January 28, 2017
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 : )
From Ireland, Sue Healy is Literary Manager at the Finborough Theatre, London, a full-time Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Lincoln. Her book on theatre literary management is published by Routledge, December 2022.
Sue is an award-winning writer for stage, TV, and prose writer.
Her current project, a 6x60minute TV series, is under option. She is under commission with Lone Wolf Media, producers behind PBS’ “Mercy Street”, to co-write the pilot and treatment for a six-part TV series.
Her most recent stage-play, Imaginationship (2018), enjoyed a sold out, extended run at the Finborough and later showed 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. Sue’s short plays have been performed at the Criterion (Criterion New Writing Showcase), Arcola (The Miniaturists) and Hackney Attic (Fizzy Sherbet Shorts).
Her radio work includes nine plays broadcast on BBC Radio 4 (Opening Lines winner), WLRfm and KCLR96fm.
Sue 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.
An academic with a PhD in modern theatre history, specifically the Royal Court Theatre, Sue has presented her research internationally. 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 alumnus.
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April 15th, 2012 at 12:01
It’s Sunday morning and I have a hangover – but that was fascinating – Thanks
April 15th, 2012 at 15:20
Great post. Love the Elmore Leonard quote.
April 15th, 2012 at 16:49
I like your take on PF, turning sunshine into sadness and rain to beauty. Terrific picture too.
April 15th, 2012 at 17:23
April 17th, 2012 at 22:01
You always enlighten.
April 19th, 2012 at 04:40
It was a dark and stormy afternoon in Monte Carlo.
April 20th, 2012 at 05:53
Fascinating… Love the photo. 🙂
May 7th, 2012 at 03:43
“pathetic fallacy…the technique of ascribing human emotions to inanimate objects…is a little out of fashion nowadays.” Oh, so wrong. Nature has taken it to political literature. I have seen many. Dare you all take a moment to cite a few examples that you have seen?
May 12th, 2012 at 04:52
Oh dear, I do so hate to be out of fashion:)