The Unapologetic Geek

(Open Salon Version)

E. Magill

E. Magill
United States
November 05
E. Magill is an award-winning, though bitterly unpublished, science-fiction novelist, futurist, and entertainment junkie. Learn more about him at



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AUGUST 23, 2011 3:22PM

The Science of Spoilers: Knowing the End Won't Ruin a Story

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My mother loves mysteries. Her nighttime companions are the likes of James Patterson, Clive Cussler, Robert Ludlum, Jeffery Deaver, Jack Higgins, and Catherine Coulter, all of whom she tends to read while simultaneously watching reruns of CSI and Criminal Minds. Her favorite cartoon is Scooby Doo; she educated me to love Hitchcock and Poirot; she married a certified member of the Baker Street Irregulars; and God help you if she senses there might be something wrong with you and you won't tell her what it is. As a professional medical diagnostician, she relishes in solving puzzles and is remarkably good at doing it. My brother took her to see The Sixth Sense when it was still in theaters and was dumbfounded when she saw right through the narrative twist within the movie's first five minutes. This is why it has always surprised me--from the time I was barely able to read--when she frequently turns to the last page of a mystery novel before getting very far into it.


My mother, give or take a few details

Science, it seems, has finally given me an answer to this strange phenomenon. A study to be published in Psychological Science suggests that spoilers don't spoil stories and that knowing how a story will end can even increase the enjoyment people get from it. At UC San Diego's psychology department, Jonathan Leavitt and Nicholas Christenfeld conducted three experiments in which they made students read several classic stories that rely on ironic twists or tense mystery. Sometimes, the stories were presented completely as-is, and at other times, they were preceded by an explanatory paragraph that revealed (albeit subtly) the twist or solution. When surveyed after reading the stories, those who were spoiled reported having more enjoyment from the experience than those who were not spoiled.

Though the study itself doesn't offer any reasons for the results, it hasn't stopped Leavitt and Christenfeld from offering their opinions. Christenfeld, a professor of social psychology, argues, "Plots are just excuses for great writing. What the plot is is almost irrelevant. The pleasure is in the writing." Leavitt, a psychology doctorate student, says, "It could be that once you know how [a story] turns out, it's cognitively easier--you're more comfortable processing the information--and can focus on a deeper understanding of the story." The pair conclude their paper with the thought that "intuitions about suspense may be...wrong."

This jives with my mother's many explanations for prematurely flipping to the last page of a novel she's never read before. It's not that she's impatient, but she relishes being able to appreciate the clues, macguffins, and red herrings for what they are, something that isn't always possible when you don't know the solution. She claims that doing this has made her better at intuiting solutions to other mysteries, both real and fictional. Not only can she school me, a fiction writer, on the ins and outs of narrative trickery, but she is a better diagnostician for it, because she can more easily recognize whether a medical symptom is a valuable clue or an irrelevant oddity. It's easy to dismiss this as her own arrogance, until you get sick. Besides, nobody who knows my mother would ever describe her as arrogant.

Luke just learned something impossible

He wouldn't have freaked out if he'd checked the Internet before heading to Bespin

As a side note, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that she doesn't always turn to the last page of every book she reads. In fact, I haven't seen her do it in years, and she tells me she only does it nowadays when she is forced to put a book down and knows she won't be able to get back to it quickly.

Of course, my mother's not the only person in the world who does this. There are tons of people out there who don't mind getting spoiled. The hordes of people sharing spoilers online should be evidence enough that they are popular among a certain segment of the populace, but the people out there who scream bloody murder when they come across a spoiler without the requisite warning show that there are people out there who mind. I tend to think of myself as one of them.

When ABC's Lost was on the air, for example, I had a love/hate relationship with the Internet. Lost, more than any other television show, had (and still has) an enormous online fanbase, replete with many forums, podcast channels, and incredibly detailed wiki sites (I challenge you to find another television show with a wiki as thorough as Lostpedia). One of my favorite Lost podcasts, The Transmission, involves an endearing couple, Ryan and Jen, who live in Hawaii. When the show was still filming, they devoted a section of each podcast ("The Forward Cabin") to reports around Hawaii of the cast and crew during production. These reports, naturally, were loaded with spoilers. Since Lost thrives on mystery and confusion, you'd imagine that these spoilers would ruin the show for anybody who listened to them, and yet, people continued to listen to them.

John Locke

Some people never get to see how it ends

There were times during the show's run when I didn't avoid spoilers. I was not surprised, for example, when Ana Lucia shot Shannon during the show's second season. (Should I have given a spoiler warning?) However, there were other times where I ran screaming from spoilers, my fingers in my ears while I chanted "lalalala" at the top of my lungs. None of the show's biggest twists--the season enders--were ever spoiled for me. Looking back on it, I can't honestly say which method was better, though if you asked me at the time, I would have told you that spoilers are the embodiment of evil.

In the light of this study, I've thought back to some of my favorite classic films, like Psycho, Soylent Green, and The Planet of the Apes. In my estimation, these are some of the greatest films ever made, and I would gladly pop any of them in my DVD player right now to watch them for the hundredth time. What's more, I know that, when I saw them for the first time, I had been spoiled. (The big twist to The Planet of the Apes is on the DVD cover, for crying out loud.) Did knowing the rather surprising twists in these films affect my enjoyment of them? The evidence seems to point to no.

Then again, I think of slightly more recent twisty films, like Fight Club, The Usual Suspects, or Seven. In these cases, I was thrilled that I didn't see the twists coming. While watching Fight Club and The Usual Suspects, I didn't even realize I was supposed to be expecting a twist. I love the feeling of being surprised by a story, and not knowing where these movies were going had an impact on my first impression of them. Still, what's the first thing you want to do when you watch a movie like that? To quote Lost's John Locke, "We're gonna need to watch that again." The second time is better than the first, because when you know what to look for, you catch all those things you didn't notice the first time around.

Kevin Spacey in American Beauty

Half of all spoilers involve Kevin Spacey; there is only one solution

This is also how people can watch the same movie (or procedural television show) over and over again, or how they can watch a movie like Titanic when they know how it's going to end. It's counter to what we like to think about the nature of suspense and mystery, but it makes sense. Though I've never read the last page first, I've read many a novel that begins with a flashforward to the climax. There are many great movies that do it too, like American Beauty, in which the narrator tells you right at the beginning that the story is going to end with his death.

I would not try to argue against spoiler warnings (that would be suicidal on the Internet these days), but it might behoove all of us to relax a little, to not stress so much about it. This study has given me a lot to think about, but it hasn't changed my desire to experience a fresh plot twist the way the writer wants me to experience it. Though I won't be turning to the last page of a mystery novel any time soon, I can better appreciate why my mother does it. She, like most of us, doesn't have the time or energy to read the same book multiple times, and if she knows she can only experience a story once, she wants to maximize her enjoyment of it by knowing where it will ultimately go. Perhaps there's nothing wrong with that, after all.

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I hate spoilers but love your essay. Nice job!
My wife hardly buys a book before turning to the last page or two to see how it ends. I find it oddly ironic. That said, she says she does it, because if the end is good, then the rest of the book should be as well.

I never cheat and look at how it ends. If I want a sample of the writing, I will randomly open a page somewhere between 30 and 300 and just read a couple of paragraphs. If it doesn't hook me the first time, I try again. I go up to three random checks.

I do like well written books and well filmed movies. I can't tell you how many times I've seen Soylent Green, Outland, Highlander (there are major illogical inconsistencies in all those movies, but they are filmed well) and many others, with my current favorite still being the Matrix, followed by The 5th Element and the 13th Floor.

In the same way my third and last read through of the Lord of Rings were more enjoyable in many ways than the first, rewatching the movies allows me to make more connections to other things. I can see where folks might get that out of reading the end and then reading the story, or knowing what's going to happen.

For me, though, that's what watching it or reading it again is all about. The first time through is the exploration of the story as a new pair of eyes and a new (hopefully) experience.

very witty and well written
I look at the end of books before I start reading them. I look stories and movies up on Wikipedia before reading or watching them. I want to know how it ends. To some degree that tells me whether watching the story play out will be worth my time or trouble. Even for television shows, I'll watch it online after it has aired and look up the recap so I'll know what happens before I watch it. I always look for spoilers.

I always want to know. I hate, or at least dislike, almost all surprises, and people who find charm in surprise are people I don't understand at all.
I don’t mind spoilers in fiction at all. Like you said, it’s about the writing. Movie spoilers come in the trailers, themselves now. But, what I do hate are sports score spoilers. I record many of my favorite teams (usually soccer), to watch when convenient. If I come across the score before I watch, I won’t watch the recording. They are so hard to avoid, though.

Loved this piece. Thanks!
Terrific article, E. and congrats on the cover!
I’ll throw my hat in with the “no spoilers” gang although I too know others who prefer to know outcomes in advance. I do not get it but, hey, we’re all different. And while I love to re-watch films and shows or re-read books I have loved, where I will of course know the ending, I still want that first unfettered, completely experiential exposure to the piece. At home here, we’re now watching a BBC series from the 70s and, in doing some research on a character, I ended up on a Wiki page that had huge spoilers, without any warnings, about the conclusion of the series in the first few sentences. I stopped reading then and there but I do feel cheated to some extent.
I hate surprises. I don't know if it's because I like having control of a situation so I prefer to know the outcome, or if the suspense causes my heart condition to worsen. I'm going to say both. But I rarely watch a movie without dragging the ending out of someone beforehand. Books, I am like your mother once was. If it's too suspenseful, I'll flip to the back. If it's a terrible ending, sometimes I won't even finish. Horrible, I know.
Fascinating article EM and since I watch my favorites multiple times, I can understand how the spoiler effect isn't so bad as reputed. And while my Agatha Christie crush is in the past, I'm very glad no one spoiled The Murder of Roger Ackroyd for me.
I don't mind spoilers, either. It is never about plot for me, it is about how the story is told.
Thanks everybody for your comments and ratings! It's nice to see a wide range of opinions on the matter. As for me, I downplayed it in the actual article, but I do have a pretty serious dislike for spoilers and try to avoid them as much as possible. What interests me is what this study has to say about storytelling itself, and at the end of the day, how well I enjoy my first, unspoiled trek through a story doesn't ultimately affect the greatness of the narrative.
I belong to the creed of spoiler lovers. For the same reasons that you outline. I like to make sense of the story threads as I go along and as you pointed out Imay not always get a chance to rearead a book .
hmmmm.... interesting to see how articles evolve (as we all love stories). From huffington post piece, I stumbled upon similar article linked on Aol dated Aug. 23, "The Spoiler Paradox" siting U of C study posted on your link, from press release on the original Leavitt and Christenfield study . etc. etc. Case in point, knowing the ending first, didn't spoil the quality of your essay. You added your own plot twists.
Your piece and many of the comments posted here add to the fact that it is the telling and not message that is often the important piece. To borrow from another cliche -- it is the journey and not the destination that we look for.

Good writing and good filmmaking give us enjoyment regardles of where we will end up at the end of the tale.
It's partly because people are so capable of processing things in a way that is non-linear. The end isn't really and end, it doesn't tell you all you need to know. That's the reason filmmakers like Tarantino and many novelists break up chronology. That allows them to place events where they'll have the most significance based on what the reader or viewer knows at that point.
In life, we sometimes go back to something we'd learned years ago, and based on what we now know, it has more significance.
I am a former tv writer, so I thrive on trying to second guess what's happening and, of course, projecting how I would connect the dots to get us there. It's an assignment for me. And I often come up with better plot points, LOL! But alas, it infuriates my husband when I blurt out, "I bet such-n-such happens." And it does...
That's really interesting, and makes a lot of sense. It would also be why prequels can be really good.