Story Spoilers

Story SpoilersI prefer to know the plot of a story before I read it. There are a couple of reasons for this. On a visceral level, I don’t like uncertainty; I like to know where I’m going. More important, however, is that on a professional level, I’m pretty good at anticipating plots. So when I’m reading a novel for the first time, it is like a puzzle; I’m trying to figure it out—match wits with the author, so to speak. This has certain benefits. It makes me hyper aware of each thing the author does and why he does it. But it isn’t exactly fun and it stops me from losing myself in the story.

If I know the plot, I am better able to get inside the characters. I enjoy my time with them. And I’m able to evaluate the story on a broader scale. All of this may explain why I have never lost the child’s interest in watching the same film again and again. I do the same thing with short stories. I do it with parts of novels—I’ve read certain chapters of Don Quixote many, many times. But I don’t think I’ve ever read a whole novel more than twice; I don’t have the time or reading speed for that.

It turns out that I am not alone in this preference. Two scientists at the University of California, San Diego have published a paper in Psychological Science titled, Story Spoilers Don’t Spoil Stories.[1] Jonathan D. Leavitt and Nicholas J. S. Christenfeld write in their abstract:

[P]eople’s ability to reread stories with undiminished pleasure, and to read stories in which the genre strongly implies the ending, suggests that suspense regarding the outcome may not be critical to enjoyment and may even impair pleasure by distracting attention from a story’s relevant details and aesthetic qualities.

I would go further. Consider the following story:

A man wakes up late. He’s in a panic. He quickly dresses and goes to the kitchen where he finds his wife, in her dressing gown, leaning against the sink in the dark. He asks her why she didn’t wake him. She tells him they really need to talk. It unnerves him, but he has to get to work. He grabs some coffee and runs out the door. As he is unlocking his car, a truck comes around the corner, hitting and killing him.

I think that story has a surprising ending. The story implies some ominous confrontation between husband and wife that will hang over the day. But instead the guy is killed by a random occurrence. Surprising, boring, and completely lacking drama.

One of the hardest things about writing fiction is creating an ending that makes sense without being boring or obvious. But more and more, stories end satisfyingly rather than surprisingly. Consider the film The Sixth Sense. Most people find the ending of that film quite surprising. I know I did. And yet, if that were all it was, it wouldn’t have been good. I’ve seen it a half dozen times. What brought me back was the sadness of the film. The first time I watched it, I was focused on the boy. Every other time, I was focused on the husband and wife.[2]

Tim Parks wrote an excellent article in The New York Review of Books called Why Finish Books? In it, he makes the case that reading a book is a certain experience and when we’ve had enough of that experience we ought to stop. He further suggests that we get over our childish obsession with equating finishing a book with accomplishment.

I think this is excellent advice, even if I find it hard to follow. Friends of mine have told me how they skipped certain parts of novels—the technical chapters in Moby Dick, for example. And I’ve always been horrified. It seemed to me that I wasn’t reading the book if I skipped even a word. In hindsight, I was deifying the writers. As a writer now myself, I know how silly that is. Part of a story may seem boring to me because, well, it’s boring. Writers are not perfect, especially the great ones.

My current novel is fundamentally about a guy trying to figure out who killed his girlfriend. The plot is very much like the kinds of things Scott Turow writes. But I’ve been wondering why the book goes on a ways after we find out who the killer is. And I think I now know. I could write a plot summary in a couple of paragraphs, and you might find it clever—or not. But the ending would have no emotional impact, even though the ending is poignant; it would definitely make me cry. However, the only way it works is if you sit with the main character the whole way through and get to know him. The only way I know to trick you into doing that is to create a clever plot. But if you stopped reading the book halfway through, you would have gotten the experience that is most important: meeting my character.

Often novels annoy me. I want to know how they end, but the book doesn’t seem worth it. If the book is a blockbuster, I can turn to Wikipedia for a summary. Of course, this is useless for me, because I don’t read blockbusters. Wikipedia does not have summaries for the vast majority of novels, because, you know, most Wikipedia users don’t read novels other than the Harry Potter books. (But just look at all the summaries of movies!) So I slog through the book to find out how it all turns out, even when (Especially when!) I figure I already know.

Is that any way to appreciate a novel?


[1] I heard a couple of news stories about this late last year. It sounds like something I would hear on NPR or read in Ezra Klein’s WonkBlog. But I don’t know. There is a very easy video introduction from ABC News, but I didn’t get it from them.

[2] I am disinclined to reveal the ending, because it is fun to have that experience. However, knowing that there is a surprise ending is enough of a spoiler. And some people don’t even need that. My mother, a master of plot deconstruction, had it nailed within 5 minutes.

14 thoughts on “Story Spoilers

  1. I almost always read the last chapter long before I finish the rest of the book and when someone asks me why I can stand having it spoiled I point out “just because you know how it ends doesn’t mean you know how it got there.” It is about the journey to the end, not the end itself.

    • I’m not sure what I wrote, but there have been studies that show that people enjoy books more when they know what will happen. It’s like life. What’s the point of living when you know you’re going to die? I find knowing the plot allows me to concentrate on the craft and the characters. I don’t like stories to be like puzzles. And looks at kids: they love to heard the same story again and again — at least I did.

      • All I know is that my friends go ballistic when someone mentions what happens on The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones or whatever TV show/movie/book they care about.

        I roll my eyes at it but leave it for the most part alone or come up with some spoiler that would never actually happen.

        • Yeah, my sister got mad for telling her about character dying at the end of the 3rd season of Downton Abbey. Hey, the guy’s dead. It doesn’t matter.

            • I recently wrote a sidebar for an infographic on copyright. The sidebar was on fan fiction and different authors’ opinions of them. Martin wrote, “No one gets to abuse the people of Westeros but me.”

                • Mostly, I don’t think they care as long as they don’t see it. The biggest concern I saw was writers worried that fan fiction would mess up their writing process. But the woman who writes the Twilight books made a good point, although she’s fine with fan fiction. She said that the bad fan fiction shouldn’t be written. And the people writing good fan fiction should come up with their own stuff.

    • For me, folks, it depends on the seriousness of the story. If it’s writing with any attention to human emotions, then I don’t care if I know the ending first. If it’s pure junk silliness, “reveals” are probably all the material has going for it, so I don’t want to know them in advance.

      I’ll get my kid nerd out, here. When I was 14, and saw Star Trek IV, and the crew saved the Earth (of course), then expected to be assigned to a fancy-shmancy new spaceship . . . only to fly right over the fancy spaceship and see a brand-new “Enterprise” — oh, I cried my ass off. I bawled uncontrollably. Little surprises like that are fun for the kid inside us all.

      (Adult: so you weren’t going to build a retro spaceship until the “Trek” crew saved the Earth? What, did you put it together in a day? Don’t these things require a ton of planning and materials, even in a pseudo-socialist future? Wouldn’t the “Trek” crew have heard there was a retro spaceship being built for billions of futuristic dollars? Like, Uhura would have picked it up on subspace CNN or something?)

      14-year-old kid: “OMG it’s the Enterprise I’m so happy!”

      • You can keep some things secret even today by either hiding it in place sight or by just not talking about it. Also, it does bring up the question of entertainment/news in the Star Trek universe. How was this stuff shared?

        • Hopefully not by transporter beam — those things are very unreliable. “Klingons Greet Romulan Peace” could become “Klingons Eat Romulan Pieces.” Although it didn’t seem like the Federation ever needed much excuse to go guns-a-blazin’.

          • Well people need some action in Sci Fi, otherwise they will be just super duper bored with all the talking.

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