Take It Apart by the Seams: Vera Tobin on Your Brain on Fiction

"Dumb-smart stories", fake news, serial narratives, and surprise endings: an engaging conversation about cognitive bias.

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

Harvard University Press

Apr 2018


Vera Tobin's recently-published book, Elements of Surprise: Our Mental Limits and the Satisfactions of Plot, looks at cognitive, linguistic, and narrative techniques to explain how the "well-made surprise" is created by writers and appreciated by readers in fiction — both books and movies. "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 ... we take pleasure in and gain satisfaction from narrative surprises," I wrote in my review of the book. Tobin, a professor in cognitive linguistics, discusses the fascinating research behind her work. The following interview was conducted via email.

You've written: "The reason twist endings are hard is because they have to be a surprise without being a surprise." It reminded me of a constant we hear in fiction writing workshops about how endings should be unpredictable but inevitable. And, of course, rather than a specific ending, a lot of fiction now has the open ending, leaving the reader to guess what might happen next. I've also preferred that, to be honest, because I see the end of every story as the beginning of another new one. That said, I'm also a fan of O Henry's short stories with their typical twist endings (though, not all of them worked well.) As you've pointed out, this latter kind of fiction fell out of favor because people saw them as "cheap plot tricks". Do you see the tide turning the other way at all?

Fashions for these things vary, of course, not just in time but between genres and media — so what's in favor in one place at a given moment will be out of favor in another. And, as I touch on in the book, sometimes even the people who frown on "cheap plot tricks" aren't actually above using those tricks themselves. (George Bernard Shaw is a striking example.) But yes, I think the rise of serial narratives, particularly things like prestige television designed for binge-watching, lends itself to these kind of mechanics and plots.

As I read the chapter about unreliable narrators, I thought of the "Girl" thriller novels that have come out in recent years. All of them have unreliable narrators and all blur that boundary between madness and sanity. They're hugely popular (though I must admit I have only read excerpts). How do you assess, generally, the elements of surprise in these particular novels?

I'm afraid that I haven't read The Girl on the Train and its followers at all! I've read Gone Girl, which obviously rests its entire narrative on the kind of major re-framing, the "rug pull", that I write about, and there's something to be said about the degree to which its narrative instability depends on the creation of a rather stock "psycho bitch" character, but obviously there are many writers doing similar things without using any retrograde tropes.

The curse of knowledge and the problem of memory source attribution — both are affected by how we consume information today in mostly bite-size morsels across endless streams as we jump from one link to another. How does this affect our ability to play along with the elements of surprise you have described? Should a writer alter his/her narrative techniques to better-suit how readers are reading now? Or do the narrative, linguistic, and structural techniques still work just the same?

It's certainly true that the more opportunities there are for information to be mixed and chopped and placed piecemeal into different contexts, the more disorienting it can be. I don't think that this means that authors need to abandon old methods—but it does mean there are new opportunities and affordances to take advantage of and keep in mind. Look at what has happened with Childish Gambino's "This Is America" video, which certainly contains some truly shocking surprises (in only four minutes). Pretty much as soon as it was released, people were chopping it up into clips to use in a variety of ways, everything from "look at Donald Glover's torso" to reaction GIFs echoing and borrowing from these shocking moments in the music video. You need context for surprises to work, but maybe you don't need very much context, just a snippet.

You've written, "Transported readers are especially vulnerable to the illusion of knowledge and other curse-of-knowledge effects." And modern fiction how-tos also advise that a well-written story is more about showing versus telling to allow for maximum cognitive, emotional, and imagistic engagement so the reader can be transported. For a surprise to be truly well-made, does it need to do more showing versus telling? When we look at past storytelling traditions, which were more aural than visual, they still managed to be persuasive with logos, pathos, and ethos. Will the techniques you've described work just as well even in the oral traditions?

There's nothing inherently less transporting about a story told aloud than one read from a page. If anything, rather the contrary, if the storytellers are good at their work! And well-made surprises, including the most "gotcha" kinds of twists, are a thoroughly antique, venerable element of engaging storytelling. Think, for instance, of the sequence in the Odyssey when Odysseus giving his name to the cyclops Polyphemus as Οὖτις, "nobody", leading Polyphemus to cry out to his brothers that "Nobody has blinded me!" (They tell him the answer to his bizarre troubles is surely prayer.) Can't ask for a better setup and knockdown than that.

With the problem of fake news, it seems the "narrative sleights of hand" are, as you have written, tapping into some general tendencies of human cognition that are vulnerable to exploitation. Our "depth of processing" is also changing drastically. Are fake news creators leveraging some of the narrative, linguistic, and structural techniques you've described for fiction to make sure their "surprises" are received, recognized, acknowledged, etc., well? Are they taking advantage of what you call 'cursed thinking': "The kinds of inferences associated with the curse of knowledge proper and those that produce illusions of knowledge both represent varieties of a general phenomenon I will call 'cursed thinking'?"

I think this is a common approach to writing long-form articles, and even shorter pieces that the journalists or their editors can work stingers into. "Fake news", meanwhile, has the advantage of not having to be tethered to the truth; really effective propaganda takes something that's partially true, or true but unimportant, and builds a whole story around that. That's one of the places where our human difficulty with source attribution and remembering context comes into play; in fact, this is a huge problem, because studies have shown that simply debunking fake news doesn't really help, quite possibly because it just reinforces people's memory of the underlying (fake) story. I'm really looking forward to reading Rex Sorgatz's Encyclopedia of Misinformation (Abrams, March 2018) for more insight into the current horrible state of affairs, fake-news-wise.

This comes up near the end of the book. Popular opinion about good/well-written fiction is how it helps us empathize with different viewpoints and people, make meaning from chaos, know that we are not alone, and so on. But, as you have rightly pointed out, it also "hobbles our ability to see and accept arbitrariness even when it is a critical part of what has really come to pass." Sometimes, chaos is just that. Not everything in life happens for some reason. Not all readers and writers, as we well know, are empathetic or good people. What should our expectations be of the fiction we read/watch?

Well, it's just difficult! The charm of fiction is that it gives us the illusion of doing what we can't do in real life: entering directly into situations and perspectives that aren't our own. And it often also charms us by providing tidy arcs of meaning and closure. The trouble is that we are both naturally inclined to impose that kind of structure onto the chaos of real life, and perhaps trained even more in that direction by the stories we consume. That doesn't work out very well for people who are victims of circumstance, who tend to get rather less sympathy as a result.

Looking at contemporary works of fiction, do you have favorites that have managed the "well-made surprise" really well? Who are the masters today and why?

I've been pressing a recent novel on people, Nick Harkaway's Gnomon (Knopf, June 2018) Harkaway is John le Carré's son; I talk about le Carré's work in Elements of Surprise, but they're writers in very different modes. This is a hard book to describe in brief, but it's a bit like Inception crossed with Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler (Everyman, 1993) in a near-future, semi-dystopian Britain, a dissident writer has been hooked up to a memory transcribing device and died under interrogation, and an inspector for "the Witness" is playing back the interrogation to decide whether it's a criminal case or an unhappy accident.

Things spiral from there, as the recording contains several entirely distinct stories within it, and they're all really enjoyable—but there are larger themes that thread through the stories, as well as the underlying murder mystery. Quite a few things happen to totally change your understanding of what's going on, and they produce that lovely sense that, oh, of course, you should have guessed all along.

And what about favorites or masters of the well-made surprise in contemporary film and why?

Horror, especially in film, is a great genre right now for surprise put to interesting purpose. Stephen King says in his lovely book about the craft of horror, Danse Macabre (Everest House, 1981) that although he'll "go for the gross-out" when the opportunity arises ("I'm not proud"), his highest aim is to "terrorize" the reader. A thing that the best horror can do is link these sort of thriller-y surprises and revelations to a larger through-line narrative. Get Out is about how it feels to be an African-American man in an unfriendly and exploitative world; The Babadook is about grief and the feeling of being shackled to motherhood as an identity; It Follows is about the inescapability of personal, particularly sexual, history.

Are you ever able to read fiction or watch a movie without pulling it apart at the linguistic, structural, and psychological layers? In other words, does the curse of your own knowledge affect your sense of pleasure from such fiction?

Oh, I love taking stories apart at the seams. It's what gives me the most readerly pleasure, I think! There's nothing more fun (for me) than sitting down with a friend after a film or after we've both read the same book, and just taking it to pieces.

At PopMatters, we review books, movies, and TV shows (and music too, of course.) If you were to advise a reviewer on the top three-five aspects of a well-made surprise they should look for in the book/movie/show they're reviewing, what might they be?

VIs it fair? (Is it really fair, or did it just feel fair?) Is it fun? And is it dumb? Sometimes dumb is fine! I personally have a big soft spot for what I call smart-dumb stories -- stories that go all in on something inherently ludicrous and really lean into that, in a way that shows that the creative impulse behind it is witty and understands what it's doing. American Vandal (Netflix) was perfect on that score; you really got wrapped up in what the writers clearly understood to be the fundamentally dopey question of "who drew the dicks?" Dumb-smart stories, by contrast, have a high-flown sense of their own importance, but just don't rise to the task.

Photo of Vera Tobin: Carrie Gabella (courtesy of Harvard University Press)





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