Catherine Emmott - Cognitive Manipulation and Crime Fiction: Rhetorical Strategies for Misdirecting Readers

Monday, May 07, 2018, 6:00pm


Crime fiction provides researchers with a prime example of how the manipulation of readers may be achieved. An author can use rhetorical strategies to cognitively misdirect readers for plot purposes. Aspects of a story may be made more or less prominent through the use of foregrounding and burying devices. Psychology research shows readers to be highly selective in focusing their attention on specific aspects of a text and not noticing other aspects. The normal expectation of readers is that foregrounding will be used to highlight significant information and that the relatively insignificant parts of a text will fall into the background. Nevertheless, for plot purposes, the reverse may often be the case. In crime fiction, the objective is to deceive the reader about the significance of information in both the foreground and background of a text, hence creating a puzzle which can subsequently be solved in a surprising way. I demonstrate how the attention of readers can be manipulated by foregrounding plot-insignificant items and burying plot-significant items in the background. I will look particularly at the detective fiction of Agatha Christie who has been described as the ‘Queen of Crime’. The research is relevant to a wide range of detective, mystery and twist-in-the-tale stories and any story which is heavily plotted.


About Catherine Emmott

Catherine Emmott is a reader at the department of English Language, University of Glasgow. Her research interests include narrative processing, cognitive stylistics, and reference theory. Her Narrative Comprehension: A Discourse Perspective which appeared in 1997 is one of the major works introducing the study on reference theory, investigating how readers build and use mental representations of fictional context and fictional characters. In addition, Catherine Emmott and co-researcher Anthony Sanford originated the STACS Project: Stylistics, Text Analysis and Cognitive Science: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Nature of Reading. Together, Emmott and Sanford published Mind, Brain and Narrative which presents the empirical work of the STACS Project, addressing aspects of attention, perspective, and reference items. Other topics include foregrounding, embodiment, and emotion.

Catherine Emmott also works as an assistant editor of Language and Literature, the international journals of the Poetics and Linguistics Asscociation (PALA) and is on the editorial board of DeGruyter book series (Narratologia and Storyworlds: A Journal of Narrative Studies). Moreover, she has worked as a part of the governing board of IGEL (2006-2008).