Aposiopesis and Bathos - What are They?
By Don Daniels, Rhetorical Oracle
First, let's explore Aposiopesis a-puh-SĪ-o-PĒ-sis
I’m sure you’ve used this in… but wait… I should tell you what it is first, right?
Like most of these, the name is of Greek etymology, coming from a word that means “to become totally silent.”
Essentially, it’s just interrupting a sentence or statement, but not necessarily with silence. It can be with a statement that something is being omitted, or to continue with something else. It’s usually used in verbal speech, but you can use it in your author’s voice, as I did above. The aposiopesis is usually followed by an em-dash or an ellipsis to indicate the words stopping abruptly or trailing off, but not always.
There are a few basic kinds:
The kind I used above is designed to respect the reader and is usually in the author’s voice.
Other kinds are mostly used in dialogue: “Don’t jerk me around on the price. And if anything happens to me… Well, I got friends, capisce?”
Many times, we want to Show, don’t tell! Aposiopesis is one of the most effective ways to use your character’s speechlessness to show the depth of their embarrassment, rage, frustration or fear, especially to herald an emotional outburst, which may be non-verbal.
“Sometimes,” she said, “I get so angry at you, I could, I could—” And then she splashed her perfectly good cup of hot coffee into his laughing face.
Other Examples of Aposiopesis
It can also be used to indicate a character’s wish to change the subject and transition away from one point to the next. I recently used this in a scene:
Rabbi Levine leaned back in his chair. “When you said the Nazis murdered her entire family, I assumed… Well, never mind what I assumed. We are not their only victims. What happened to her family?”
There doesn’t always have to be an ellipsis. Sometimes, the sentence just ends, like the teaser of an episode of a TV series. It is often used as the blurb to plug a book: “What happens when a burglar breaks into a home and finds three small children held in dog cages in a locked room in the basement? Read this amazing true story to find out!”
And now, as Monty Python used to say, for something completely different…
What about Bathos?
The name sounds Greek, but it is said to have been coined by the Pope of English literature: the eighteenth-century poet and essayist, Alexander Pope. While most think of writings from the Pope as very formal and serious stuff, the writing of this Pope was known for biting satire and mockery. His most famous work is The Rape Of The Lock. In the 1700’s, the term “rape” still carried more of its Latin meaning, (from rapere, “to snatch or carry off.”) The poem compares a man cutting off a small lock of his wife’s hair without her permission to the abduction of Helen of Troy.
Bathos is defined as an abrupt turn from the exceptional and poetic to the ordinary and silly, or from the sublime to the ridiculous. It is often used in a simile to comical effect.
Two of my favorites:
The ballerina extended one graceful leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant.
He didn’t like her at first; after a while, she grew on him like E.coli on rancid beef. Soon, they were just as inseparable, and made just as lovely a couple.
Bathos is commonly used with similes, but not necessarily:
The CEO loved to attend the corporate employee recognition dinners, where he exhibited all the social grace of a vampire bat.
One of the masters of this in modern literature is Douglas Adams. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy:
The giant yellow Vogon constructor ships hung in the air in the same way bricks don't.
“You know,” said Arthur, “it’s at times like this, when I’m trapped in a Vogon airlock with a man from Betelgeuse, and about to die of asphyxiation in deep space that I really wish I’d listened to what my mother told me when I was young.”
“Why, what did she tell you?”
“I don’t know; I didn’t listen.”
Or this one: For a moment, nothing happened. Then, after a second or so, nothing continued to happen.
I’m sure that if you think back over some of the funniest lines you’ve read, and maybe some of the funniest you’ve ever written, you’ll find a surprising number of them were some form of bathos, and that’s why you remember them.
Remember that next time you want to lighten the mood and give the reader some comic relief.