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Surprise: Spoilers Make Stories Better

Posted by Josh Rothman  September 19, 2011 04:13 PM

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Reviewers of movies and novels must obey one prime directive: never, ever reveal what happens at the end (or, at the very least, preface the inside info with a warning: SPOILER ALERT!). Now, though, a new study by Jonathan Leavitt and Nicholas Christenfeld at the University of California, San Diego suggests that spoilers aren't so bad. In fact, Leavitt and Christenfeld find that people enjoy stories more when they know the ending in advance.

The study, called "Spoilers Don't Spoil Stories" and published in the September issue of Psychological Science, couldn't be simpler. Leavitt and Christenfeld curated a selection of stories by writers like Chekhov, Carver, and Updike (along with more genre-oriented tales by Agatha Christie and Roald Dahl). They asked a few hundred participants to read the stories and rate how much they'd enjoyed them. Sometimes, the stories were in their original form; in other cases, they were either preceded by a paragraph which, in explaining the story, gave away the ending, or were edited so that the ending was obvious from the beginning of the story itself ("as though," the psychologists write, "the stories were intrinsically spoiled").

The results? The "intrinsically spoiled" stories weren't enjoyed any more or any less than the originals. But the explicitly spoiled stories -- the ones prefaced by a paragraph giving away the ending -- were rated as more enjoyable. This was true even for mystery stories, and for stories ending in "ironic twists" -- exactly the stories that you'd think would be most spoiled by spoilers.

Suspense, the researchers speculate, might be overrated (and may not even be that pleasurable); moreover, if you know the ending in advance, you can concentrate on appreciating a story's "aesthetic qualities." It's even possible, they write, that "spoilers enhance enjoyment by actually increasing tension. Knowing the ending of Oeidpus Rex may increase the pleasurable tension caused by the disparity in knowledge between the omniscient reader and the character marching to his doom."

These are, of course, some of the reasons we enjoy re-reading as much as we do. Really good stories have depths. They reveal themselves slowly, as they're revisited many times over a long period; the meaning of the story is in its inner patterns, not, necessarily, in its ending. (That's one reason why we keep reading the Bible, even though everybody knows how that ends.) If there's a lesson here -- other than, "Feel free and reveal the ending to your friends!" -- it's that re-reading is the opposite of a waste of time. The second time through really is an improvement upon the first.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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