In classical terms, rhetoric is the study of persuasion—or more specifically, the study of the means of persuasion. And for a couple thousand years, it was mostly divorced from literature. The history is long and twisted, shaped by institutional politics, religion, and philosophy, but the result has been this: writers, scholars, and students have had to choose between the literary arts and the study of persuasion. For recent English majors, that’s meant either an MFA or a rhetoric degree. But as Wayne Booth and plenty of others have made clear, fiction relies on rhetoric. A story works only when it convinces us that Ahab is real, that Daisy Buchanan lives behind the green light.
o what particular elements convince us? How does a story compete with the real world and all of its lures: air, cell phones, family crises, food, and drink? For me, it all comes down to the narrator, to the storytelling voice. Narrators don’t simply say what happened. They create a reality, a world that readers believe, keep on believing, and want to keep believing. Whether first, second, or third-person, good narrators make fictive worlds real, which takes a lot of persuasive power—more than all the politicians in Congress. And while the list of persuasive elements is long, here are three small but crucial moves, things that narrators do when they most successfully convince us:
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