Spoilers – missing the point; a story is more than an ending

‘Research has found that giving away the best part of a story at the beginning actually makes it more enjoyable.’ So says a report in Scientific American, August 14 2011.

This study, which you may or may not have seen discussed around the blogoverse, found that revealing the end of a story made people enjoy the whole thing more. Vader turns out to be Luke’s father. Rhett walks out. Reader, she married him.

What’s going on? (Apart from a certain amount of literary vandalism.) And what does this tell us as writers?

The best part

The clue is in the statement from the Scientific American report – that the end was the ‘best part’. Here’s where they profoundly misunderstand what we get from a story. There’s a lot more to it than the ending.

Sometimes the ending is obvious anyway. If you think about it, we know Buffy will triumph at the end of each season. The question is how? What, in the course of getting there, will happen to the people she cares about? How will getting to the end change her, her life and her relationships? What reserves will she have to find in order to get to that end-point? What did she fail at, in the beginning, that makes this ending satisfying on a profounder scale than simply beating a bad guy?

A story is more than a mere outcome. The story is what happens along the way.

A real spoiler would give that away. It would home in on the aha moments where the narrative flips direction, or the main character has a realisation that turns everything on its head. When a story does this well, we enjoy them because we earn them, in step with the characters. The pleasure is making the discovery at the right time and in the right place. You could really louse up a reader’s day if you revealed those out of turn.

In fact, some endings sound positively lame, taken out of context. The ending-spoiler of Austin Wright’s Tony and Susan might be ‘Susan reached the end of the book and was suitably rattled’. Big shrug. So what? But read the book  as you’re supposed to, page by page, and you close it as disquieted as Susan. (If you want to know more about the book, here’s my review of it, on Guys Can Read.

The study participants enjoyed a story more after hearing the spoiler?

So we’ve argued with the definition of ‘best bit’. But why did the readers enjoy the story more if they were told the end?

Who knows? The researchers speculated that spoilers made the story easier to follow. But there are stories we enjoy again and again. Second time around we might see things we missed first time, and can also appreciate the moments where the writer foxed you into looking at one hand while they yanked the rug away with the other. Perhaps it shows how much readers enjoy dramatic irony, where they are more knowledgeable than the characters embroiled in the tale. And perhaps it shows that a great story sucks you in and hypnotises you into the journey, regardless of what you remember about it.

It’s not the end that matters most. It’s every moment of getting there.

Thank you, Phineas H on Flickr, for the photo

In similar spirit, I have an ending of my own to reveal – and not a moment too soon, judging by the emails that have been flying into my inbox. The finale of My Memories of a Future Life goes live at midnight, UK time – which means some of you American folks can get it before you snooze tonight. It’s called The Storm. You can find episode 1 here, episode 2 here and episode 3 here. For those of you who prefer print, there’s a print copy tunnelling through the works at CreateSpace to emerge at some point next week. And as always, you can try the first four chapters on a free audio here

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  1. #1 by Suzie Quint on September 18, 2011 - 7:22 pm

    If the end were the only reason we read, those folks who read the ending first wouldn’t bother to read what came before. That the ending is satisfying is important, but only in context and that what the rest of the story is. Context.

    • #2 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 18, 2011 - 11:18 pm

      Context – and experiencing the story as it should be experienced. Without context an ending spoiler probably makes no sense – but maybe that’s just my point of view. I try to avoid even reading blurbs as sometimes they give too much away that I’m not ready to see.

  2. #3 by Paul R. Drewfs on September 18, 2011 - 7:50 pm

    I challenge the psychometric validity and reliability of the “enjoyment” metric. Since there is no observable proven measure of “enjoyment” the study could have only used self reports. The correlation coefficient between survey self report measures of attitudes and the corresponding inferred human behavior is slim to non-existent (not statistically significant). Hence, the study reduces to the worst sort of neo-geo-poetry (i.e., nonsense junk science and poo-poo kaka). For example, surveyed bomber crewmen in WWII reported to a man that they would not go on the next mission. Yet, with fear traumatized organs, the overwhelming majority projectile vomited, and then climbed in their planes the next morning and went on their missions, time and time again. What people say they feel and what they really feel and do are two different things. It is a fact fundamental to the human condition.

    • #4 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 18, 2011 - 11:15 pm

      Hi Paul – yes, self-reporting may not always be reliable. Without a lie detector (itself a difficult device to test decisively) there is no way of knowing what kinds of biases might have sneaked in to confound the results. The only thing we can hope is that the journal that originally published the study – Psychological Science – was rigorous with what studies it published. That would have included destruction testing its methodology, if it is a reputable publication. I’d like to know where they took the subjects from and if they could catagorically establish they’d never encountered the test stories before….
      But that’s all boring. What is interesting is the sign-off of your comment – what people say and do are different things. Hooray for the murky depths of fiction.

  3. #5 by journalpulp on September 18, 2011 - 9:09 pm

    Roz wrote: “But there are stories we enjoy again and again.”

    Curiously enough, there are no such things as readers: there are only rereaders.

    Said Nabokov to his students.

  4. #7 by ccc on September 18, 2011 - 9:12 pm

    I don’t know if I’m buying this. Everybody has told me how fabulous the movie “Titanic” was, but I still haven’t gotten around to watching it because I know how it ends.

    • #8 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 18, 2011 - 11:20 pm

      No, Titanic the movie is not fabulous. It’s sentimental rubbish. You are right not to watch it.

  5. #9 by Jason Runnels on September 19, 2011 - 1:38 am

    I totally agree that a story is more than its ending. It’s the journey not the destination. And I have to chuckle at @ccc’s comment. Yes, of course the ship sinks at the end 😉

    A lot of these true life dramas have obvious endings. The kid at the end of the survival story movie, “127 hours” makes it. We know this before the movie starts, but it doesn’t spoil anything.

    But reveal the twist about Jack in “Fight Club” before you see it (or read it) the first time and you will in fact have spoiled it.

    In any case, I’m not sure how reliable a study with a population of only 30 subjects is. So take it with a grain of salt. Thanks for the post.

    • #10 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 19, 2011 - 5:58 am

      Funny you should mention 127 Hours, Jason, I saw that just last week. And was very curious to see how they made a good story out of it.
      Fight Club – yes, after I hit ‘publish’ I remembered Fight Club. And as you say, 30 volunteers is hardly a typical sample.

  6. #11 by Sally on September 19, 2011 - 11:38 am

    Hi Roz!

    Very interesting post, but I too dissent against the idea that knowing the ending beforehand increases enjoyment. As others here have implied, this really would depend on what exactly was being given away, especially endings with a twist as with Fight Club and Sixth Sense. Actually, Sixth Sense was ruined for me because I made the mistake of reading the movie description somewhere before I saw it. The reviewer mentioned the psychologist, the kid who sees dead people, and then mentioned that there’s a ‘clever twist’ – in that order. I worked out the end in a flash – though in fairness, the movie was well made and worth watching anyway.

    Funny you should mention blurbs. I’ve actually written a blurb that technically gives away to much of the story, and yet these details are necessary to draw the interest of my target audience! 😀

    • #12 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 20, 2011 - 6:02 am

      Hi Sally! You’re right, of course – some endings are meant to be kept under wraps until the right moment. And someting I didn’t make clear in the the post is that I’d rather not know anything more than what’s on the page while I’m reading. I try to avoid reading blurbs if possible because they often give too much away. And Sixth Sense is a great example of a twist we have to get at the right time.
      When we saw Sixth Sense, Dave ruined it for himself by guessing right at the start. He’s like that.

  7. #13 by Salvatore Buttaci on September 19, 2011 - 2:25 pm

    If the ending were everything, why waste time telling the why, how, when, and where? The whole idea of telling a story is to hint the ending early on and then construct the road that will take you there.

    Salvatore Buttaci

    • #14 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 20, 2011 - 6:03 am

      Absolutely, Salvatore. And that’s a really nice point about hinting at the end to start with, then working towards it.

  8. #15 by Stacy Green on September 19, 2011 - 3:04 pm

    Hi Roz! I never want to know the ending ahead of time, and I agree, sometimes it does take away some of the tension and stakes. This happens with movies made from books for me; if I’ve read the book, I lose some of the tension. And I try very hard not to skip ahead in books. I think the twists and turns in a well written book make the ending all the more satisfying, so reading ahead ruins that.

  9. #17 by Lisa Phillips on September 19, 2011 - 4:58 pm

    I love knowing the ending. I can enjoy the journey more if I know I’ll be satisfied when I get there. I always read the TV guide description, and back cover copy (sometimes multiple times as I’m going along). Often too, if I’ve enjoyed a book, I will reread it slower than the first time. I think you find new layers that way.
    Having said that, I LOVE to be surprised with the HOW, and those act 1 and 2 endings, where everything shifts irrevocably and life for the character will never be the same.

    With certain genres, endings follow a particular pattern. A romance, for example, wouldn’t usually end in tragedy/break-up (unless it was a series). So a lot of the time you can predict, even if you don’t want to spoil. It depends if you as a reader would be satisfied if the ending was what you wanted, or not. Or if you like to have no preconceived notions…

    • #18 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 20, 2011 - 6:07 am

      Lisa, that seems so strange to me, but I know you’re not completely alone in this. I was listening to Books on the Nightstand and they tackled this same piece of research, polling readers about whether they minded knowing the ending. A surprising number of people, like you, said they positively liked to.

  10. #19 by Paul R. Drewfs on September 19, 2011 - 5:40 pm

    I assert that I’m older than dirt and have known a few literate avid reader folk in my time. In those enfolded 64 years I have encountered but one deviant mind, spirit, and soul — yes ’twas a female — that insisted on reading the ending of each book before attending to the first chapter. If that semi-random sampling hasn’t summed to greater than 500 representative persons I should be righteously surprised and a bit miffed. So, the question cooks down to this; If there is some universal perverse pleasure to be had by ferreting out the ending first, why aren’t there more people (a significant number of the reader population) doing it and publically owning up to it? Don’t tell me it has taken Homo sapiens the last 4,760 years since the cuneiform release of “Gilgamesh” to get around to discovering a guilty pleasure.

    • #20 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 20, 2011 - 6:08 am

      ‘Older than dirt’… great phrase, Paul! I hope you didn’t read Episode 4 of my novel before Episode 3, although there may be some deviant folk who did 🙂

  11. #21 by Tahlia Newland on September 20, 2011 - 12:38 am

    Interesting. I don’t know if that works for me or not, I guess it depends on the book. An unsatisfactory ending can ruin an otherwise good book for me though. I did a poll recently to see what people think of cliffhangers. I could do with some more voters on it if anyone is interested.

    • #22 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 20, 2011 - 6:09 am

      Tahlia – a poll on cliffhangers is a great idea. I’ll send some people over to you from Facebook and Twitter.

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