Monday 20 October 2014

Do Spoilers Spoil Stories?

No one likes the surprise to be ruined, whether it’s a book, a movie or a birthday present. Even if the reveal isn’t all that great it’s still annoying if someone blurts it out before you get to see for yourself.

But the truth is finding the solution to the puzzle isn’t what makes a story work. The identity of the murderer isn’t the reason you feel satisfied when you turn the last page. Discovering the fate of the lovers isn’t going to transform a terrible book into a worthwhile one.

We often reread books and rewatch movies and enjoy them knowing full well what’s going to happen. In fact we often know how a story is going to end even the first time round. When you read book four of a seventeen book series, exactly how much danger do you think the hero can get into, seeing as he has at least another 13 adventures to endure?

But isn’t “what happens next?’ the driving force behind getting the reader to turn pages? And if it isn’t, why do spoilers annoy us so much when we can happily revisit stories for the umpteenth time? 

Of course we enjoy finding out what’s going on, but we like to figure things out for ourselves. Consider, do you prefer to solve that crossword clue yourself or sneak a peek at the answers? Both fill in the box, but which gives you greater pleasure?

The brain rewards new discoveries and solutions to problems (whether real or fictional) with the release of happy chemicals. The pleasure is decreased if someone else just gives you the answer. Spoilers are annoying not because they ruin the story, but because they rob you of that shot of dopamine moments of epiphany can provide.

It doesn’t matter what that epiphany is, once we lose the chance to experience it for ourselves then it becomes inflated in our imagination (often helped by a little hype and marketing). You have no idea what it would have felt like, so maybe it would have been awesome. 

In reality those truly jaw dropping moments are few and far between in books (and fewer and farrer in movies), but they do exist and nobody wants to feel like they might have missed out on one of them. 

But once you do find out how the story ends, how can you enjoy the same story again and again? It isn’t just a matter of the journey being more important than the destination (although some books have very enjoyable journeys). Nor is it simply a matter of poor memories allowing you to forget who did what to whom (although that tends to happen more and more as I get older).

The way the brain works is this: you watch a cool youtube video with a surprise in it. The twist makes you laugh (brain injects happy chemicals). You watch the video again and again. You still like it but your reaction gradually lessens. Then you show the video to your friend who hasn’t seen it before. When they react the way you did the first time, you also feel a surge of those happy chemical.
You basically get to relive the experience through your friend. 

When you reread a book or rewatch a movie, you may know what’s going to happen, but the character in the story doesn’t. No matter how often you go back to a scene, the people in that scene are experiencing it for the first time. This is an ability of fiction, to recreate a moment in time utterly convincingly. You don’t question the way a character reacts. You know he has no idea about what the future holds. And you are able to connect with his reaction as it happens, again and again.

You knowing who Darth Vader is has no bearing on Luke’s reaction. Boo Radley stepping in to stop Bob Ewell is always a surprise for Jem and Scout, even if you knew it was coming.

It’s a character’s reaction to key moments that readers latch onto. The way a character handles the situation is what can lift a scene from a series of events to an engrossing drama. If the character wants to know what’s going on then it’s much more likely the reader will too. If the character is shocked by the truth, then that feeling will be easier to transfer.

In essence, fiction allows you to time travel. You go back and see it for the first time, because that’s what it is for the characters. As long as their reaction affected you in some way, it will again.

If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

No matter how many times we read or watch it, the characters still don't know.
And sometimes it's just fun to go back and see if you can spot the clues.

mooderino said...

@Alex - And the stronger the character-reader connection the easier to experience what they experience.

Sarah Allen said...

Interesting topic. I was listening to a podcast earlier about how some mysteries are structured so that the reader knows what happened but we watch as the detective tries to figure it out. I guess maybe it doesn't matter which way to do it, you just have to do it well.

Sarah Allen
(Writing Blog)

Stephanie Faris said...

I saw someone post about the "surprises" in Gone Girl (the movie) recently on Facebook and said something about the fact that just knowing there are surprises can spoil the surprise. He got defensive and said he meant the surprise at the very end...he didn't even GET the real surprise. He missed the whole point, which was weird because that was the best part of reading the book, to me. I like not knowing where the story is going next. The good thing about seeing the movie, though, was that enough time had passed since I'd read the book that there were a lot of things I'd forgotten about.

dolorah said...

I have lots of books and movies I view again and again because I just love the characters and their lines. Most often, I'll still read a book or watch a movie even if I've been told spoilers - unless its something like Signs or Sixth Sense, where knowing important detail at the end is what makes everything make sense.

Denise Covey said...

I love it when I have to go back and re-read or re-view a book or movie once i know the ending. Second time around I can see what clues I missed. I especially remember this happening with The Sixth Sense movie. Awesome!

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

If a book or movie is good, I enjoy it even more the second time. Like Alex said above, I like looking for the clues I missed the first time. They're really delicious when I spot them.

LD Masterson said...

Sometimes I enjoy reading or watching a mystery again to look for the clues I missed first time through but most of the time I'm just enjoying traveling through the story again with characters I've come to like or care about.

Chemist Ken said...

So that explains why I love to watch some movies over and over again. I knew that I watched many of them to relive certain scenes, but it never occurred to me that my joy was coming from watching the character's response.

Unknown said...

Hmm. Now this is really something to think about. A very thought provoking article. I will have to see how to include this in my work.

mooderino said...

@Sarah - Colombo was like that, only you knew who they did it and how they did it, you just watched to see Colombo trap them.

@Stephanie - it's got to the point now where I fully expect most twist reveals they do them so often. That and main characters dying on TV shows seems to be very popular.

@Dolorah - I particularly like watching really old movies again. Something about black and white makes it easier to forget what happened, it seems.

@Denise - been a while since I felt that way about a book or movie.

@Susan - occasionally the opposite happens and I start seeing the plot holes and inconsistencies.

@LD - me too, although I prefer it if i know it ends well. Don't like rereading tragedies.

@Ken- i think that's at least part of it.

@Lilith - cheers.

Carol Bodensteiner said...

A timely post, since I just had a reader post a spoiler review for my novel. You're right - I can watch movies and read books again and again - if they're well written/produced, I'm all in.

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