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TSS: Spoiler alert?

August 14, 2011

The Sunday Salon.comHappy Sunday, all!

There was a news report this past week about an article published in Psychological Science that suggests that spoilers actually improve the enjoyment of a story. You can read the Science Daily summary, or the full article (it’s not very long but you need institutional access or a subscription to the journal), but the gist is this: the researchers had subjects read a bunch of short stories, either unspoiled, or with a paragraph of spoiler text either as a preface, or inserted into the early part of the story. Participants who read the versions with the spoiler text ranked their subjective enjoyment of the stories slightly but significantly higher than those that got the unspoiled version.

I’m undecided as to whether or not I agree with these results (on a personal level, I mean; their science is fine.) I’m not an ardent spoiler-phobe; certainly not to the level of certain friends of mine who I have actually seen clap their hands over their ears and “lalalalalalaCAN’T HEAR YOU” to avoid even the most minor details about media they haven’t yet consumed. I absolutely have had the experience where knowing the ending of a book has increased my enjoyment of the reading experience: one of the joys of re-reading a book is being able to pick up on the clues and hints and foreshadowing that I missed the first time around. I’ve read plenty of mysteries in which I’ve figured out the answer long before the protagonist does, and I keep reading anyways, not only to find out whether I’m right, but also for the fun of seeing how the author gets from there to here.

On the anti-spoiler side of things, though, I also absolutely love the cases in which an author is able to pull off an excellent surprise, a twist that I didn’t see coming, but that makes me re-evaluate everything that has come before. I’m thinking of things like The Lace Reader, most of Brandon Sanderson’s books, Atonement, the first time you saw Ocean’s Eleven. It’s hard to do successfully, but there’s something about that jolt of clarity, and that shifting feeling of nothing being what you thought, that I love, and that would be taken away from me by knowing the twist ahead of time. So, I guess, go ahead and tell me who the killer really is, it’s fine to let me know that everyone dies, but I don’t want to hear word one about the big twist halfway through.

What say you, readers? Spoilers: Boo? Spoilers: Yay? Does it depend on the type of story… or the type of spoiler?

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20 Comments leave one →
  1. August 14, 2011 11:06 am

    I think it depends. For me, if it’s an introspective story, then spoilers about things that happen don’t matter that much, since it’s more about how characters react to things rather than what they do. But I usually seek out richly plotted stories, so I can’t stand major spoilers there. (I was spoiled for something in A Storm of Swords and I absolutely hated that, since it was a big reveal.)

    While I can’t find the article, io9 had something a year or so ago about how we no longer just walk into movies knowing the title, the genre, and nothing else—we usually know the premise, which sometimes covers up to half the film. And I just experienced that watching X2, of all movies; I didn’t know much about it, beyond the characters, and I really enjoyed not knowing what was going to happen next and honestly being shocked and surprised by it.

    So I guess I’m ultimately against spoilers—they never improve the experience for me, although they don’t always ruin it for me.

    • August 15, 2011 11:42 am

      Omni – I think there’s an interesting distinction to be drawn between spoilers and foreknowledge and expectations. I remember hearing several people get angry that the book jacket for HPatHBP revealed that Harry became Quidditch captain, and I have at least one friend who won’t watch the “Next week on…” teasers at the end of shows for fear of spoilers. Stuff like that, I don’t personally consider spoilers, since it’s not something that was supposed to be – as you say – a big reveal.

      But I also have been reading recently while trying to keep myself mostly blind to the premise – not starting with the book jackets, not reading online summaries, etc. My terribly leaky memory actually helps here: obviously at one point I thought a book was interesting enough to add it to my wishlist/TBR pile, but once it’s been there a while, I can pick it up and be surprised by the contents. It’s been an interesting experience.

  2. August 14, 2011 11:34 am

    I’ve always been quite anti spoiler myself. I love going in to a book knowing nothing about what is going to happen. If I know part of the plot I find myself waiting for it to happen rather than simply letting the story take me there.

    • August 15, 2011 11:44 am

      Amy – That’s an interesting point about getting caught up in the story; I’ve been spoiled for a death in one of the books on my TBR pile, and I don’t want that character to die, so I’ve been stalling on reading the book.

      • August 15, 2011 12:42 pm

        Yes and when you do read it you’ll just be waiting and waiting for it to happen too I bet. Or at least that is what happens with me. I always think oh NOW it’s going to happen. Nope. Oh NOW it’s going to happen. Not yet. And etc.

  3. August 14, 2011 2:38 pm

    I like to have an idea of what a book’s about, but I do not want to know major plot twists ahead of time.

    • August 15, 2011 11:45 am

      Kathy – I think it’s interesting that so many people are anti-spoiler… I wonder if the participants in the study would have classified themselves that way as well?

  4. August 14, 2011 6:46 pm

    I just read an article about that study this afternoon and was going to blog about it. I think whether or not I care about spoilers depends on the medium. I’ve been watching straight through TV shows lately, and I’ll often look ahead at episode and season summaries to see what is going to happen and it doesn’t bother me. I’m a little more careful about it with books, although I’m not a huge spoiler fanatic.

    • August 15, 2011 12:40 pm

      Kim – I’ve accidentally spoiled myself for some major TV developments (the end of S3 of Battlestar Galactica; most of what happens in the most recent season of Doctor Who), and I’ve still enjoyed watching how it unfolds. I wonder if that’s down to the difference in medium, or if it would be true for books as well, and I just accidentally spoil myself for TV more frequently?

  5. August 14, 2011 11:54 pm

    The fact that GRRM and Sanderson are two of my favorite authors should tell you that I love a good plot twist. It does make a book a very enjoyable re-read, but nothing beats that initial shock. Or if you suspect you know what’s coming and find out you’re right, you feel like a genius! I don’t mind minor spoilers, but definitely try to avoid major ones.

    • August 15, 2011 12:42 pm

      Laura – Good points! I love the initial shock but I also like feeling like a genius; I recently accidentally spoiled myself for something major coming up in A Dance With Dragons, but since it was something I’d suspected anyways, I didn’t particularly mind. :-)

  6. August 15, 2011 12:49 pm

    I wonder what books the participants in the study were asked to read. There’s a difference in reading, say, a classic in which one knows the plot almost from the outset, simply through cultural osmosis, and a brand new book which is an eagerly anticipated sequel.

    I think that spoilers do one out of the feeling of cleverness when we pick up on nuances in the text and deduce what might happen next. If someone tells you about that massive plot twist, you’re looking for its foreshadowing from the start. It also depends, I think, on how attentive a reader you are: less attentive readers probably appreciate spoilers more than very attentive readers.

    • August 15, 2011 1:01 pm

      Ela – It was short stories (the only one I’ve read was “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”), and they asked whether participants were familiar with the stories ahead of time, and disregarded the ratings from those that were. But I think you make a good point that you can’t really spoil the end of something like Jane Eyre any more.

      I’m probably a moderately attentive reader: I figure out what’s coming up a fair amount of the time but I know that when I re-read stuff, I’m always struck by how much I totally missed on the first pass.

      • August 15, 2011 4:49 pm

        Perhaps not Jane Eyre but I’ve had three classics spoiled for me. (I don’t want to say which ones, because then anyone else who hasn’t read them might start looking for the big spoilery event ahead of time.)

        In one case I was reading a Victorian classic, 500 pages plus, filmed by BBC a couple of times, and I mentioned the setting of the story to a reading friend who said “You know they both die in the end, right”, certain that I did, in fact, already know that (but I didn’t, obviously, so enter one scarred, spoiler-phobic reader, who still managed to have the same thing happen on two other occasions with two other books).

        You can jot my name in the no-spoilers-please column. :)

      • August 16, 2011 8:48 am

        BiP – Psst: The Titanic sinks. :-D

  7. August 15, 2011 10:41 pm

    Ha HA! SCIENCE. Backs up MY VIEWPOINT. HA. (As you can imagine I was well excited to see this result even though it didn’t surprise me at all.)

    One (semi-) exception for me is that I love it when an author surprises me by making it suddenly clear that I shouldn’t be trusting the apparent facts as much as I have been. I just read a book that did this (A Dark-Adapted Eye), and I thought it was great, and one of my favorite things about White Is for Witching was the moment when it did the exact same thing. It’s fun to be reminded that I’m at the author’s mercy. :)

    • August 16, 2011 8:53 am

      Jenny – I definitely thought of you as soon as I read this study! I’m not to the point yet of reading the end of a book first, but I’m becoming less anti-spoiler than I used to be, for sure.

      I think your “I shouldn’t be trusting the apparent facts as much as I have been” is analogous to my “a twist that I didn’t see coming, but that makes me re-evaluate everything that has come before,” which makes me think that I really need to check out those two books you mentioned. :) Although I may have to let them sit for long enough that I forget that there’s a twist coming at all… although on the other hand, books that are good enough to suck me in and make me forget about the twist I know is coming are extra-super-awesome.

      • August 17, 2011 6:40 pm

        Well, so, it’s not the twist I like — a twist can be fine but quite often irritates the hell out of me — as much as it is the removal of certainty that what the book implies is actually what happened. I just was reading an interview with Tom Stoppard where he said “Life doesn’t guarantee us a denouement, and why should you believe the ones you’re given in the theatre?” I like it when books make this point.

  8. August 17, 2011 8:40 pm

    HATE spoilers :P

    except I always spoil people by accident.

    But yes, it is nice to have that little extra surprise at the end! But only if its a nice surprise. If it’s a bad surprise I wouldn’t mind to be spoiled so I can be prepared….haha

  9. August 31, 2011 7:58 pm

    I hate surprises. It happens enough in real life. Give me spoilers or don’t expect me to watch/read.

    I’ve been known to not watch season finales or the first few episodes of the new season/whole books until I know what’s going on.

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