Andrea Goldsmith reviews 'Elements of Surprise: Our mental limits and the satisfactions of plot' by Vera Tobin

Andrea Goldsmith reviews 'Elements of Surprise: Our mental limits and the satisfactions of plot' by Vera Tobin

Elements of Surprise: Our mental limits and the satisfactions of plot

by Vera Tobin

Harvard University Press (Footprint), $66 hb, 332 pp, 9780674980204

On the dust jacket of Elements of Surprise is the well-known picture by John Tenniel, illustrator of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), depicting Alice gazing up at the grinning Cheshire Cat perched on a branch of a tree. I felt very much like Alice while reading Vera Tobin’s book, as if I had fallen into a world in which the rules, concepts, and vocabulary were completely alien to my own.

In her analysis of surprise in plot, Tobin, a cognitive scientist at Case Western Reserve University in the United States, is primarily interested in two issues: how it can happen that in book after book, readers can be surprised, even though the same plot tricks are used over and over again; and secondly, how readers can believe one thing through several chapters, then, when a surprise is revealed, easily switch to another view without condemning the whole novel as incoherent. These are questions that no fiction writer would ask; rather, we assume that such reader responses will occur if we writers do our job properly, if we create coherent narratives fuelled by secrets and mysteries, desires and ambitions, all carried by fleshed-out, credible characters.

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Published in August 2018, no. 403
Andrea Goldsmith

Andrea Goldsmith

Andrea Goldsmith is a Melbourne-based novelist and reviewer. Her novels include The Prosperous Thief (2002), which was short-listed for the Miles Franklin, the acclaimed Reunion, and The Memory Trap (2013), a novel of monuments, marriage, and music, awarded the Melbourne Prize in 2015. She also writes essays and articles, many of which are posted on her website: http://andreagoldsmith.com.au

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