fiction writers, this can be almost invisible– but as you become known as a good writer, you’ll find that you keep selling increasingly large amounts of books!

Bonus: Kairos

A quick extra aspect of rhetoric to think about, that’s not really a tool you can use in the same way as the others is Kairos: timeliness.

If you’re asking your parents for something while they’re busy, you’ve made a mistake of kairos. If you’re trying to crack jokes at a funeral, you’re making a mistake of kairos.

If you’ve gone out of your way to make sure your spouse is having a great day before you ask them to go on a trip with your friends, you’ve used kairos well. (Whether you get to go or not likely depends on your use of rhetoric and any number of other factors– but at least you made sure the timing was favorable!)

This really doesn’t usually have much to do with fiction writers– though the few cases I can think of are unfortunate. Several writers had works in the pipeline about the year 2020; now their work reads like science fiction because they couldn’t predict a pandemic years ahead of time.

Thank you for reading!

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