Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

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

Rate this book
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 surprise.”

By tracing the prevalence of surprise endings in both literary fiction and popular literature and showing how they exploit our mental limits, Tobin upends two common beliefs. The first is cognitive science’s tendency to consider biases a form of moral weakness and failure. The second is certain critics’ presumption that surprise endings are mere shallow gimmicks. The latter is simply not true, and the former tells at best half the story. Tobin shows that building a good plot twist is a complex art that reflects a sophisticated understanding of the human mind.

Reading classic, popular, and obscure literature alongside the latest research in cognitive science, Tobin argues that a good surprise works by taking advantage of our mental limits. Elements of Surprise describes how cognitive biases, mental shortcuts, and quirks of memory conspire with stories to produce wondrous illusions, and also provides a sophisticated how-to guide for writers. In Tobin’s hands, the interactions of plot and cognition reveal the interdependencies of surprise, sympathy, and sense-making. The result is a new appreciation of the pleasures of being had.

344 pages, Hardcover

Published April 16, 2018

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Vera Tobin

2 books1 follower

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
17 (29%)
4 stars
26 (44%)
3 stars
12 (20%)
2 stars
3 (5%)
1 star
0 (0%)
Displaying 1 - 15 of 15 reviews
Profile Image for Kathleen Flynn.
Author 1 book397 followers
December 4, 2018
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 it's not all cognitive science and linguistics! The author skillfully uses examples from well-known books and films including Villette, Emma, Atonement, Great Expectations, The Sixth Sense, and The Conversation. This make clear what she's talking about -- and also offers new ways of thinking about these works that I found really insightful.
Profile Image for Nelson Zagalo.
Author 9 books320 followers
February 18, 2019
"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 menos apetecível. Ainda assim, a sua essência é acessível a quem quer que sinta curiosidade pela temática e queira realizar algum esforço para entrar no discurso académico. Enquanto obra académica apresenta defensores e detratores [1,2], desde logo do campo da literatura que continuam a não ver com bons olhos a entrada da psicologia cognitiva no seu reino obscuro de pura especulação interpretativa. O que não deixa de ser ridículo, se olharmos para os estudos fílmicos onde a psicologia já entrou nos anos 1980, sendo talvez por isso mesmo que Tobin usa imensos exemplos cinematográficos lado a lado com exemplos literários, sem qualquer coibição e diga-se de forma imensamente refrescante para quem trabalha na área, cansado de divisões artificiais no campo da narrativa.

Continuar a ler no Virtual illusion:
Profile Image for Farah Mendlesohn.
Author 32 books131 followers
July 9, 2018
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 with Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer".

About the only thing I disagreed with is her analysis of Poe's Murder in the Rue Morgue, where the ending may be narratalogicaly satisfying in structure, but is an utter wet cloth in terms of emotional impact.

Be aware she has no truck with spoiler avoidance.
Profile Image for Timons Esaias.
Author 42 books52 followers
November 18, 2019
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 hard to remember what it's supposed to be doing, exactly.

The subject matter is how cognitive science might help explain how certain aspects of storytelling work. I use that approach in explaining how the narrative technique of "confirmation" works (it being related to the mental design flaw that explains why con artists like to work in pairs), and there are a couple of other such items known to me. I was immediately intrigued.

The oddness of the book comes from it taking up "a slightly different project with respect to the relationship between literature and social cognition -- and in a way, I hope, that will be of interest to people approaching that intersection from either of those directions or at an angle from farther afield." In practice this means that it seems to slide from one subject to the other, sliding up and down the roads that intersect, and wandering into the nearby fields for picnics along the way.

However, the next two sentences of the Introduction state what the project is about: "The story I want to tell here is about the part that some specific limits and quirks of our of our thinking play in helping to make stories work. I describe how mental contamination effects that are strongly implicated in thinking socially but that are also consequences of the decision making involved in all sorts of cognition, including memory and perception, can provide raw material for the satisfaction of plot." Okay, that gets a little jargony in the second sentence, but that's an interesting project. What about our psychology, especially our cognitive quirks, makes plot satisfying?? Well that's a question worth discussing, both for writers and for literature teachers. I'm in.

The next sentence, however, reveals one "problem" with this book. "The entry point is a task of cognitive poetics and cognitive narratology." Yeah, un-hunh. A point is not a task, let me just say that now. This is an academic jargon display, more than a sentence. Most of us will have to look those terms up, which means that to accurately understand this book you'll need to go outside the book. (There are excellent footnotes, but one needs to actually read some of the source in several instances. They're citations, more than explanations.)

The reason this book works, however, is revealed in the sentence that follows: "This is an attempt to open up the hood, as it were, to take a look at some of the machinery that drives certain kinds of plots." That is a clear simile, and the book is more that 'looking at the machinery' than it is the jargonfest. Indeed, it's a very effective look at a few particular plot devices, generally having to do with surprise.

My shelves are NOT stacked with academic analyses of how fiction works, because it seems that academics think this is an answer with just one or two answers. Tobin repeatedly shows that she does not go along with that view, as she demurs from her own sources. There are too many variations between audiences, between narrative conventions, between aesthetics, for such simple answers. She gets that, which makes her advice far more realistic that I have typically found in such works.

Fictional narration is a magic act (I explain to my students), especially so in the mystery genres. This paragraph convinced me that this book was likely to be worth continuing: "How do any of these stories work their magic--when they do? (Many times, of course, they don't, a topic we will return to in more detail later on.) How can the same gambits succeed with the same audiences time after time? Crucial information has to be planted firmly enough that it will be remembered when the proper moment comes but subtly enough that it will go unconsidered or misinterpreted until then. Only then can audiences reliably experience both halves of the effect: overlooking the information at first and recognizing it later."

That paragraph focuses on a specific narrative problem which faces almost all writers, mystery or not. It recognizes that the act doesn't always work. It recognizes how odd it is that audiences tend not to tire of the performance, despite being fooled before. It then specifically describes the elements of the task. I wrote "Well said" in the margin, and paid attention thereafter.

The project succeeds, with theories proposed and a variety of examples analyzed. I was particularly happy to find that we were presented examples that range from Jane Austen to Agatha Christie, from Lord of the Rings to Citizen Kane. Twain, G. B. Shaw, Poe, Nabokov. I have always felt that narration is narration, and this author embraces that fact.

The book specifically takes on the subject of unreliable narrators and unreliable narrations, which many of my students struggle to understand. It provides specific tools for bamboozling the reader, with examples. It is a gold mine.

I'll mention two spots of dross, as well, as examples of what the reader will have to be patient with. There's a mention of "narrative embedding" on page 63, and I'm familiar with the term (it's the verb phrase for "telling a story within a story"), but here it's used essentially as a technical noun, and I had to follow the footnote to the source to get a clear idea what that sentence really meant. Grrr. Also the subsection "Burying Information" that starts on page 113 and ends on 118 gets more and more vague as it goes along, and disappeared into a terminological cloud -- for this reader -- by the end. It seemed essentially meaningless, while apparently trying not to be. I point to these specifically (knowing that your mileage may vary), to indicate that while the book might have some unclear spots for a reader, it's worth pushing on through to find the next useful section. There really are rich veins in here, and it's a solid resource and a solid basis for further discussion.

I should point out that I know the author, in the sense that I see her at an annual Christmas celebration, most years. I did not know precisely what she taught, and we haven't discussed literature or writing to any extent. When I learned she "had a book out" I looked it up, it sounded interesting and possibly cogent; and then discovered that it is professionally relevant. A nice surprise.
Profile Image for Eren Buğlalılar.
340 reviews119 followers
March 27, 2020
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. The book is full of examples but is not designed as a practical manual for writers because it sometimes shifts to an academic style.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
1,214 reviews105 followers
September 29, 2021
Apparently I read this last year and completely forgot, which is extremely uncharacteristic of me. While 2020 was fairly traumatizing, I'm not sure it says great things about this poor book. Tobin delves into both literary and psychological theory as to why we like surprise in our fiction, and how these surprises can be accomplished, which is interesting. But it just doesn't seem to quite stick for me.
Profile Image for Brandon Lee.
145 reviews2 followers
March 22, 2021
Reaction: explains a lot at how the entertainment industry takes advantage of our cognition
Writing Style: academic, dense at times but also conversational
Argumentation: how one receives a plot twist is well planned out, but at the same time spontaneous and something we cannot plan to expect if it is a true surprise element
Commendation: using a multimedia approach of works that ensures that most readers would not have all of the cited works spoiled them in the future
Critique: a framework of elements of surprise that readers can use to apply to own experiences with media, films, books, and anything that is somewhat unexpected
Profile Image for Sally Kilpatrick.
Author 17 books268 followers
April 1, 2020
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.
Profile Image for Eric Levy.
21 reviews6 followers
June 4, 2019
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.
31 reviews
November 3, 2019
It was a little hard to follow the analysis of stories I wasn't familiar with.
Profile Image for Terri Jones.
2,123 reviews28 followers
September 10, 2021
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.
Profile Image for Mark Harris.
142 reviews2 followers
January 2, 2020
A descriptive rhetoric of surprise in fiction, with close reading of several novels and films.
Author 3 books6 followers
October 7, 2018
The curse of knowledge is a fine narratological tool, the emphasis on pleasure essential.
Displaying 1 - 15 of 15 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.