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Elements of Surprise: Our Mental Limits and the Satisfactions of Plot
Vera Tobin
Harvard University Press / Hardcover / Apr 2018
9780674980204 (ISBN-10: 0674980204)
Cognitive Psychology & Cognition
price: $54.95 (may be subject to change)
344 pages
Not in Stock, but usually ships within 2-3 weeks

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.


“In this eloquent and masterful work, Tobin guides us to think differently about the stories we require to make sense of our lives. Tobin expertly wields the tools and research from one discipline to illuminate the evidence in another discipline: how is it that we can be surprised in fiction? If a work of fiction surprises you, it means that it has succeeded in playing a cognitive trick on you. Tobin’s book is a compelling pleasure to read and powerfully displays how magical the mind is that can be so delighted and surprised by the mind of another.”—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, bringing together understanding of cognitive science and literary texts. A thoroughly enjoyable and very insightful read, highly recommended for cognitive scientists and literary analysts alike.”—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.”—Blakely Vermeule, Stanford University

About the Author:

Vera Tobin is Assistant Professor in the Department of Cognitive Science at Case Western Reserve University.

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