Friday, November 16, 2012

Shh! Don't Tell Me!

Discussion Topic: Spoilers

Last year I read about new research that suggests people actually enjoy a book more if they already know how it ends. This struck me with a strong, immediate reaction of "Not me!"

First: a little about the research. At UCSD, undergraduate students read stories assigned to them. Some read the stories as they’re originally written without spoilers, some with the spoiler carefully inserted within the story so it appears the author intended to give away the ending, and some with a spoiler preface. Afterward, the students rated their enjoyment of the story. The conclusion drawn is that people seem to enjoy the stories more with spoilers.

I’ll pause here to list some links to the articles on this subject as well as the UCSD webpage on the research:

However, I see a few potential flaws in this experiment and the final conclusion:

1. The sample pool seems much too small.  At least thirty students read each version of each story, but that still doesn't seem a large enough group to draw assumptions about a significantly larger human population.

2. It sounds like all the testers are undergraduate students at UCSD. That, too, is problematic. If anything, it proves something about that demographic, not people overall.

3. I also think the number of stories used is too small. In truth, I believe that this spoiler preference comes down to particular stories and we cannot make an easy generalization. There is certainly merit to the fact that some people prefer to just know the shocking revelation off the bat and find out how we reached that point. Yet there are other stories where that moment is so well handled that I would never want it ruined for me with prior knowledge. With only twelve stories, it's very possible the results only indicate a preference for spoilers regarding those stories, not all writing.

4. When the findings are displayed in a bar graph, the spoiled stories are rated higher, but by such a small fraction that it barely counts as significant.

My nitpicking aside, the research does have an element of truth that I can’t deny. In a few of my reviews I have either complained about or complimented the suspense of a book. It's a fine art: withholding information from the reader, as I discussed in my post about cliffhangers. I have certainly read books where I don't believe the author pulled off a twist and I wanted to know something from the start or at least earlier than it was revealed. Sometimes trying too hard for suspense only leads to stories that fixate more on shock factors than actual characters and emotions. Yet I've read books for which I would never trade my experience of not knowing.

Really, this all comes down to preference and perhaps those who like their stories spoiled do outnumber those who don't. I indeed know people who read the ending of a book before even starting so they can get that pesky suspense element out of the way. For me, though, when someone tells me too much about a book I usually don't bother to read it. The few times I have, I felt it wasn't worth the investment after already knowing what happens. I love the journey of discovery; it's such an important part about the magic of reading. Yet it's a fine balance. I also avoid books that are too mysterious. If I read the back of a book that doesn't really tell me anything, there's no way it's going to make it onto my lengthy to-read list with books that have given away an interesting part of the story in order to reel me in. As I've said, suspense/spoilers/cliffhangers/revelations - they’re all a fine art, which is why I admire the authors who can pull them off.

How about you? Do you hate to have the ending ruined? Or do you actually prefer it?

1 comment:

  1. I think you're right about the suspense. Sometimes if there's *too* much suspense, I want to skip to the end just to see if everyone lives, and then I'll happily go read to find out how that comes about. After all, with most romances you know the ending is "happily ever after" before you start reading; it's reading *how* that pulls you through it. On the other hand, if I know too much of the plot or twists beforehand, I don't feel any need to read it. Some spoilers are fine for me as long as the story is compelling, but there's a line there, too; it depends on what you're spoiling.