On Spoilers

I ran across a post from UCSD today that explains that humans actually don’t mind spoilers. In fact, the article claims that research shows that we enjoy stories more if we flip to the last page and read the ending first.

It’s also possible that it’s “easier” to read a spoiled story. Other psychological studies have shown that people have an aesthetic preference for objects that are perceptually easy to process.

“So it could be,” said Leavitt, a psychology doctoral student at UC San Diego, “that once you know how it turns out, it’s cognitively easier – you’re more comfortable processing the information – and can focus on a deeper understanding of the story.”

Personally, speaking as somebody who has spoiled a good many books and films by reading reviews or peeking at the last page, I can see where this is coming from. And then again, I can’t.

I’ve read stories that involve such emotional strain on the characters, where everything seems to get worse and worse. For those, I can see how it would be a relief to turn to the final page and see that it all comes out “right”. And I’ll admit that I’ve done it.

And I’m reminded that I just read Sense and Sensibility after seeing the movie and having the ending of every romantic entanglement from the story (and there are several) spoiled, so I already knew who each of the girls would end up marrying. Which didn’t bother me a bit. In fact, it gave me reason to start digging into the motivations of some of the failed love interests, so I would understand why they failed.

However, I can also think of many books that, as I idly flipped through the pages, I discovered that one of my favorite characters would die before the end of the book. In those cases, I’ve learned that I quickly distance myself from the character. I try not to get attached to him. Which is sad, considering the author meant me to be attached to the doomed character so that I would cry when he sacrifices himself for his friends. Such books are always more powerful to me when I don’t see it coming.

The article goes on to make a strange conclusion.

Christenfeld and Leavitt conclude the paper by saying that perhaps some of our “other intuitions about suspense may be similarly wrong.”

“Perhaps,” they write, “birthday presents are better when wrapped in cellophane, and engagement rings are better when not concealed in chocolate mousse.”

I don’t think so. There’s a lot to be said for the mystery of the unknown. Half the fun of a birthday gift is shaking it ahead of time and trying to guess what’s in it! And though I’ve never been and don’t expect to be on the receiving end of an engagement ring concealed in chocolate mousse… Ladies, I’ll leave that one up to you! 😉

So. I can see the point. But I’d still prefer not to be spoiled on major plot points. Especially in the case of a movie that hinges on a twist at the end. (I had an example written in here, but I realized that by giving an example, the movie is spoiled because you know the twist is coming, even if you don’t know what it is!)

The researchers even somewhat admit this.

But the researchers are careful to note that they do not have a new recipe for writers to follow. After all, spoilers helped only when presented in advance, outside of the piece. When the researchers inserted a spoiler directly into a story, it didn’t go over quite as well.

Why would we read the story out of order to get the spoiler so that we will enjoy it more? Don’t we trust the storyteller to tell us his story the way it’s meant to be told?

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2 thoughts on “On Spoilers

  1. This reminds me of J. J. Abrams’ “Mystery Box” talk from the 2008 TED conference. It’s not really about spoilers, but how compelling and powerful the unknown can be in storytelling.

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