This is the first part of the “Finding Balance in Storytelling” presentation originally given at Fyrecon 2, June 23rd at Weber State University Davis.
More parts to come!
In today’s action-crazed world filled with people with impressively short attention spans, it’s no surprise blockbuster movies often lean on having lots of explosions and little plot. If you are anything like me, watching a 20 minute chase scene followed by lots of explosions actually gets a little dull. Michael Bay, I’m looking at you.
Why is too much action boring?
It all comes down to how the brain processes stimulus. Deep in the most protected part of the brain, is a part that researchers refer to as the “reptile brain.” This oldest and least evolved part of the brain. Your instincts spring from here, so do your startle responses. The reptile brain’s goal is to keep you alive by alerting you if it thinks something is wrong. Throughout your day this part of the brain interprets stimulation that you see, smell, touch and taste and decides if it’s safe or not. Trouble is, it doesn’t know the difference between what is really happening, and what’s on a page or a screen. Creatives can hack this and make readers have a gut response to things that aren’t happening.
The problem? The reptile brain can get tired if it has to process too much all at once. This is sometimes referred to as over-stimulation, or sensory overload. This is why people start zoning out if there is too much action. Their brains can’t take any more.
Hacking the system using intervals of intensity
Of course there is a way to hack this, and let’s face it, that’s why you are reading this post.
As creatives, we stand in the unique position of being able to control our audience’s experience. The simple solution to hacking the reptile brain is to place space between moments of gut grabbing context-free action. This allows the brain to recover before making it work again. There is a limit to how effective this is. Brains are smart. If there is a pattern, the reptile brain will not kick in as strongly, if at all.
Enter strategy number two, build meaning into the conflict.
Watching a thrilling chase scene is exciting. Knowing what’s at stake if our hero gets caught bumps the scene up a notch to thrilling. When the audience understands the price of failure, let’s say the hero’s family will be assassinated, it gives them a reason to care. This pushes the visceral response to activate on a deeper more conscious level that is more than just instinct.
The fancy name for this process in the writing world is “scene and sequel” and we will learn heaps more about it in the next post, coming soon!
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