Because researchers are committed to spoiling any and all manifestations of fun, new research has come to light suggesting that knowing how a story ends may not actually damage our enjoyment of it. One of three versions of several short stories, (two with a paragraph that revealed essential plot details and a third unaltered version) were given to the participants. The results showed that people who had had the story spoilt for them rated the stories higher.
So not only are spoilers apparently not harmful, they’re actually better for your enjoyment? This is precisely the opposite of what most people feel about hearing plot details before they’re revealed to them. Drop a spoiler in polite conversation and you expect to see someone boil with rage and hit you square in the chin. They’ll at least put two hands over their ears and drown out your spiteful words with an enthusiastic chorus of ‘La-La-La-La’s. So, is there something to this, or are these researchers simply too used to spoiling their conclusions because they’re forced to write abstracts ?
Why Spoilers May Not Ruin Experiences
A close friend of mine is immune to spoilers. Quite how she manages this is beyond me: personally, knowing exactly where a plot is heading ruins the fun. Reading a list of spoilers in preparation for this article would have been like having my parents tell me the contents of each and every present under the tree, if I hadn’t already heard most of them elsewhere. That in itself is significant: spoilers do have a certain pull to them. But so do black holes. And when I’ve read about a twist, my interest in a plot becomes inevitably stretched.
The argument in the research is that the brain finds it easier to process stories when you know what they’re building towards, and it’s certainly true that revisiting something you’ve learnt the conclusion can be a rewarding experience in itself. The Sixth Sense is a fantastic example of this, as you can see how the script works around the facts established at its conclusion. Information concealed from the audience can sometimes be central to understanding a character’s motivations, making it difficult to empathise with them.
So there is definitely a case for self-spoiling to bring your audience up to speed. In fact, some of my favourite shows and movies are self-spoilers. An observant geek can see Leela’s parents in Futurama two seasons before their identity is revealed. And the affecting animated wartime drama Grave of the Fireflies opens with the words ‘September 21, 1945… that was the night I died.’ The former would have been irritating if it were more obvious, but very few people ever figured this out ahead of time. The later is enhanced by the revelation: the tone of the film is sufficiently tragic that the death of its protagonists were certain from the beginning, so why continue to patronise the audience? And then there’s the fact that you can only once see something for the first time. All those people who obsess over Star Wars movies seem to do pretty well out of revisiting the films periodically.
Why They Probably Do
To me though, spoilers are more often than not completely unwelcome. In the UK, our soaps (Coronation Street, Eastenders et al) are infamously spoilt by their publicity departments. Gossip magazines here often contain the play by play of the week’s forthcoming plot and photographs teasing big story events (particularly around the Christmas/New Year misery corridor when viewing numbers are highest) are printed in the tabloids.
But whilst this proves that many live with spoilers comfortably, soap operas are hardly ambassadors for intelligent entertainment. Soap operas fill similar needs to reality shows: they’re enjoyable through their inevitability and familiarity. To assume that viewers who don’t read Emmerdale spoilers don’t know exactly what is going to happen ahead of time would be false.
Another example: the entire Star Wars prequel trilogy. Yes, the trilogy had multiple problems, but it seems to me that the biggest problem with them was that we never really wanted everything shown on screen. Everything from the Galactic council, to the force and, of course, Anakin Skywalker’s fall from grace was played it exactly as we knew it would be. Worse still, if you watch the Star Wars films chronologically, the mystery surrounding Darth Vader’s identity simply doesn’t exist. Though, let’s be honest, it’s pretty hard to go into watching The Empire Strikes Back not knowing that particular nugget of information!
Concealing some piece of information from your audience can be a clever technique. In many cases, it’s a twist on which the whole interest of the work depends on. The researcher’s findings are interesting, but I doubt they’d stand up to the mob-rage that most of us are capable of when someone gives away the ending. What do you think?
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