Vera Tobin

Elements of Surprise / Publications / Teaching / CV
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Elements of Surprise: Our Mental Limits and the Satisfactions of Plot
2018, Harvard University Press

Why do some surprises delight–the endings of Agatha Christie novels, films like Get Out, the sudden awareness that Pip’s benefactor is not (and never was!) Miss Havisham? Elements of Surprise 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, this book upends two common beliefs. The first is cognitive science’s tendency to treat biases as 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. Building a good plot twist is a complex art that reflects a sophisticated understanding of the human mind, and many of the finest feats of characterization rely on the same mechanics that power the machinery of plot.

Elements of Surprise describes how cognitive biases, mental shortcuts, and quirks of memory help to produce wondrous illusions, and also provides a novel how-to guide for writers. The interactions of plot and cognition reveal the interdependencies of surprise, sympathy, and sense-making, inviting a new appreciation of the pleasures of being had.

People are saying…

“In this eloquent and masterful work, Tobin guides us to think differently about the stories we require to make sense of our lives.” — Amy Cook, author of Shakespearean Neuroplay: Reinvigorating the Study of Dramatic Texts and Performance through Cognitive Science

“This is a work of major importance, perhaps the best one yet on the psychology of narrative and on what narrative can offer psychology. It is a pleasure to read and a pleasure to learn from.” — William Flesch, author of Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction

“If you want to know how good literary writers are manipulating your mind as a reader—read Tobin. This is a remarkable book.” — Eve Sweetser, University of California, Berkeley

“What makes a plot, fictitious or real, satisfying? With enthralling style, Tobin uncovers ways in which satisfaction depends upon fundamental processes of thinking about other minds, especially minds telling us stories. Welcome to the cognitive science of sophisticated mental pleasure. A masterpiece.” — Mark Turner, Case Western Reserve University

“This book is likely to be the defining standard book in cognitive literary studies for at least the next decade.” — Blakey Vermeule, Stanford University