The science of the plot twist: How writers exploit our brains


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Vera Tobin, Case Western Reserve University

Recently I did something that many people would consider unthinkable, or at least perverse. Before going to see “Avengers: Infinity War,” I deliberately read a review that revealed all of the major plot points, from start to finish.

Don’t worry; I’m not going to share any of those spoilers here. Though I do think the aversion to spoilers – what The New York Times’ A.O. Scott recently lamented as “a phobic, hypersensitive taboo against public discussion of anything that happens onscreen” – is a bit overblown.

As a cognitive scientist who studies the relationship between cognition and narratives, I know that movies – like all stories – exploit our natural tendency to anticipate what’s coming next.

These cognitive tendencies help explain why plot twists can be so satisfying. But somewhat counterintuitively, they also explain why knowing about a plot twist ahead of time – the dreaded “spoiler” – doesn’t really spoil the experience at all.

The curse of knowledge

When you pick up a book for the first time, you usually want to have some sense of what you’re signing up for – cozy mysteries, for instance, aren’t supposed to feature graphic violence and sex. But you’re probably also hoping that what you read won’t be entirely predictable.

To some extent, the fear of spoilers is well-grounded. You only have one opportunity to learn something for the first time. Once you’ve learned it, that knowledge affects what you notice, what you anticipate – and even the limits of your imagination.

What we know trips us up in lots of ways, a general tendency known as the “curse of knowledge.”

For example, when we know the answer to a puzzle, that knowledge makes it harder for us to estimate how difficult that puzzle will be for someone else to solve: We’ll assume it’s easier than it really is.

When we know the resolution of an event – whether it’s a basketball game or an election – we tend to overestimate how likely that outcome was.

Information we encounter early on influences our estimation of what is possible later. It doesn’t matter whether we’re reading a story or negotiating a salary: Any initial starting point for our reasoning – however arbitrary or apparently irrelevant – “anchors” our analysis. In one study, legal experts given a hypothetical criminal case argued for longer sentences when presented with larger numbers on randomly rolled dice.

Plot twists pull everything together

Either consciously or intuitively, good writers know all of this.

An effective narrative works its magic, in part, by taking advantage of these, and other, predictable habits of thought. Red herrings, for example, are a type of anchor that set false expectations – and can make twists seem more surprising.

A major part of the pleasure of plot twists, too, comes not from the shock of surprise, but from looking back at the early bits of the narrative in light of the twist. The most satisfying surprises get their power from giving us a fresh, better way of making sense of the material that came before. This is another opportunity for stories to turn the curse of knowledge to their advantage.

Remember that once we know the answer to a puzzle, its clues can seem more transparent than they really were. When we revisit early parts of the story in light of that knowledge, well-constructed clues take on new, satisfying significance.

Consider “The Sixth Sense.” After unleashing its big plot twist – that Bruce Willis’ character has, all along, been one of the “dead people” that only the child protagonist can see – it presents a flash reprisal of scenes that make new sense in light of the surprise. We now see, for instance, that his wife (in fact, his widow) did not snatch up the check at a restaurant before he could take it out of pique. Instead it was because, as far as she knew, she was dining alone.

Even years after the film’s release, viewers take pleasure in this twist, savoring the degree to which it should be “obvious if you pay attention” to earlier parts the film.

The pluses and minuses of the spoiler

At the same time, studies show that even when people are certain of an outcome, they reliably experience suspense, surprise and emotion. Action sequences are still heart-pounding; jokes are still funny; and poignant moments can still make us cry.

As UC San Diego researchers Jonathan Levitt and Nicholas Christenfeld have recently demonstrated, spoilers don’t spoil. In many cases, spoilers actively enhance enjoyment.

In fact, when a major turn in a narrative is truly unanticipated, it can have a catastrophic effect on enjoyment – as many outraged “Infinity War” viewers can testify.

If you know the twist beforehand, the curse of knowledge has more time to work its magic. Early elements of the story will seem to presage the ending more clearly when you know what that ending is. This can make the work as a whole feel more coherent, unified and satisfying.

Of course, anticipation is a delicious pleasure in its own right. Learning plot twists ahead of time can reduce that excitement, even if the foreknowledge doesn’t ruin your enjoyment of the story itself.

The ConversationMarketing experts know that what spoilers do spoil is the urgency of consumers’ desire to watch or read a story. People can even find themselves so sapped of interest and anticipation that they stay home, robbing themselves of the pleasure they would have had if they’d simply never learned of the outcome.

Vera Tobin, Assistant Professor of Cognitive Science, Case Western Reserve University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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LIFE AT THE BOOKSHELF: A Life Around Books


I have spent a lot of my time around books. I love books. I can’t have enough books – at least it certainly seems that way. I’m always on the lookout for books. I don’t buy a lot of new books these days, however, if there is a good one – well, I just have to buy it.

I’ve always read a lot. Early in life I probably read more out of necessity in order to pass subjects and exams. It wasn’t until I left school that I really got a passion for books. What spurred my passion for books was my growing interest in Christianity and my subsequent embrace of it. I just wanted to learn and to learn as much as I could. So I started to buy books

Somewhere along the track I became interested in reading books of other subjects as well, especially books to do with history. I also read novels, but for me to read a novel it has to have a great plot. One of my favourite authors is Tom Clancy, which probably gives you some idea of the type of novels I read.

Of course I collected books on horticulture (I trained as a horticulturist), cooking, computers, travel, wilderness and other areas that I was interested in. However my real passion in books has always been theological and historical.

At the moment my life is in a ‘treading water-like’ situation. I’m probably still another 6 months away from moving into another home to rent (I currently live in a caravan park in a cabin), so the vast majority of my books are in storage and I can’t get at them because they are quite some distance away and I don’t have a car. There probably isn’t a day that goes by that I wish I had access to some book or another. I am longing for the day when I’ll be able to make use of all my books again.

I’ve probably managed to collect another couple of boxes of books in the time I have been away from them and I am slowly accumulating a collection of them in the cabin. They are enough to get me by at this stage, but my various interests are crying out for the books to assist me in them.

I have begun to place a listing of the books I own on my web site at particularbaptist.com and will eventually add them to my Shelfari presence as well. A look at the list (which is nowhere near complete) soon gives an idea of the number of books I have.

See the list at:

http://www.particularbaptist.com/kevins/kevinslibrary.html

See my Shelfari Profile at:

http://www.shelfari.com/particularkev

I have also started accumulating books online at both the particularbaptist.com website and the Kevin’s Family – History Site. These two virtual libraries encapsulate the two main areas of my passion for books – theology and history.

It is for these two libraries (other than my own interest of course) that I am buying out of copyright theological and historical books. Gradually I am building up my collection of online books in these libraries, sharing my passion for books and the wealth in books with a much wider audience.

Visit the libraries at:

http://particularbaptist.com/library/libraryindex.html

http://particularbaptist.com/matthewshistory/library/articles.html

Not only do these libraries contain the works that I have collected and put online, they also have many links to others works that others have placed online. In short, these two virtual libraries have an enormous amount of resources in them – enough to keep the most avid reader going for a life time.

I have now started the ‘At The BookShelf’ Blog and the ‘Reformed Reading Group’ at Shelfari to provide another aspect to sharing my passion for books, especially in the two areas I have mentioned – theology and history. With these two latest sites I will be able to interact with visitors and discuss various books, what we have learnt, questions and issues raised, enjoy fellowship, etc. So I am really hoping that my visitors will join the Reformed Reading Group (I am thinking especially of Reformed Christians here obviously – though others are most welcome) and get involved in the discussion, as well as having visitors interacting via the comments provision here at ‘At The BookShelf.’

Visit the Reformed Reading Group at:

http://www.shelfari.com/groups/36946/about

What I intend to post here in the Blog are reviews of the books I have read and possibly some quotes from some of the books also. I will probably also be posting URLs for new books (old books) I post in the two virtual libraries also.

What else is left to say but please get involved at some of the sites I have mentioned? You won’t regret it.