Do spoilers really spoil the story?

I was intrigued to discover that researchers at the University of California–San Diego had studied this idea from a scientific/psychological perspective.  Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt ran experiments with twelve classic short stories, including mystery, ironic-twist, and literary stories.  The stories were presented in three ways: as-is (without a spoiler), prefaced with a spoiler paragraph, or with that same paragraph incorporated directly into the story.  “Subjects significantly preferred the spoiled versions” (Kiderra, “Spoiler Alert: Stories Are Not Spoiled by ‘Spoilers’”), although when the spoilers were incorporated into the story, they weren’t received as well as the stories prefaced by the spoilers. 

Although “the researchers are careful to note that they do not have a new recipe for writers to follow” (Kiderra, “Spoiler Alert: Stories Are Not Spoiled by ‘Spoilers’”), I think there is much to be learned from this study.  Christenfeld boldly states, “Plots are just excuses for great writing.  What the plot is is (almost) irrelevant.  The pleasure is in the writing” (Kiderra, “Spoiler Alert: Stories Are Not Spoiled by ‘Spoilers’”).  Another further article regarding this study states:

Perhaps, [Christenfeld] said, people enjoy a good story as much as a good twist at the end. Even if they know how it comes out, they’ll enjoy the journey as much as the destination.

“Writers use their artistry to make stories interesting, to engage readers, and to surprise them,” Leavitt and Christenfeld said in their paper, to be published in the journal Psychological Science (Potter, “Spoiler Alert: Stories Not Ruined If Ending Revealed”).

Leavitt and Christenfeld, though not writers themselves, are onto something, and Death, the narrator of The Book Thief,  explains this very well:

Of course, I’m being rude.  I’m spoiling the ending, not only of the entire book, but of this particular piece of it.  I have given you two events in advance, because I don’t have much interest in building mystery.  Mystery bores me.  It chores me.  I know what happens and so do you.  It’s the machinations that wheel us there that aggravate, perplex, interest, and astound me.

There are many things to think of.

There is much story (243).

And this, I believe, is the crux of the matter.  Readers—voracious readers who truly love story itself—want to know those “machinations that wheel us there.”  Readers want the details.  Death/Zusak is right.  There are many things to think of.  There is much story.

book thief2

Works Cited

Kiderra, Inga. “Spoiler Alert: Stories Are Not Spoiled by ‘Spoilers.'” UCSanDiego News Center, 10 Aug. 2011. Web. 07 Feb. 2013.

Potter, Ned. “Spoiler Alert: Stories Not Ruined If Ending Revealed.” ABC News. ABC News Network, 12 Aug. 2011. Web. 07 Feb. 2013.

Zusak, Markus. The Book Thief. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. Print.


6 thoughts on “Do spoilers really spoil the story?

  1. Interesting but I think – like so much to do with writing/reading – that this is a very subjective issue. Personally, I’d much prefer to avoid any spoilers. I know some people who will look at the last page of a book to decide if they will enjoy it. To me, though, that would seriously undermine the whole purpose/process of reading the novel.
    There are stories, like ‘The Book Thief’, where the spoiler is built into the story but can you imagine this working with a crime novel? It would be like (to use a film example) someone telling you the twist in ‘Sixth Sense’ before you watch.
    If foreknowledge is important – and it can be part of the hook to make someone discover ‘why’ – then fine. Otherwise, keep it spoiler free if you want me to read your stories!

    • For the most part, I agree with you! I have been looking into this concept a bit though because I think I’m going to reveal the “secret” of my novel in the early pages … if I can pull it off!!!

  2. I’d have to say that in most cases I wouldn’t want to read the spoiler. It’s that big twist at the end that leaves you gasping and desperate for the next book that keeps me going with a series. For example, I have read both books in Cassandra Clare’s Infernal devices trilogy (Clockwork Angel, Clockwork Prince.) Clare has told the fans that a main character is going to die in the last book, I think knowing who was going to die before reading it would spoil the experience of breathing in every word, waiting to uncover it for myself.

  3. This is interesting – I have ALWAYS been okay with spoilers – they don’t spoil my enjoyment of the story at all. Sometimes, they even enhance it! I think this is why I can still enjoy re-reading mystery novels. The ending is just that – the end. The interesting part to me is how it came about.

    • That is so fascinating, Anna! I don’t usually like to hear a spoiler before the first time I read the book, but I re-read like nobody’s business, and the story isn’t ruined for me after I know the ending. I am thinking about this idea because I’m thinking about letting people into the “secret” of my novel in the early pages.

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