August 16, 2011

Spoilers Are Good for You!

All right, well, maybe not "good," but not nearly as bad as some people make them out to be.

A couple of years ago, over on the old blog, I took aim at people who bitch and complain about "spoilers," information that discloses crucial plot twists or endings of movies, TV shows, or books.  As I said at the time:
if the only thing that moves you about a movie or TV show is the mechanics of the plot, you're pretty much beyond hope.
Or maybe it says more about what you're watching/reading.  But, honestly, if this is your impression of Citizen Kane once you know the big secret:

I'm afraid I can't help you.

But not to fear! New research from UC San Diego shows that the presence of spoilers doesn't really impact a reader's enjoyment of a particular story.  Researchers took several short stories with "twist" kind of endings and had some people read the original and others read a version with spoilers in the introductory paragraph.  The results:
Subjects significantly preferred the spoiled versions of ironic-twist stories, where, for example, it was revealed before reading that a condemned man’s daring escape is all a fantasy before the noose snaps tight around his neck.

The same held true for mysteries. Knowing ahead of time that Poirot will discover that the apparent target of attempted murder is, in fact, the perpetrator not only didn’t hurt enjoyment of the story but actually improved it.

Subjects liked the literary, evocative stories least overall, but still preferred the spoiled versions over the unspoiled ones.
A brief aside as the genre writer in my notes that even when they know the ending, people still don't like the high-brow stuff as much. Ha!

Why, exactly, would people prefer the spoiled stories?  That's beyond the reach off the study itself, but one researcher speculates that:
'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,' he said.
I wouldn't go quite that far.  Plot surely isn't nearly irrelevant, but perhaps the brutal outline of the story - the Joe Friday version, if you will - is.  It's really only an excuse to get characters moving, talking, and thinking about things.  In other words, coming up with a story isn't the hard part.  Telling it is.


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