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Elements of Surprise: Our Mental Limits and the Satisfactions of Plot

4.15  ·  Rating details ·  41 ratings  ·  14 reviews
Why do some surprises delight--the endings of Agatha Christie novels, films like The Sixth Sense, the flash awareness that Pip's benefactor is not (and never was!) Miss Havisham? Writing at the intersection of cognitive science and narrative pleasure, Vera Tobin explains how our brains conspire with stories to produce those revelatory plots that define a "well-made surpris ...more
Hardcover, 344 pages
Published April 16th 2018 by Harvard University Press
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Nelson Zagalo
Feb 18, 2019 rated it really liked it
"Elements of Surprise: Our Mental Limits and the Satisfactions of Plot", (2018) de Vera Tobin, é um livro académico sobre desenho de narrativa, que apesar de apresentar uma escrita por vezes leve e fluída, e um tema acessível, mais ainda pelos exemplos utilizados — "The Sixth Sense", "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd", "Great Expectations", "Emma", ou "Citizen Kane" —, não deixa de apresentar algumas componentes mais crípticas, com jargão próprio, que para quem não trabalha na área o pode tornar meno ...more
Kathleen Flynn
Clearly intended for a scholarly more than a general audience, but I found it hard in a good way -- a reach, yet not full of jargon. This was an interesting, different look at a subject I spend a lot of time thinking about: What makes a satisfying plot, with an ending that accomplishes the seemingly contradictory feat of seeming both surprising and inevitable? Understanding this requires us to think about both how our minds generally work and how we use language to make sense of the world.

But i
...more
Farah Mendlesohn
Jul 09, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I liked this very much: Tobin takes a type of fiction often dismissed, the "well-made plot" and explores how suspense and surprise are crafted. She does so in easy to read plain English that demonstrates how well you can do real theoretical experimentation without resorting to obscure words.
Particular strengths: using a wide range of texts from different genres with an utter lack of snobbery; that the way she writes means that this would work well as a creative writing text as well (it sits well
...more
Timons Esaias
Nov 17, 2019 rated it really liked it
This is a book that should appeal to literary theorists, and also to literary practitioners (i.e. actual writers of fiction), and which I will be touting to my writing and teaching colleagues, and some of my students. I'm glad I read it, and I found several excellent formulations of concepts I've tried to share with my MFA students.

I was tempted to drop the phrase "even though it's a bit of an odd fish" somewhere in the previous paragraph. This book is interdisciplinary, and it can be a little h
...more
Jenny Bhatt
Apr 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This is one the best non-fiction books I've read so far this year.

In our daily lives, many of us are not too keen, even circumspect, about the sudden surprises we encounter. Yet, with the fictions we read/watch, as Vera Tobin points out in her recent book Elements of Surprise, we take pleasure in and gain satisfaction from narrative surprises. Though the O. Henry style twist endings are no longer as popular as during his time, readers/audiences today still prefer narratives that adhere to the pa
...more
Eren Buğlalılar
Mar 27, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: roman-yazarlik
A good and useful book on the cognitive mechanisms behind "plot twists" in cinema and novel. The artistic pleasures we get from plot twists and surprise endings, the author argues and convincingly demonstrates, stem from the cognitive biases we have as human beings.

"Curse of knowledge", "hindsight bias", "anchoring", our tendency to fill in gaps to create patterns, to take things at face value and to develop expectations on unsound grounds are the weaknesses masterfully exploited by the authors
...more
Sally Kilpatrick
There's a lot of great information in this book, but it's hidden under some pretty technical terminology--and I say that as an English major who has read--and written--a lot of technical terminology. Maybe I'm just rusty?

One day, I'm going to go back through and try to rewrite some of the ideas in a way that's a little more user friendly, but I don't have the mental bandwidth to do that right now because. . . pandemic.
Eric Levy
Jun 03, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Excellent book about the psychology of narratives (especially what makes surprise endings work or not, based on elements in the narrative). Good use of cognitive/social psychology principles to illustrate points. Good balance between general readability and academic rigor. Quite enjoyable.
Terri Jones
DNF - not interesting enough to hold my attention more than a few minutes. Perhaps it needed to be more surprising. That looks like a joke, but I'm serious. Not only is it rather dry, but the structure felt convoluted to the point where it felt deliberately obscured.
Leader of the Pack
Aug 31, 2019 rated it it was amazing
As a hobbyist writer, I'm always looking for resources that may sharpen my skills. I heard about Elements of Surprise, and decided to give it a try. I'm glad I did! I've already started reshaping one of my stories to improve its surprise ending.
ning
Mar 16, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: cogsci
This book ruined so many movies for me.
Mike
Nov 03, 2019 rated it liked it
It was a little hard to follow the analysis of stories I wasn't familiar with.
Mark Harris
Jan 08, 2019 rated it liked it
A descriptive rhetoric of surprise in fiction, with close reading of several novels and films.
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