The “3-Minute Rule” and The Neuroscience Behind Screenwriting

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by Jo Light

Scholar Dr. Connie Shears and writer Paul Joseph Gulino believe so, and have created a Chapman University class around this subject, as well as an accompanying book, The Science of Screenwriting: The Neuroscience Behind Storytelling Strategies. The book took five years to write.

In a recent interview with Film Courage, Shears explained several of the book’s main concepts and offered some interesting advice for screenwriters from the perspective of a psychologist.

Give Your Audiences a Break from Tension Every Three Minutes

One of the most important bits of advice offered in the interview is Shears’ suggestion that screenwriters should build in contrasts of emotions. In order to maintain audience attention, there has to be an alternation between tension and release. Timing is incredibly important.

Shears is basing this advice on studies involving eye tracking of different audiences. According to these studies, audiences can take about three minutes of tension, then there must be a break.

This can be achieved in the writing by creating an intense action sequence or a dramatic confrontation, and then a quieter scene to follow, while being aware of how the scene will play out, timing-side. Within direction or cinematography, similar mindfulness can be applied to where shots are tight and fast-paced, with a wide shot or segue to break the tension.

Shears mentions James Bond movies as a specific example. Just take a look at this fight sequence as proof…!

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