2 min read

Idea: Plan a story's pathos as much as its logos

(Haven't tried this out yet, but it makes sense to me theoretically.)

I default to planning a story's logos without emphasizing the pathos, and I think a reversal would make my outlines better. By better I mean they would go stale less quickly. When I wrote from a logos-heavy outline I found my writing tended to be stiffer, less emotional, and I didn't enjoy writing. This would get worse the longer it had been since I wrote the outline. The stiff boring quality seems connected to the exclusion of pathos, and so I suspect writing pathos into the outline would help.

An outline for a story can cover two types of information I'll call logos and pathos. Logos is the information, the logistics, the details. Pathos is the emotional minutiae. Pathos is easy to overlook. However, pathos is at least as important as logos, and remembering it may help rescue an outline from boredom.

Logos is just the facts, ma'am. It's the logistics, information, and details, the synopsis and the notes, the form aspects of the story. It needs to be consistent and it can be interesting, but it is rarely going to be the focus unless the story is a mystery or a hard sci-fi story. This includes things like: How old is the protagonist? What color are her eyes? Is she tall or short? Where does she live? What does she do? Who are her friends and what are their details? Where does the story take place? What happens in the story? What order do things happen in? What order do we present that information? What is the world like? What magic systems are there and how do they work?

Pathos is the emotional outline of the story. It's about emotional needs, arcs, energy, and resonance. It's things like: How does each part of the story feel? What emotions does this story explore through the characters? What do I want the reader to feel as they move through different parts of a scene, or different scenes in the story? What is the emotional texture of this story like? What are the characters' emotional needs? Which of those are getting met and which aren't? In each scene, which desires and underlying emotional needs drive the story forward? If the characters went to therapy and just complained for three straight hours about their unfulfilled emotional needs, what would they talk about?

In retrospect, I notice that I've rarely included pathos in my outlines when I've written outlines. They will list off the events: Alan is helping out his old friend Bob when he notices a gaggle of children coming down the street. He watches the children from the upstairs window, feeling annoyed with them. He prevents them from entering the Little Shop That Wasn't There Yesterday with its cursed magic items. He goes back inside. While he's inside, the kids sneak around another way and enter the shop. There's a scream and he enters the shop... on and on like that. (I'm drawing this loosely from a real outline I remember writing!) And this outline won't say anything about Alan's emotional needs. It won't say: Alan wants to stop the children going in the shop, and his underlying emotional need is for respect.

I suspect I'd like outlining better if I used outlining to think and write about the pathos. It would be a chance to think about how the feeling change over the course of the story. I could plan to include a range of different feelings and to explore them at different depths or intensities at different times. But more than that I might connect better with the characters. Without pathos, without the why behind what they want, they feel dry, dead, and boring. Adding pathos might bring the life back to the outline.