Use the science of attention spans to make audiences itch for more, not twitch and snore.
It's a familiar feeling to every moviegoer: You find yourself twitching in your seat, or feeling lethargic, and don't know why. The story might be engaging on multiple levels, but still, for some reason you find your attention drifting, and it's not just because of the heavy lunch you had, or a bad night's sleep. In fact, there's a scientific reason for this torpor, and as a filmmaker, an understanding of the reasons behind this lag in attention will make sure that from first frame to closing credits, you'll have the audience on the edge of their seats, not slumped in them. To accomplish this goal, let's examine the concepts of hedonic adaptation and ultradian rhythms, and how you can use the science behind an audience's attention span to your storytelling advantage.
In a 1971 essay, psychologists Philip Brickman and Donald Campbell developed the concept of what they called "hedonic adaptation," or, as it is also known, the hedonic treadmill. In its psychological definition, hedonic adaptation has been used to explain why people who win the lottery are, a year or so later, no happier than those who have actually suffered a serious injury. But what does this have to do with screenwriting? The late Dan O'Bannon, who wrote the screenplays for Alien, Total Recall, and The Return of the Living Dead, wrote in his book about hedonic adaptation and how he adapted it for screenwriting, starting from the principle that movies are emotional experiences: "Humans possess a surprisingly swift ability to adapt to change in their circumstances—an innate skill that allows them to maintain emotional equilibrium over time."
O'Bannon believed that the concept of hedonic adaptation was especially strong when it came to visual stimuli. "When critics and audiences speak about a film really 'drawing them in,'" O'Bannon wrote, "this phrase is just a way of saying that the experience of viewing the film in question is so intense that it essentially alters the circumstances of the audience's lives...A film, when it's working, basically becomes the present 'life situation' of the audience."
"A film, when it's working, basically becomes the present 'life situation' of the audience." — Dan O'Bannon
Because the experience of viewing a film is so intense, the pacing of a film is central to its effectiveness. "You, the writer," O'Bannon wrote, "are basically seducing your audience, who are giving over their emotional lives to you, the filmmaker, for a given length of time." Therefore, by taking into account the concept of hedonic adaptation, you can plan out your plot points or story twists with maximum effectiveness. Since a screenplay, and the resulting movie, is made of "up" and "down" moments of increasing or decreasing tension, the impact of your story events (the "up" moments) will be that much stronger if you make sure to include an appropriate amount of "down time" following a revelation or shock in a story.
These moments are often perfect places to provide necessary exposition. After being hit with a jolt, an attentive audience is more alert and attentive, and less likely to be bored with exposition. Ideally, this down moment only lasts long enough for viewers to get adjusted to the new story reality, before another event. Screenwriters should use these expository moments not just to answer the character's questions, but the audience's, as well.
Because of hedonic adaptation, "what an audience at first finds frightening and unexpected will eventually become 'normal' to them within the context of the film." This means that as the story progresses, the stakes, reveals, and twists need to be ramped up to keep the audience engaged.
"What an audience at first finds frightening and unexpected will eventually become 'normal' to them within the context of the film."
Because hedonic adaptation is an involuntary, physiological response, like it or not, your audience will be feeling its effects. So hedonic adaptation "shouldn't be ignored by the screenwriter, but rather used to their advantage." The key to doing this is to keep bringing up the unexpected, amping up the intensity, always raising, rather than lowering, the tension. This is especially true with regard to the ending of the film, where "any relaxation an audience experiences prior to the denouement should be temporary—if not entirely illusory." If you use these principles in your own writing, you can anticipate when an audience will be bored, and counteract this.
Another neurological concept that you can incorporate into your screenwriting (and filmmaking, and editing) is that of the ultradian rhythm. This is a complex topic that incorporates the human response to all manner of external stimuli, but for our purposes, it's most important to remember that when "concentrating on one task for a long time, your brain needs a break...so you get a lull in concentration naturally every 90-120 [minutes] whilst you are awake." Examples of this are everywhere, and in fact, the ultradian rhythm is related intimately to the rhythms of sleep.
So, just as scientists say that it's important to take a break every 90 minutes or so, it's important for a filmmaker to understand that their audience's attention will flag every 90 minutes or so, and to use this information when designing your film (whether it's 90, 120, or 240 minutes long).
In the end, despite all the science jargon, it's pretty simple: people can only concentrate on one thing for so long, and they adapt quickly to any new stimulus. Using this information about hedonic adaptation and ultradian rhythms makes it possible to plan your story so that it reaches the viewer in the optimal form. By designing a film that has up and down moments that not only correspond to the audience's natural psychological responses, but also line up with the rhythms of their attention spans, you're more likely to make a film that keeps the audience engaged (and keeps them from twitching in their seats).