That’s Pathetic!

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What’s happening here? Storm over a street fete in Monte Carlo.

It was a dark and stormy night…

“Pathetic fallacy” is an academic term that refers to the technique of ascribing human emotions to inanimate objects, usually to reflect a character’s mood. For example, say your protagonist falls in love: you might describe flowers laughing and trees waving their branches gleefully. Or perhaps there’s been a death, so the landscape looks bleak and with clouds brewing rain.

“Pathetic fallacy” was very popular with the Victorian novelists – think of Thomas Hardy. Therein, however, lies the problem – “pathetic fallacy” is out of fashion nowadays. This demise of its popularity is partly due to the modern attention span. If you’ve ever read novels by the Brontes, Dickens, Elliot or Hardy – you’ll know all about lengthy landscape description. It’s taxing for modern readers. If you absolutely need to say how each field in the valley looked, then spread your descriptions out over the course of your work. Above all, as Elmore Leonard wrote, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

Another reason “pathetic fallacy” is no longer beloved in the literary world, is that it can seem cliché. If your protag is heading home to see his wife and there’s a storm, and then they fight… your foreshadowing’s is derivative, predictable and boring.

Still, “pathetic fallacy” has its place in the literary toolbox. It can provide emphasis for mood. I suggest using it sparingly, with caution and avoid storm/argument, rain/depression, sunny days/falling-in-love clichés.I like to turn PF on its head; let the trouble come in sunshine or make a storm a symbol of peace. If you use PF, surprise your reader with it.

Oh, and whatever you do, never open with a PF weather report, that’s just pathetic : )

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About suehealy

Literary Manager at the Finborough, Sue Healy is a playwright with a track record in stage and radio. Her most recent play, Imaginationship (2018), enjoyed a sold out, extended run at the Finborough and was later selected for a staged-reading at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. Her previous stage productions include Cow (Etcetera Theatre, 2017) and Brazen (King’s Head Theatre, 2016), funded by Arts Council England. Her short plays have been performed at the Criterion (Criterion New Writing Showcase), Arcola (The Miniaturists) and Hackney Attic (Fizzy Sherbet Shorts by Women). Her radio work includes nine plays broadcast on BBC Radio 4 (Opening Lines winner), WLRfm and KCLR96fm. She has been an interviewed finalist for BBC Scriptroom 12, Eamonn Keane Playwriting Prize, Nick Darke Award and Old Vic 12 New Voices. Her screenplay was shortlisted for the Shorelight Award. Sue’s prose has won The Molly Keane Award, HISSAC Prize, Escalator Award, Meridian Prize and has been published in nine literary journals and anthologies including: The Moth, Flight, Tainted Innocence, New Writer, Duality, HISSAC, New European Writers. She has been writer-in-residence on Inis Oírr, Aran Islands, and at the Heinrich Boll Cottage on Achill Island. She has also benefitted from annual artist residencies at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, and at Ginestrelle, Assisi in Italy. Sue is Irish. She spent eleven years in Budapest, editing Hungary A.M. She has a PhD in modern theatre history (Royal Court Theatre) and is a UEA Creative Writing MA alumna. Sue is currently an Associate Lecturer in Playwriting at the University of Lincoln and the University of Portsmouth. She tutors Creative Writing at City Lit. View all posts by suehealy

9 responses to “That’s Pathetic!

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