The Science of Screenwriting

The Neuroscience Behind Storytelling Strategies

Is a multi-disciplinary approach the way forward for a rather stagnant screenwriting industry?

In effect, it seems the stagnation is most congregated at the beginning of the screenwriting process and putting an idea on paper and attempting to move it forward in a screenplay. Screenwriters congregate under various structures or numbers of steps in a story. It seems crazy but this is the way it usually pans out in LA for screenwriters.Those creators of the world of popular culture we all live in.

TA story is a a form of presentation to an audience. The question is not whether there is a current “hot” screenwriting method to present the content of the story. This question is discussed over thousands of hours and dollars over what is the best content for current screenwriting projects. A question asked and discussed over cocktails in LA bars for years. Few ever discuss the context of screenplays. Or offer a reflection on them. It seems to do so, this would take their focus off the constant mad rush into the future.

The question is really the subtextual and current proclamation of the idea of “cool” into like we try to present below to our readers. Yet there were few (if any) discussion to expand the perspective for studying screenplays, Not writing screenplays but rather studying them in some new form of cultural and social anthropology.

Is there a way to see the larger context of this world called screenwriting? Even while a resident of the LA area? Similar to being a a fish in water attempting to see the water.

* * *

Might there be stagnation at the beginning of the story-making process? There might be at the start if one starts with old tropes of screenwriting theory and structure. Trust us. It’s at least a decade old. Much of it from the early part of the 21st century. Screenwriting theory defines the greatest dramas in the conflict between the external and internal world. Between culture and individual. Is there a way forward in creating stories combining the discipline of screenwriting with other disciplines?

Paul Gulino and Connie Shears

Review by John Fraim (10/28/22)

Kinda/ Sort Of


An Amazon reviewer, giving a five-star review of The Science of Screenwriting (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018) sums up the screenwriting book well noting it “anticipates a trend that is about to hit the screenwriting scene very hard. It will no longer be about showering aspiring writers with formulas and saying ‘trust me this works’ It will be about backing up hypotheses with scientific evidence. This is exactly what Paul Gulino’s and Connie Shears’ book does.”

The screenwriting hypotheses are supplied by Paul Gulino and the scientific evidence by Connie Shears. Paul Gulino, an associate professor of screenwriting at Chapman University, is author of the bestselling Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach as well as a produced screenwriter and story analysist for Showtime Entertainment. Connie Shears is a noted Cognitive Psychologist. The authors build, chapter-by-chapter, an understanding of the human perceptual/cognitive processes as it relates to screenwriting and films, from the functions of our eyes and ears that bring real world information into our brains, to the intricate networks within our brains connecting decisions and emotions. 

With the combined expertise of the authors, The Science of Screenwriting marks one of the first (and best) interdisciplinary approaches to the study of screenplays. Just the idea to mix they areas should be commended as adding a new multi-disciplinary approach to the study of screenplays. The interdisciplinary approach offers a bold and important new way for the discipline of screenwriting to move forward in the digital era of streaming series, social media bubbles in a post pandemic world. The Amazon reader above calls this approach a “trend” about to hit screenwriting. But I call it more of a necessity for the art and science of screenwriting to become more relevant for the changing world of story.

The authors draw on a variety of examples from film and television such as The Social NetworkSilver Linings Playbook and Breaking Bad to show how the human perceptual process is reflected in the storytelling strategies of filmmakers. They conclude with a detailed analysis using cognitive psychology of Star Wars to discover the cognitive psychology behind the film’s effect. 

The book takes the reader step by step, delving deeper into each new layer of cognitive science with each chapter. Explored in the book’s chapters is the science of information flow, connecting with the main character, contrast, exposition, cause and effect, shared attention, conflict, imagination, and structure. These topics are covered in many other screenwriting books but the difference here is that everything is backed up with Neuroscience and how and why to use these tools correctly. The specific aim is to uncover “the cognitive and perceptual processes going on in the brain of the reader or viewer when reading a script or watching a film.”

* * *

UK filmmaker and writer Levi Dean has an insightful review of the book in the Irish Alphaville Journal of Film and Screen Media which includes his personal experience with the book. Although I’ve edited parts of the review, it’s hard to improve on Dean’s observations so much of it is mixed with my thoughts on the book. For example, Dean talks about viewing the 2019 Netflix series When They See Us. After the pilot episode Dean notes he “disengaged” with the series. The series depicts the true story of how five teenage boys were wrongly convicted of raping a woman in New York’s Central Park. The pilot episode pulls no punches in representing the brutal reality of how these underprivileged African American teenage boys endured police brutality and continuous unlawful treatment that goes beyond the imagination. While watching, Dean found himself disengaging resulting in an enormous sense of guilt. He searched his conscience, reminding himself of the many reasons why it was important to watch this series.  

The analysis of the authors helped him reflect on why he disengaged. Reading Gulino and Shears, revealed that morality was secondary in his decision making. They instead pointed to the neurological processes of why narratives need to sequence a specific flow of positive and negative events to elicit and sustain audience engagement. The authors note “it is critical that a moment of high emotion be contrasted to a moment that is nonemotionally relevant.” The book provided detailed scientific methods screenwriters can employ when scripting a sequence of emotionally negative material to help avoid audience disengagement.

Elements of Cognitive Psychology / Other Things Going on in Audience’s Mind Besides Film Steps

Dean notes in his review, while there are some new insights, the book primarily expounds upon established screenwriting conventions. Secrets behind these screenwriting conventions are revealed by presenting them from the audience perspective. This subtly encourages the reader to perceive screenwriting techniques as a viewer. They believe that “a screenwriter who knows how to create and manipulate anticipation on the part of the viewer has a tremendous advantage in keeping the viewer’s attention—and interest—for the entire screenplay.” 

Chapter 1 of the book titled “The Science of Information Flow” lays the foundation of cognitive science by describing the relevant functions of different parts of the brain. The authors explore two types of processing that occurs in our brains: bottom-up and top-down. Bottom-up processing denotes sensory information, such as what is being experienced within an environment through hearing or seeing. This is then fused with our own personal experiences in top-down processing. For example, a person may see a snarling dog (bottom-up processing), but because they previously had a positive experience with a dog which initially snarled at them (top-down processing), they were not afraid. This example demonstrates how human cognition relies heavily on shortcuts, based on past experiences, to make instantaneous decisions about specific stimuli. 

* * *

The authors observe how these shortcuts evidence the importance of story schemas and why viewers engage with a narrative during its embryonic stages. Story schemas are understood as a narrative shortcut that spectators refer to when engaging with a familiar genre. For example, in considering the television anti-hero, a viewer may engage with him/her because of their previous viewing experience. They may be familiar with on-screen characters such as Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini in The Sopranos), Dexter Morgan (Michael Hall in Dexter) and Walter White (Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad) and, as a result, decide relatively quickly that they feel allegiance towards this new anti-hero. 

However, Dean notes, not all scholars agree upon the significance of story schemas. One in disagreement is screenplay scholar Margrethe Bruun Vaage, author of The Antihero in American Television. Gulino and Shears indirectly discredit Vaage’s notion by building upon their research into neural shortcuts, revealing that viewers’ previous experiences with a genre will, in fact, influence their initial engagement (top-down processing). The authors cement this assertion by pointing to specific expectations audiences have surrounding the sequencing of certain events within a genre. Writers who use narrative schemas can take advantage of these expectations to craft a screenplay that is intuitively familiar (top-down processing), but also to subvert narrative conventions to ensure audiences remain “on the edge of their seats.” In short, Gulino and Shears assertion is more credible than Vaage’s because, whilst the idea that viewers become fonder toward a character overtime is probable, it fails to explain why viewers engage with a narrative in its early stages. Vaage’s belief also disregards scientific evidence that confirms humans intuitively rely on neurological shortcuts in their everyday life.

Might Screenwriting Employ other Pillars of Psychology? Or other disciplines like Sociology?

An additional area of interest to the authors is emotion. They build upon research conducted by leading scholars, such as Murray Smith’s Engaging Characters: Fiction, Emotion, and the Cinema and Noël Carroll and William Seeley’s Cognitivism, Psychology, and Neuroscience: Movies as Attentional Engines. The importance of having a focus on emotions is brilliantly articulated by Craig Batty, who states “if the audience does not connect with a character and feel his or her emotions, the narrative is merely a series of hollow actions.” 

The authors present the findings from neuroscientist Professor Donald W. Pfaff, to explicate why viewers are susceptible to feeling for the characters on screen. Pfaff maintains this is because “a human being, in certain circumstances, blurs the distinction between another individual’s experiences and his or her own.” This blurring is a direct result of “the brain structures called the anterior cingulate cortex and the insula” which “are involved in our attention to pain—not only our own, but also the pain of others.” Chapter 6 focuses heavily on emotions in which the authors break down the cognitive processes of why audiences are more likely to be satisfied by a feature film instead of a short film. The longer duration of a feature film is noted to provide the audience with more reward for their emotional engagement.

* * *

The authors stray away from the lens of the audience in Chapter 8 to focus instead on the idea of the screenwriter as a mad genius. They propose that “dopamine may be the neurochemical of creativity.” They apply ideas of the book in a chapter about George Lucas in a case study. The authors examine how Star Wars (1977) employed screenwriting functions explored throughout the book. However, he also broke several rules yet still achieved audience engagement. 

The most obvious example being the information dump (exposition) presented at the beginning of Star Wars. Though rest assured if you are not a Star Wars fan. The book analysis ranges over a broad range of film and television shows, including Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1996), Breaking BadAvatar (James Cameron, 2009) The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010), Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013), Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell, 2013), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Joe Russo, 2014) and Still Alice (Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, 2014). Gulino and Shears also go back through the decades, analyzing classical genre films such as Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944), Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960), Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962) and Goldfinger (Guy Hamilton, 1964). In providing this range of films, the authors reveal how numerous popular films throughout cinematic history have successfully entertained audiences by exploiting the same cognitive processes.

Exploring the Depth of Human Psychology

The exploration of other disciplines closest to screenwriting – like cognitive psychology – seems a necessary and wise way forward for the discipline of screenwriting. Of course, there is the well-known collaboration between screenwriters and novelists as well as the relationship of screenwriting to mythology. Yet the time seems ripe for screenwriting to collaborate with emerging sciences such as cognitive psychology. Perhaps even AI. This book provides not only a guide but a call for the screenwriting discipline to reach outside Hollywood’s current screenplay paradigms of linear structures and go non-linear and deeper into human psychology. 

It is perhaps the first time, a leading screenwriting professor teams with a leading cognitive psychologist to offer unique, new insights into screenplays. For too long, the area of screenwriting has been stuck within the structural school of screenplay branding where screenplay brands (or schools) tether themselves closely to screenplay structure or steps. For example, one of the leading screenplay brands has been Blake Snyder’s 15-step structure discussed in his Save the Cat (STC) franchise. In fact, many screenwriters consider only the STC method, and fit their stories into this structure. Yet considering stories in linear steps often misses the non-linear elements such as cognitive psychology.   

Importantly, The Science of Screenwriting does not attempt to “own” another brand or step in the screenwriting process. (Although it should be said that Gulino is an advocate of the USC sequence method of 8 steps.) Instead, it attempts to introduce screenwriters to the area of cognitive psychology. As an introduction, there is likely more work to be done. It doesn’t shout out a formula for writing blockbusters and telling screenwriters “Trust me, this works.” It provides an exploration into a new form of screenplay more suited for the world today. There will probably be cynics of this approach. One cynic is only a few reviews under the Amazon review at the beginning of this article. “Mass cinema audiences enjoy explosions and action,” the reviewer says. “No need for neuroscientific analysis.” But then there is cognitive psychology even behind mass audiences and action in films. 

The book can be purchased on Amazon.


About Above Article / Chapter

The above is a chapter in John Fraim’s book-in-progress Hollywood Safari: Navigating Screenwriting Theories. An attempt to provide a view of the forest for all the trees today in the art and science (the discipline) of screenwriting. If there was/is any industry that is in need of viewing the old forest for the trees, it’s the screenwriting industry. The manuscript was started ten years ago and abandoned under other projects and interests. But it was never forgotten. And thanks to Heather for bringing it back to my attention. She is right. It is very worthwhile to publish this manuscript with new additions. Now more than ever when so many have escaped to their digital social media bubbles. The above book review is one of the recent additions to the manuscript.

About John

John has born in LA and has a BA from UCLA and a JD from Loyola Law. He has worked in executive positions of companies in marketing and advertising and was President of Pacific Marketing Strategy in San Francisco and Oakland for a number of years. He has written and been published in the areas of jazz, literary and film criticism, Jungian psychology, symbolism and media. He was consultant for symbols on the DaVinci Code film and author of Battle of Symbols: The Global Dynamics of Advertising, Entertainment and Media. (Daimon Verlag, Zurich, 2003). He is also the author of Spirit Catcher: The Life and Art of John Coltrane (GreatHouse, 1996) winner of Best Biography from a the Small Press Association in 1997. (Both books on Amazon). He has been on the board of LettuceWork for seven years, a group that supports adults with autism transitioning into a workplace. He is on the Advisory Editorial Board of New Explorations, a journal in the area of media ecology based in Toronto and named after Marshall McLuhan’s original communications journal. He’s a member of the National Association of Scholars as well as the Institute for General Semantics. He blogs regularly about a wide range of things on his website Midnight Oil Studios. He was a regular columnist for Script Magazine creating a new topic called “Script Symbology” or the symbolism of scripts. He is Founder of The Desert Screenwriters Group in Palm Springs which has evolved into the well-known Desert Screenwriters Guild. See his contact information on Midnight Oil Studios About page. Maybe we’ll put a subscription list button on Midnight Oil. We’ll see.


2 thoughts on “The Science of Screenwriting

  1. >>>Certainly, one of the bad effects of our digital age is isolation from each other and the world via being captive inside social media bubbles.

    It seems we are born into someone else’s bubble. Only later do we find a bubble more accommodating to our personality that generates more dopomine.

Leave a Reply