The 7 Minute Solution

Today, I was going through David Mamet’s Masterclass, and he came to a part I found fascinating during his discussion of his play American Buffalo.

He talked about how human beings have an “alertness” cycle built into them when they’re doing tasks that causes them to mentally take a moment to casually check their environment every seven minutes. Also, every twenty minutes into doing something, there’s a bigger mental break as humans fully stop what they’re doing to access their situation. These are holdovers from the times of our ancestors, when paying attention to our environment could mean life or death, and are hardwired into human beings.

As a teacher, I already knew about the twenty minute rule – humans seem to have a limit of about twenty minutes to pay attention to a topic or subject before they get restless unless they’re really stimulated or engaged. After twenty minutes (some say 18), getting a class to stay on topic can be like rolling a boulder uphill, and so I follow the best practice of trying not to stay on one topic more than twenty minutes when lecturing. Instead, I will try to turn the lecture into a series of smaller parts, and when possible have activities or videos to add a little variety to things.

But, what I didn’t know was that there’s a standard smaller “unit” of seven minutes before people’s attention does a lighter reset. Mamet himself, who spends a lot of time in theaters, gives the anecdote that if the play starts at 8:00 the audience will quiet down precisely at 8:06 as their attention shifts fully to the most interesting thing happening – the play. He claims you can set your watch by it. I haven’t been able to find many other references to it beyond many business sites claiming it’s true, although the website Medium found something similar. They did a study of their large readership’s reading habits for their blogs, and discovered that seven minutes of attention was where readers’ interest in content seemed to peak. After that it dropped off, and if articles took longer than seven minutes to read the readership was less inclined to keep reading.

So, as a writer always thinking about optimization, these numbers 7 and 20, made me wonder if there might be a hack here for writers as well. Should we as writers be calibrating our content to fit into these attention blocks as a way to achieve maximum readability and keep our audiences hooked?

Fascinating stuff!

So, to keep the reader reading, putting in a natural break paired with a dramatic question like a cliffhanger or a bit of suspense at the seven minute mark sounds like the perfect way to keep your reader on track. That way they can either stop for the moment at a good point to rest, or they can plunge on to another seven minute binge to find out what happens next.

But, how long is seven minutes of reading content?

Well, that depends on the reader and the difficulty/complexity of the content itself. However, according to your average American Adult reader reads roughly 300 words per minute. So, doing some simple math, seven minutes of reading means 2100 words.

So, to answer the question that endless numbers of new writers ask every day – “How long should my chapters be?The answer is 2100 words, or if you want to simplify it a bit, make it 2000 words (since it doesn’t hurt to wait for the slower readers).

Of course, shorter would be fine too, but with shorter chapters (or scenes, since this could also be done with scene length) you’d naturally run into the problem that the seven minute gap would come at a random place in your story instead of a controlled moment when you can give them something that grabs their attention to keep them going.

What about the twenty minute limit?

Well, similarly, 20 minutes of reading is roughly 6000 words. So, if you prefer long chapters, you might think about 6000 being your upper limit before you take a break or insert a dramatic pause. And, even if you’re doing 2000 word chapters, then putting a more major dramatic moment every three chapters might be something worth doing to be ready when the reader hits their major restless moment.

Of course, in the end, you can make your chapters whatever length you like, but there’s no harm in being a little scientific and using a little human psychology to make your writing even more addictive.


6 thoughts on “The 7 Minute Solution

  1. Very cool. You do an excellent job of analyzing this stuff my friend.
    I found The Mamet class probably the best “storytelling” in the form of teaching of the one’s that I’ve caught from the Masterclass series. I still have to sit down and go through James Patterson though…

    • I’m only about halfway through Mamet, and I have to agree – he is by far the best out of all of the Masterclass writing teachers. His experience teaching others and as a writer shines through like a glorious star.

      James Patterson is a marketer. Literally, because he spent 20 years in advertising. While I can respect that a lot, and I do respect what he’s accomplished, I wasn’t impressed by his class. It’s a little bit like listening to Walt Disney talk about animation, or Thomas Edison talk about inventing, when you know in almost all cases, it was actually someone else who did the work they are taking credit for.

  2. Audio Drama Scripts
    If we’re following Rob’s example in Audio Drama.
    The average script is about 46 seconds run time per page of audio script.
    7 minutes = 420 seconds, divided by 46 means just over 9 pages per scene (or audio drama)
    18 minutes = 1080 seconds, divided by 46 means just around 23 1/2 pages per audio drama script
    20 minutes = 1200 seconds, divided by 46 means just around 26 pages per audio drama script
    To fit the best attention span of the average listener:
    Keep your audio drama scripts less than 10 pages/scene
    Keep your audio drama shows less than 25 pages/show.

    • Your numbers make sense for audio drama. However, isn’t it funny how these numbers match up with general best practices anyway? In a lot of cases, even without knowing the scientific rationale behind it, people have still figured out the optimal way to do things over time.

  3. Thanks Rob that was an interesting insight. Webfiction on Royal Road and other places recommends 2000 word chapters also so it lines up perfectly with your calculations.

    • You’re welcome, Red! As I was saying to Jack, I don’t think this is a case of discovering something new, so much as it is uncovering the common wisdom behind why we do something we already do. Sometimes best practices are there for a reason, even if we don’t really understand what they are. This is why it’s generally a good idea to follow them, unless you have a good reason not to.

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