Inevitable and Surprising

Can you remember when you first heard Darth Vader say the words to Luke: “I am your father.” How did you feel?

A measure of success for many stories is whether they present a major reveal toward the end that is both inevitable and surprising. When a story hits both those marks, readers and viewers experience a deeply satisfying feeling. Our minds also immediately race back over the story to revisit the clues that were there all along but whose significance we failed to grasp.

This has been going on for a long time. Our ancient ancestors felt that same story-listening thrill when their artful shaman danced and sang around the fire, recounting a perilous hunt from the tribe’s history.

Remember that delicious moment in the movie “Chinatown” when Faye Dunaway’s character tells Jack Nicholson’s detective, “She’s my daughter. She’s my sister.” Other classics are the plots of the movies “The Sixth Sense” and “The Usual Suspects.” I and You, a widely produced play by Lauren Gunderson, delivers a twist similar to that of “The Sixth Sense.” The reveal in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – that George and Martha’s son is not real – is another stand-out.

Our brains have evolved so as to want story endings to be inevitable and surprising. Why? That question has started to engage neurologists and other scientists. Vera Tobin, a professor of Cognitive Science at Case Western Reserve University, has been digging in this field. Her book, Elements of Surprise: Our Mental Limits and the Satisfactions of Plot, was published last year. The NPR podcast “Hidden Brain,” hosted by Shankar Vedantam, recently interviewed Professor Tobin. If the subject interests you, this 30-minute podcast (title “Spoiler Alert!”), is worth a listen.

As you might imagine, the subject holds immense interest for me. I have bought Tobin’s book and look forward to studying it. While it would be too much to ask any science book to give us an ending that is inevitable and surprising, I do expect Tobin’s work will shed light on why we so like our stories to make us gasp and go “wow.”

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