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Are Spoilers Misnamed?

Giving away surprises, surprisingly, makes readers like stories better

smithsonian.com

cat reading a book

Do you ever peek at the end of a book? (courtesy of flickr user Documentally)

Do you hate it when someone tells you the ending of a book you haven’t read? Do you get angry at reviewers who give away too many plot points? Does the existence of “spoiler alerts” set your hackles up because you think spoilers shouldn’t even exist? Well, it seems you might be missing out—spoilers may enhance story enjoyment, according to a new study from Psychological Science.

Two researchers at the University of California, San Diego set up an experiment in which undergraduate students read classic short stories presented in one of three ways: by itself, with a separate spoiler paragraph, or with that same paragraph incorporated into the beginning of the story. They were then asked to rate their enjoyment of the story on a scale from 1 t0 10. The 12 stories fell into three types: ironic twist, such as “The Bet” by Anton Chekhov; mystery, such as “A Chess Problem” by Agatha Christie; and literary, such as “The Calm” by William Butler.

Each story type and each story were rated higher when presented with the spoiler paragraph. The scientists write:

Writers use their artistry to make stories interesting, to engage readers, and to surprise them. But giving away these surprises makes readers like stories better. This was true whether the spoiler revealed the twist at the end—that the condemned man’s daring escape was just a fantasy before the rope snapped taut around his neck—or solved the crime—that Poirot will discover that the apparent target of attempted murder is in fact the perpetrator.

The researchers suggest that knowing what will happen helps the reader (or viewer) concentrate on other bits of the storytelling. “So it could be 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,” says study co-author Jonathan Leavitt.

However, this study does not indicate that writers should be giving away all their secrets in the first lines. When the spoiler paragraph was presented as part of the story, there was no additional benefit to reader enjoyment.

The researchers conclude:

Erroneous intuitions about the nature of spoilers may persist because individual readers are unable to compare between spoiled and unspoiled experiences of a novel story. Other intuitions about suspense may be similarly wrong, and perhaps birthday presents are better wrapped in transparent cellophane, and engagement rings not concealed in chocolate mousse.

Perhaps not. But considering all the joy people (including myself) get from rereading and rewatching stories over and over again, maybe we shouldn’t worry so much about ruining our pleasure when we come across spoilers.

(HT: io9)

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About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for Smithsonian.com and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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