Friday, August 19, 2011

Why we shouldn't worry about spoilers

Recent research has found that knowing the ending of a story can improve our enjoyment of it. This goes against the popular idea that knowing too many details about a book or film in advance "spoils" it for the reader or viewer. We have developed a culture where people discussing any plot are expected to issue "spoiler alerts" and to ensure that their audience is already familiar with the work before revealing not just the ending, but any plot twists and details that might be considered important.

I have had mixed feelings about this tendency. Here on my blog, I have often either posted spoiler alerts at the beginning of a book review, or else discussed the plot in a subtle way, without giving away too much about the ending. This was not my original intention, and I had wanted the freedom to discuss books in detail, on the assumption that readers of the blog would have read them, or would not be upset by knowing such things in advance.

Now the study seems to show that this sort of knowledge can help us enjoy the experience even more. This makes sense to me, because I know that while the first reading is a unique experience of discovery, if I really enjoy a book I will read it again, often several times over many years, and almost all the DVDs I own are of films I originally saw in the cinema.

The repeat experience of a work of art has different qualities compared with the first tasting. Once you know what to expect, you start looking out for the hints of the ending throughout the work, and can also devote more attention to other aspects, such as the language, the pacing, the character development, and so on. In fact, I wrote about this only recently in a post about the experience of reading a good book.

I have often read books for the first time with full knowledge of the ending or main plot twist, often from reading book reviews and talking to people who recommend the books, and I never felt this diminished my enjoyment. There are very few stories that depend so completely on the element of surprise and the shock of discovering the plot twist or the ending. A story should be enjoyable all the way through, with the ending constituting a resolution or a pay-off for everything that has happened along the way. If the journey was not pleasurable, having an unexpected ending will not change that experience.

I am now wondering whether it is time to start writing about books without worrying about spoiling the ending. Perhaps I will put up spoiler warnings so those who know they will be disturbed can avoid reading the post, and then feel free to discuss whatever aspects of the book I want. I would be interested to hear what readers of this blog feel about this issue. Would you mind reading my book reviews if they contained spoilers?

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