Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Spoilers DO spoil, contrary to what reports say

You can't believe everything you read.

Last week UC San Diego reported a study done by Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt on how much knowing the ending of a story in advance could affect someone's enjoyment. A few dozen students were given 12 short stories to read in different categories. Some had the story spoiled for them and knew the ending in advance, others didn't. Contrary to expectation, they found that readers who were given spoilers generally enjoyed the story more, not less.

Fine. The study showed that a small number of students got more enjoyment out of short stories when they were given spoilers. But then in reporting the findings, everyone extrapolated completely unfounded conclusions based on this single study. Wired posted an article entitled Spoilers Don't Spoil Anything. They included a graphic (above) with a joking spoiler "Dumbledore does on page 596 (I just saved you 4 hours and $30).

Others followed suit. Headlines popped up such as "Spoilers don't ruin stories or films: study"; "Story 'Spoilers' May Boost Enjoyment"; "Stories Are Not Spoiled by 'Spoilers'"; "Reading Spoilers About Book, Film Or TV Series May Enhance Your Viewing" and "Spoilers don't ruin movies after all."

Of course, that's all nonsense. The study proved no such thing. It only showed that educated young people got marginally more pleasure when given a spoiler. Only with reading. And only short stories. Ones written long ago. Nothing more, nothing less.

The study does not and cannot say anything about just-released long works and non-literary forms such as cinema. Yet the study authors and all those who reported on it made a ridiculous leap in logic by concluding that it does.

I'm not at all surprised by the study results. Short stories are not as ambitious as novels or movies. They're usually very simple and often consist of a single scene. I can't think of a short story off the top of my head that has left me (or anyone else) in an emotional high or in tears the way a good novel or movie can. Even if some exist that I'm not aware of, they generally are far more modest and aim for a single mood, point or idea with very little in the way of plot. They can't really be spoiled.

Obviously, however, not all art forms are experienced in the same way. For example, hearing part of a hit song before one hears the whole thing would certainly not lessen anyone's enjoyment. Radio tunes are especially catchy for the very reason that people enjoy repetitiveness in hit songs. Could we then assume that "catchy" repetitiveness in novels or movies would be equally desirable? Would people enjoy watching a movie that consisted of one or two scenes that looped for two hours? Or reading a book that printed the same scene over and over again? After all, they like that in songs.

Of course not. With a longer plot-driven story, a good deal of pleasure comes from following the narrative thread and not knowing how events will unfold. This is true whether the story is presented chronologically or not. We still expect subsequent scenes or chapters to reveal new insights whether they took place earlier or later than what we've just taken in. A very repetitious story becomes boring and pleasureless. The same is true of badly written stories or unrelatable characters -- audiences lose interest in what will happen next to the characters and thus the story becomes a bore.

When we go to a movie, we hope to be fully engaged from beginning to end. Spoilers undermine that by lowering our sense of anticipation and curiosity since we already know the answers to key questions. So this belief that spoilers undermines our pleasure wasn't created out of thin air. It came about because many of us have had the experience of having something ruined for us by indiscriminate loudmouths.

This is especially true of endings. The endings aren't all that important in short stories, but a good ending can be the difference between a huge hit and a dud in movies. The ending is usually the only part of a movie that a studio will spend millions on re-shooting in order to get it just right. That's why DVDs often have alternate endings -- those were the ones that didn't work and tested badly with audiences.

Studios have known the importance of endings for decades. For example, with a movie such as Witness for the Prosecution (1957), the film included a plea not to reveal the ending and thus spoil it for others.

We can see trends in endings as well with studios trying to copy the success of well-ended films. After James Cameron's Terminator, there were a ton of films with fake endings. Likewise, the success of a couple of big 1990s films with twist endings led to a rash of others with big twists. I once had one of those films ruined for me just by knowing that there was a twist ending without knowing precisely what it was. Because I knew it was there, I was subconsciously on the lookout for it and figured it out right away. Needless to say, I was not blown away by it as many others were.

All this is not to say that every story is meant to be narrative. Some are intentionally amorphous or experimental. In a sense, they're more like short stories and can't be spoiled -- in fact, they would benefit from foreknowledge. Hence the amusing warning posted at the Avon Theater in Stamford, CT for The Tree of Life. That film has been described as a visual poem or prayer, but many people walked out of it most certainly because they expected a typical plot-driven movie. I am quite glad that I knew what to expect ahead of time so that I could appreciate it for what it was, rather than dismissing it for what it wasn't.

Similarly, some stories are difficult to follow, especially as historical works or ones where language is an issue (e.g. Shakespeare or opera). Those benefit from us being prepared in advance. The plot is important for those, but the greater art is in the acting, poetry or music as the case may be.

But most movies now, especially Hollywood movies, are very much plot driven stories. Knowing too much about the workings of that plot in advance hinders our enjoyment in any number of ways. It deprives us of the important emotional response of surprise. It causes us to focus on the element(s) we already know and miss out on the bigger picture. It makes us lose out on an unbiased first impression.

While I do think first impressions are over-rated (many viewers inexplicably refuse to see movies more than once, and critics regularly make bold -- and faulty -- proclamations based solely on their first impression), they are nonetheless an important part of the enjoyment of any work of art.

I've written before about how even hype and heightened expectations can ruin a work for its intended audience. For whatever reason, people inevitably come away disappointed from strongly-hyped movies. They may have unrealistic expectations of wall-to-wall excitement, or they secretly almost want to dislike it and prove themselves better than the rest of the general public. Quite possibly, they'll overthink it and spoil the movie for themselves by figuring things out that they wouldn't have if had they not been primed. In effect, we can create our own spoilers.

Anyhow, I think it's still fair to expect that we be very careful with what we reveal to others, especially when we know they haven't seen it yet and are likely to do so. Until they conduct a similar study with novels or films, and do it with unreleased works rather than classics, there is no reason to believe that this particular narrow study has any application beyond students reading short stories.

Anyone who goes around spoiling things for others and claiming that they're doing everyone a favour is just being an idiot.

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