How To Get Someone’s Attention

Continuing on from yesterday’s blog post (Why Storytelling Works), I’d thought I’d share one other interesting thing about the brain that has deep implications for storytelling.

It would seem that to get someone’s attention fully, we need to show or tell them something that does two things to their brain.

First off, it must interest them. When their brain becomes engaged with something that arouses curiosity or some kind of emotional response, it releases the chemical Dopamine. This ensures that their attention will remain on what you are telling them.

You might assume this would be enough, but to really get someone’s attention, you must also get their brain to generate Norepinephrine (or Noradrenaline as we Brits refer to it). As you might guess from the UK version of the name, this is generated in situations of stress or danger.

The most effective state of attention can be attained when these two neurotransmitters are found in the brain in equal amounts. The good news is, because of the brains ability to behave the same way in both real and imagined situations, both chemicals should be released when someone experiences a good story, well told.

Now rule #1 of good writing is ensuring that there is sufficient conflict in the story, but what I think happens quite often, and seems to be prevalent in big tentpole films in recent years, is that the characters and situations are not proportionally as interesting to the amount of conflict being unleashed on the screen.

Conversely, I’ve watched many low budget films that I’ve found fascinating, but left me in a general state of ‘meh’, because of the lack of conflict.

So while you’re writing, always ensure that your characters and situations are as interesting as the amount of conflict you throw at them. I’ve certainly been guilty of not having interesting enough characters in the past, assuming that it was OK as I had plenty of conflict. I’ve had to face up to the fact that they just weren’t remarkable enough. Most times, I had to go back to the first act and develop the characters more, give them interesting ticks and quirks, and set them up more fully in their world before I ripped it all away from them at the turn of the second act.

And this process doesn’t just apply to screenwriting; it’s important for pitching your stories. The great thing about Norepinephrine is that it readies the body for action, so there’s a much better chance, if your pitch has the right blend of conflict and interest, that the person you are pitching to will act on what you are saying. It’s a balancing act, though. Not enough conflict, and they will simply shrug and go, ‘Hmm, interesting!’ and not really feel motivated to find out more; too much conflict and they might feel somewhat brow-beaten, which probably won’t have the desired effect either.

So remember, pique my curiosity with characters and situations that I might find interesting, then do horrible things to them. You will have my undivided attention!

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