Ruining the Ending

Plot spoilers don’t seem to hurt our enjoyment of movies or books at all, a new study shows – in fact, they actually increase our pleasure. What a twist!

Just your typical college girl, enjoying the hell out of her Ambrose Bierce anthology.

In a series of experiments, volunteers consistently rated short stories as significantly more enjoyable when they got to read a spoiler-y intro, or when spoilers were inserted into early parts of the story. This even held true for stories whose climax depends on a revelation or a twist.

If you’re anything like me, you might go to great lengths to avoid spoilers for upcoming books and movies – even leaping out of open windows or sprinting across busy freeways as soon as someone threatens to reveal a juicy tidbit (hey, priorities matter). I myself tend to be less worried about “ironic” twists, and more about knowing which characters will survive to the end – kinda ruins the suspense, doesn’t it?

Not at all, akshully, as long as the story’s well-told, says a report that’s slated to appear in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science. Lead researcher Nicholas Christenfeld, a UC San Diego psychologist, lays out a few reasons why the team may have gotten these results:

“Plots are just excuses for great writing. What the plot is is (almost) irrelevant. The pleasure is in the writing,” said Christenfeld, a UC San Diego professor of social psychology. “Monet’s paintings aren’t really about water lilies.”

In other words, if the writing itself is gripping, the plot isn’t as important. This might be true in some cases, such as creatively written stories that reward repeated readings – but I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to say a plot is “just an excuse” for beautiful prose; it seems to me that plot, characters, and prose are all important. Anyway, a plot without good prose is still a story – but good prose without a plot is just…imagery.

Here’s another explanation the researchers suggest:

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 Jonathan Leavitt, a psychology doctoral student at UC San Diego [who worked on the study], “that once you know how it turns out … you’re more comfortable processing the information, and can focus on a deeper understanding of the story.”

Could be – but who says the volunteers gained a “deeper understanding” of the spoiler-ed stories? As far as I can tell, they just reported enjoying those stories more. Understanding is cognitive; enjoyment is emotional – and the two aren’t necessarily related. Besides, there are obvious differences between liking a story (or your girlfriend’s face) because it’s familiar to you, and liking a story because you know what’s going to happen in it.

So I want to float two other possible explanations for this phenomenon. Both of them seem to make intuitive sense, and neither of them was mentioned by the psychologists.

First, spoilers give readers some idea of what to expect at the story’s climax and resolution – thus, they don’t get their hopes up excessively; nor are they as likely to get bored halfway through, wondering if the payoff will be worth their time. See, the more a story builds up the promise of mysterious revelations, the more satisfying those revelations will have to be for the reader. It’s a lot easier to satisfy a reader who knows (to some degree) what he or she’s holding out for.

Second – and perhaps more importantly – spoilers can actually strengthen suspense. For example, before I sat down to watch the movie Irreversible, I’d already heard about the infamous rape scene, so I spent the first twenty minutes of the movie in a state of anticipatory dread. Similarly, I’d heard a major character would die at the end of the first season of Game of Thrones, so I watched the season finale with nervous attention, waiting for the ax to drop.

In short, just because you know a twist, or the ending, doesn’t mean you know how the story will get you there – or even just what that scene will be like. It’s not necessarily about great prose (though that helps, of course), but about the excitement of taking the journey.

Maybe this is why asking someone out, or proposing marriage, can be so nerve-wracking, even when you’re nearly positive the person will say “yes.” Because in life, as in literature and film, there’s always the off chance that something may still surprise you.

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