Spoiler Alert - Is surprise overrated?

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Spoiler Alert - Is surprise overrated?


ABC New wrote:


This story -- spoiler alert! -- has a happy ending. If it were a suspense novel, would knowing that make you enjoy it less? To their surprise, psychology researchers found that people actually rated stories higher if they knew how they came out.

Whoa -- can ruining the surprise make a story more enjoyable? That's what Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt found, and Christenfeld says he was at first stumped. Leavitt is getting his doctorate in psychology at the University of California at San Diego, and Christenfeld is a professor there.

"I was surprised by the finding," Christenfeld said. "I've spent my life not looking at the end of a book." He and Leavitt had 300 volunteers read 12 short stories, including mysteries or tales with surprise endings by the likes of Agatha Christie, John Updike and Anton Chekov, and rated them on a scale of 1 to 10. Almost without fail, and by sizeable margins, the readers rated them more highly if the researchers inserted copy near the beginning, giving away how the tales would come out.

"You get this significant reverse-spoiler effect," Christenfeld said in an interview with ABC News. "It's sort of as if knowing things puts you in a position that gives you certain advantages to understand the plot."

The researchers say their study did not give direct evidence to explain why people didn't mind having a surprise spoiled, but Christenfeld said he's thought about it and has some ideas. Perhaps, he 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. "But giving away these surprises makes readers like stories better. This was true whether the spoiler revealed a twist at the end -- that the condemned man's daring escape was just a fantasy before the rope snapped taut around his neck -- or solved the crime -- that Poirot will discover that the apparent target of attempted murder is in fact the perpetrator."

So -- spoiler alert! -- stand forewarned that at the end of "Hamlet," the young prince says, "I am dead, Horatio." Or, if you prefer a slightly different genre -- skip this paragraph if you don't know! -- Harry Potter is still alive at the end of the series.

People have heard by now. Nevertheless, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2" has been the biggest movie of the summer so far. And "Hamlet" (the play, if not the prince) is, well, immortal.

"In Shakespeare's plays there's no hiding the ending," said Christenfeld. "When you start 'Hamlet,' you know it's a tragedy."

The researchers say they're thinking about follow-up studies, though a controlled test of responses to films is more difficult than one involving short stories. But they've come away believing that surprise may be overrated.





I agree with those in the study who prefer to know how a story will end beforehand. I find it more pleasurable when I know and can focus on the journey seeing how clever the author was to get us there. There are rare times  I am glad I didn't know such as the Sixth Sense. The ending was just too significant to the story line. And you know I really don't have a desire to see it again. But there are a number of movies I watch over and over even though I know what is going to happen. It just gives me pleasure. So for me I don't have a problem knowing the end 99.99% of the time. My wife disagrees and says it ruins it for her.

However, I am guessing most people are like me, which the study backs up. I think this is why so many people are drawn to religion. "Knowing" how it will turn out in the end reduces stress. Becoming an atheist and also accepting religion I found hard, because they don't have a tidy little ending to rap things up. So, if my premise here is right then it shows that religion ain't going away anytime soon because our species loves to know the end of the story and for the religious even if it is wrong. They think they know were its going which provides a sense of security and arrogance.

So, do you mind knowing how a story will turn out beforehand?



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ex-minister wrote: So, do

ex-minister wrote:


So, do you mind knowing how a story will turn out beforehand? 



Seriously, for 99.9% of current movies being made, are there really any surprises anyway? I would love to watch a movie and actually wonder if there is a chance that the protagonist is going to die, but even in the horror genre which kills most of the cast, you can usually figure out in the first 10 minutes which character(s) are going to survive in the end. The story lines have become so predictable and the idea that the main protagonist might die is virtually taboo yet filmmakers go through great effort to convince us that there is real danger to them. For some reason they seem to think that the audience can't handle the death of a beloved protagonist.


Then, there are those movies that create such an absurd twist at the end in an attempt to surprise the audience that it doesn't fit with the rest of the movie. A good surprise should be something that is predictable as a possibility, not something from left field that doesn't really make sense. A few of those I wish I knew how they ended so I could have saved a couple hours of my life. 


For books, there are a few more that have true surprises and I really enjoy them. I think a good surprise that fits the story can make up for a lack of skill in storytelling. Although, a very well written story is good even if you are reading it a second or third time, so while a surprise might be nice, I don't think it is necessary. 

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I am the opposite. I won't

I am the opposite. I won't read the novel or watch the movie if I know how it ends before viewing the material for the first time. Turns me off. Makes it far too easy to predict the entire story as it happens, which I'm far too good at as it is.
And while I may re-read a book or watch a movie more than once, it was never as enjoyable the second time as the first.

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First of all: The Usual

First of all:

The Usual Suspects. Nope. Was awesome not knowing. Yes, I thoroughly enjoy watching it again, but precisely because it was such an awesome surprise the first time around.

Fight Club. I'm so glad I had no clue what was happening until the first moment Jack starts to get a clue himself. Loved that movie. Also! The fucking end was fucking awesome! BOOM! Pixies. Woot.

The Crying Game. Never would have watched it if I knew the ending. Didn't really like it, overall (except for some of the acting performances), but the surprise was a big surprise. BTW: It's a guy. Now you'll never watch it. Oops, forgot the spoiler alert.

So, no, I don't agree with the researchers.

Second of all:

To paraphrase Inigo Montoya: I don't think their study shows what they think it shows.

They asked people to rate the stories in two ways.

One: They prime the reader by giving away the ending. Reader learns an interesting tidbit about the story. They read the story. Oh, yeah! See, it ended just the way they said it would. Neat story.

Two: They don't say anything, just "Read the story." Oh, okay. Great. I gotta read this whole thing? This is giving me nasty flashbacks to boring English class. Ugh. When will this end.... There! I fucking finished your stupid story, you fucking asshole. Can I go now? Oh! Now you want me to rate the fucking thing too, eh? ZERO! FUCKING ZERO!

So, yeah, not exactly a balanced comparison. If you don't know what you're supposed to be rating the story on, you'll be doubtful, potentially irritated by boredom (I would be), and give a more tentative, lower or middling score. If you have something to look forward to, a little carrot dangling from a stick, and you suddenly get rewarded with said carrot at the end of the story, sure, you're going to rate it middling or higher.

But what if they had given some other little tidbit for each story instead of the give-away ending? Say, "This was Agatha Christie's favourite story, which she wrote for her dying aunt who had raised her after her parents died in a horrible fire." Yeah, something tells me the sentimentals would rate that story a bit higher than average, too.

I've got a better experiment. Survey 300 people who are already reading a mystery or twist-ending novel for their own personal enjoyment (not because some researcher asked them to), and then for half of them, give away the ending, and see if they don't punch you in the nose. Fucking jerks. BTW: Seriously, it's a fucking guy! Not that there's anything wrong with that, but nevertheless, it's a guy.

Ya know, I've always hated English class. I love reading, and occasionally writing, and story-telling, and metaphor, and all that jazz. But don't tell me what fucking book to read, and don't ask me, "What was the significance of the bird on the stove-top, in your own words? (Use the three-paragraph essay form) 4 marks". Fuck that shit!

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A bit off topic, but a good

A bit off topic, but a good movie I have seen recently which didn't suck, Black Swan.  Worth watching.  As for the giving away the ending thing... there is often more to a story then arriving to the ending.  I find myself often skipping over parts of the book or at the very least skimming passages without any in depth understanding if the book is too intriguing.  On the other hand, if the book is well written, I will enjoy getting to the end more than the ending itself.  A good book is all about the journey to the ending, a mediocre book is all about setting up for the conclusion in my opinion.


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Give me a great story,

Give me a great story, kooky/fascinating characters, and I don't care if I guess the plot or not.  If I get involved with the characters or settings (the new Sherlock Holmes movies come to mind), whether I know the end of the story is not important as I am having too much fun with the other bits.

I once took an English Lit course on "The Journey".  There are only so many plot lines in literature, so coming up with new ones is not easy.

There is a huge satisfaction in a story that ends well.  Take the Harry Potter series.  The ending was so important to people - it had to be conclusive yet not hokey.  I think JK Rowling did a fantastic job.  Yes, we knew the ending in that from the beginning Harry - and highly likely Ron and Hermione as well - was going to survive.  But getting there was most of the fun.  If she had written a different ending?  One of the three dead?  There would have been riots in the streets.  LOL

I just finished Sherri Tepper's The Family Tree for the second time.  I had forgotten the plot twist.  Her books always have a plot twist - an unexpected turning of your preconceptions on their head.  Even knowing it is coming as it is her favorite literary device, I find myself surprised.  But it in no way detracts from the ending - one that is satisfying and appropriate for her stories.

That said, if I can guess the ending 2 pages or 2 minutes into the story, I'm bored.


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 Natural,  you gave a good

 Natural,  you gave a good assessment of the weakness of the study. 

My thoughts were going in the direction that more atheists would prefer not to know the ending over the religious, due to the fact that the religious prefer simple answers, IOW, God did it. But for this topic I am pretty sure now that is bogus. 


I recall in the 60's-70's there were anti-hero movies. Movies where the good guy dies at the end, the truly unexpected. It worked during that time period, but pretty much no other time. People want a happy ending. If authors try otherwise it gets rejected.


Yeah, CJ, there are only so many stories lines. There are only so many notes to play. We are pretty limited when I think of it that way.

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Well, if the story is a good one, who doesn't enjoy rereading it or watching the movie over? Against that, if the story is not very good, no spoiler will save it. Here I am reminded of the 80's style horror movies that often started with the sole survivor being found and telling the whole story in flashback. A couple of them were good but most were train wreck awful. The good ones, well the spoiler did not detract and the bad ones it did not help.


Then, of course, there are the occasional prequels that come out. Since you know where the story has to end up, you don't even have to worry about that and just enjoy the ride. Recently, I read Brian Herbert's Dune prequels and almost from the first pages, he put a serious game changer in as the main element driving everything else. Synthetic spice. You know that can't happen forty years before the original novel takes place. Leto has a son before Paul. You know he will be dead by the end of the series. Ix is invaded and conquered by the Bene Tileaxu. That has to get fixed. Leto is nearly executed for shooting his weapons on board a Heighliner. If you are interested, I will leave plenty more for you to discover. It is a really wild ride through the Dune universe.


So yah, I tend to agree with Natural. They seem to have picked books that you don't much care for. Against that, if the stories are good, the spoiler doesn't really do anything damaging to the story.

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