Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles



Elements of Surprise

Our Mental Limits and the Satisfactions of Plot


Vera Tobin


Harvard University Press, 2018

Hardcover. 332 p. ISBN 978-0674980204. $35.00 / £25.95 / €31.50


Reviewed by Cécile Beaufils

Sorbonne Université (Paris)





Elements of Surprise starts with a deceptively simple premise: literary works surprise us, in a great variety of nuances. Vera Tobin speaks as a cognitive scientist, but applies her research methodology to the field of literature and film, in an illuminating cross-disciplinary work. Indeed, Tobin focuses on the inner workings of plots as, first and foremost, an attentive reader bent on shedding light on the way authors build specific structures. The book focuses both on so-called "formulaic" texts and on works that experiment with form, and that are rarely analyzed from this angle: from M. Night Shyamalan's blockbuster film Sixth Sense to Ian McEwan's novel Atonement. Across several genres and forms, this book explores how the "well-made surprise" has the audience surprised, but not feeling cheated. The author humorously but very carefully takes her reader on a ride through the cognitive processes at work in the effect of surprise effect, both in narratives based on the repetition of a successful pattern (like the procedural TV show), and in tales that eschew such formulas. Vera Tobin bases her shrewd, extremely clearly and precisely written analysis on classic narratological tools like Gérard Genette as well as more recent texts that delve into the cognitive processes at work in literature, like James Phelan's recent output. This combined approach makes for a more accessible read, especially for classically-trained literature specialists. It will appeal to readers and spectators from a variety of backgrounds, demonstrating a new angle on how to tackle the affective response to surprising narrative, for instance regarding McEwan's Atonement, to which part of a chapter is devoted. It is also to be noted that, in keeping with the project of the book, the author's website includes a list of spoilers for the works discussed in the book.

Elements of Surprise is divided into eight chapters, starting with the establishment of the key concept of the book, the "well-made surprise" and all its tenets in storytelling. She considers the manipulation of knowledge that belongs to effective storytelling, and how much people want to know. She calls the balancing act of providing information and creating a surprise a "magic trick" [19], and an exercise in credibility-building. The "well-made surprise" concept is exposed as such a balancing act, "the common aim of surprises in this tradition is to lead a reader in the direction of one set of assumptions and then exchange them, quite suddenly, for a new interpretation that overturns this assumptions" [35]. Our own mental limits, Tobin argues, are what make such surprises possible.

Tobin then moves on to her second point of focus, the "curse of knowledge". In this chapter, she opens her reflection with notions like subjectivity, hindsight, and our recurring cognitive failures. Using Graham Greene's Brighton Rock, she explains the process of deduction and the reader's assessment of the likelihood of events according to what is expected, or known.

The third chapter, "The Poetics of Surprise", analyses how effective surprises are structured, and the detail of their inner strategies; Tobin's typology includes, for instance, categories like "frame shifts", "finessing information", or "burying information". Each category is explored with examples, mostly from crime novels for this section. Using both formal analyses of plots and cognitive sciences, she foregrounds how "thinking on all levels involves predictions and expectations" [91]. As Tobin's work delves further into the literary details of the surprise, the fourth chapter, "The Naming of Things", develops the question of naming and its relationship to cognitive biases. Tobin thus reflects on curse words, presuppositions based on the manipulation of grammar [predicates in particular]. The heart of this chapter is the manipulation of presuppositions based on linguistic analysis.

The next three chapters dwell on a more literary aspect of surprise; in "Revelations, recognitions, and the satisfactions of plot", Tobin draws parallels between the "well-made surprise" and the Aristotelian anagnorisis. Invoking our desire for resolution, Tobin reads several Jane Austen novels in that light, seeing how the use of free indirect speech might lead to surprises from the heroines, for instance. Moving to examples of recognition scenes in popular culture, the author concludes her chapter with a compelling analysis of Villette and revelations of identity. In "When Unreliability is a Surprise", Tobin develops her previous study of linguistic and diegetic mechanisms with a focus on unreliable narrators, from Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd to Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club, among others. The author explores the way the authors work with a potential feeling of betrayal the readers/spectators might experience, and how it becomes a part of the narrative process. This chapter, as well as the following one, "When Narration Itself Is a Surprise", is perhaps the most directly illuminating one for specialists of literature, and its main arguments derives from the questioning of focalisation as a manipulative tool. Tobin then dwells on the satisfaction of "'cursed' modes of thought" [235] in Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation, Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and Ian McEwan's Atonement. With a focus on the status of discourse in texts that she calls "experimental", she lays emphasis on the inner workings of "surprise to its extremes" [268]. The last chapter, "So Many Things Are Obvious [Now That We're at the End]", starts by stating again that effective surprises are owed to their transcending formulaic storytelling. Tobin then develops the connection between such "well-made surprises" and the real world, via Peter Brooks' article on an American Supreme Court ruling. Through this slightly roundabout argument, the author returns to the idea that "the nature of the curse of knowledge is to make even the unintelligible seem decodable in retrospect" [283], therefore balancing out the pleasure of knowledge and its "curse". Although this last chapter is less convincing than the previous two, it provides an adequate conclusion to a work that provides answers and groundwork for a new research field.

Vera Tobin's Elements of Surprise is therefore an excellent introduction to the application of cognitive sciences to the literary field, as well as an illuminating read for researchers of all backgrounds.


Cercles © 2018

All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner.

Please contact us before using any material on this website.