One of my favorite movies is When Harry Met Sally. I can watch it over and over and love it every single time—maybe even more than I did before. There’s a scene that will be familiar to any of the movie’s fans: Harry and Sally have just embarked on their drive to New York City and Harry starts telling Sally about his dark side. He mentions one thing in particular. Whenever he starts a new book, he reads the last page first. That way, in case he dies while reading it, he’ll know how it ends.
Harry will know how it ends, true, but doesn’t that also ruin the book? If you know the ending, how can you enjoy the story?
Spoilers don’t actually spoil endings…
As it turns out, easily. A study in this month’s issue of Psychological Science comes to a surprising conclusion: spoilers don’t actually spoil anything. In fact, they may even serve to enhance the experience of reading.
Over 800 students from UC San Diego took part in a series of three experiments, where they read one of three types of short story: a story with an ironic twist (such as Roald Dahl), a mystery (such as Agatha Christie), and a literary story (such as Raymond Carver). For each story, there was a spoiler paragraph, that revealed the outcome in a way that seemed inadvertent. Subjects read stories either unspoiled or with the spoiler.
They might actually make them better
Time to reconsider, it seems, what we call a spoiler. The so-called “spoiled” stories were actually rated as more enjoyable than those that were “unspoiled,” no matter what type of story was being read. Knowing the ending, even when suspense was part of the story’s goal, made the process of reading more, not less, pleasurable.
Why would this be the case? Perhaps, freed from following the plot, we can pay more attention to the nuances and the craft, to the subtleties of the telling and the arc of the story as a whole. Perhaps we can be more attuned to those signs that foreshadow the unfolding of the action and take pleasure in our ability to pick them out. Perhaps the tension of the reading itself is enhanced, as we play the role of omniscient reader to the unknowing characters—we may even imagine ourselves akin to the creator of the story, his sympathizers as he unveils the complexities of his plot.
Whatever the case may be, it may not be as urgent as we think it is to avoid spoilers. Indeed, it might be just fine to embrace them openly. Harry might have the right idea after all. In fact, he might be getting at the very thing that lets me watch him meet Sally over and over and over again, and enjoy the process every single time.