Spoilers: Good or Bad?

One of my favorite Threadless T shirts
I hate spoilers. Once I turned on the TV and accidentally watched last 10 min. of The Usual Suspects (I hadn't seen it before). Whoops. I also figured out the ending of The Sixth Sense halfway through and was grumpy the rest of the movie because I'd missed out on the surprise.

But do spoilers actually decrease enjoyment?

Spoiler alert:  A recent study says no.

Researchers at UCSD conducted an experiment to see how spoilers affect readers' enjoyment of a story. They had students read three types of short stories: ironic twist stories, mysteries, and evocative literary stories.

The stories were presented in one of three ways:
1) In its original form (unspoiled condition)
2)With a spoiler paragraph presented before the story (external spoiler)
3)With a spoiler paragraph incorporated as the first paragraph of the story (incorporated spoiler).

Participants rated each story for enjoyment on a scale of 1 to 10.

The result was counterintuitive.  For all three types of stories, subjects gave higher ratings for externally spoiled stories than for the unspoiled stories. Interestingly, incorporating the spoiler in the opening paragraph did not raise enjoyment. In those cases, the enjoyment was the same as for the unspoiled stories.

Given these results, will I be less careful about avoiding spoilers? Probably not. The enjoyment rating used in this experiment was a coarse measure, and I don't think it quite captures the delightful surprise of a good twist ending. You might indeed enjoy the story better overall the second time, when you have a better idea of what to look for and aren’t distracted by curiosity, but you can only be surprised once. For me at least, that first naive read is still worth protecting. On the other hand, if a story is accidentally spoiled for me, I probably won't feel quite as gypped as I would have before. And the does change my intuitions about what makes a story enjoyable.

 Finally, It's interesting that the external spoiler increased enjoyment, while the incorporated spoilers did not. The researchers suggested that this was because an incorporated spoiler led the reader to believe there was still more to the story that the author would reveal later. So maybe readers weredisappointed when they found out that there actually wasn't anything more, or perhaps the external spoiler allowed the reader to relax and enjoy the story without constantly thinking ahead. More on this next week, but for now, what do you think? Do you avoid spoilers? 

 Hope you enjoyed this post! To get regular updates from this blog, use the subscription options on the sidebar.

Also, friend of the blog Catherine Stine recently released her YA novel,  Fireseed One. Set in a near-future world with soaring heat, toxic waters, tricked-out gadgets, and fish that grow up on vines, Varik Teitur inherits a vast sea farm after the mysterious death of his marine biologist father. When Marisa Baron, a beautiful and shrewd intruder, who knows way too much about Varik’s father’s work, tries to steal seed disks from the world’s food bank, Varik is forced to put his dreams of becoming a doctor on hold and venture with her, into a hot zone teeming with treacherous nomads and a cult who worships his dead father, in order to search for a magical hybrid plant that may not even exist.

Leavitt JD, & Christenfeld NJ (2011). Story spoilers don't spoil stories. Psychological science, 22 (9), 1152-4 PMID: 21841150


  1. Very occasionally I'll avoid spoilers, but that happens so rarely that it's notable. Usually, not only don't I mind spoilers, I'll actively seek them out. Why? Because it allows me to relax and enjoy the story unfold. It also lessens the distraction when it's clear a writer is trying too hard to be clever.

    On the other hand, I'm much more spoiler-phobic when it comes to releasing details of my own works. I want the audience to struggle through the twists and turns...and also be impressed by my cleverness. Hypocritical? Damn straight.

    Overall, though, I find spoilers to be inconsequential. People for millennia have revisited their favorite stories innumerable times to no less enjoyment. It seems that strong works that don't rely on literary trickery have little need to care if they are spoiled or not.

    In deference to those who don't want to be spoiled, there needs to be as short a limit as possible where people can just assume they are free to speak without a preemptive "spoiler warning" having to be announced. After a while, it goes from being a small inconvenience to being narcissistically rude. Just because you are late to the party doesn't mean no one else is allowed to visit the snack table.

  2. I've never been bothered by spoilers. I tend to take the attitude that it's all been done before, it's the HOW that's interesting, not the what. I also think that I've imprinted enough story patterns on my subconscious that on those rare occasions where an author does surprise me, more often than not I'd say the the storytelling choice which surprised me was not a good one. I don't actively seek out spoilers, and I don't try to guess endings, though some things are painfully obvious. I really don't understand how anyone reads more than one story by an author who's known for "twist" endings and is surprised.

  3. I prefer not to have a story spoiled, but I don't mind it terribly if it happens.

    My sister on the other hand, wants to know the ending straight up. After seeing the first Twilight movie, she had me sit down and tell her what happens in ALL of the four books. She then proceeded to read all four books. So it really does depend on the person.

  4. I am not a fan of spoilers, and I try to avoid them as much as possible. The reason behind this is that I want to experience the story as the author intended me to experience it. I.e. not having such and such information beforehand.

    Also, if you know the plot twist beforehand, the author will automatically seem less good at hiding the clues, because your mind is now wired to subconsciously look out for them. So then it kind of kills the author's street rep, if you know what I mean.

    On another note, the results of the study seems odd. I would not have been surprised if the pleasure rating stayed the same, but why would it be more enjoyable with the external spoilers? Is there any theory concerning this?

  5. I hate spoilers! However, the study you mentioned had interesting results and made me think. Do we still enjoy spoiled stories because we're along for the ride, and now instead of looking for the surprise at the end, we're searching for the hints and clues to it along the way? I know that's what I do when someone tells me the ending ahead of time.

  6. I don't mind spoilers at all. I actually like knowing what a movie/book will be about. I've watched movies in the past and left a theater very upset that I hadn't known a film was going to be a "downer." If I'd known beforehand, I'd have been prepared. Plus, it's the execution of a story that I become immersed in, the characters and their journey - not necessarily the events (unless the women die at the end for seeking justice, or the black/brown people die within the first ten minutes).

    But then again, I've never been a big fan of surprises. And I love to watch favorite movies over and over again and read favorite books several times, even though I know exactly what's going to happen the second or third time through. I still find something new in each viewing/reading - something I hadn't caught before, or something that makes a new kind of sense now.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post :).

  7. I used to think spoilers were evil. Then I realized that most well-written stories aren't hurt by them. (http://spaulbryan.wordpress.com/2011/04/13/spoiler-alert-the-hero-wins/)

  8. Not only do I hate spoilers, but there's a recent trend of opening the book or film with an action scene to entice us, and then starting the real story two weeks earlier. I put the book down at that point.

  9. I'd read this research also. Interesting repercussions in plotting.

  10. CJ - Hehe, I'm in the "spoiler warning for all books, even decades after they come out" camp. People should be allowed to talk about them, but doesn't hurt to give a heads up so someone can leave and/or plug their ears if they want to.

    DDW - JK Rowling managed to surprise me with several of her twist endings, particularly the first three books. I thought those were surprising, but with enough clues so that it came together at the end. The twist to the fourth book, I thought, was a bit far-fetched though.

    Andrea - I guess Wikipedia is a welcome development for your sister then.

    Jake - the experimenters themselves were very surprised by the results. The only reasons that came up were the speculations I mentioned -- for example, that knowing the story let people relax and know what to pay attention to without being distracted.

    Suzanne - I find that when I don't know the ending, I will rush through in an effort to find out what happens.

    Neesha - I totally know what you mean about the downer. That's the one kind of spoiler that I like. I need to prepare myself and not get too attached.

    spaulbryan - very true. The most well-written stories can be read over and over.

    Charlie -- that does indeed seem to be a trend, and I don't think it will be going away anytime soon. Everyone seems to be going for the action filled opening.

    Toby - it does indeed have implications for plotting, but remember that the spoilers incorporated in the opening paragraph do not make a difference in enjoyment. The results only hold if the spoiler was external to the story.

  11. My Theory on wht the External Spoiler gave higher pleasure - the readers were given the choice. If they wanted they could read the spoiler (if they were one who wasn't opposed to it) and then enjoy the tale for the tale, OR they could ignore it (if they hated spoilers) and read the book without it.

    Then what I'd do is go back and read the spoiler to see if I got everything right. *grin*
    (I've also been known to read the last line/paragraph/page of books.)

  12. I'm with you on hating them, especially in TV shows. But books too. I don't like to sneak and read the end before I'm done.

  13. Movies are largely predictable, so genuine spoilers might not be often possible.

  14. I avoid all spoilers and consider pretty much everything not in general promo materials to be spoilers. The worst is when people say "there's a big twist at the end" and think that's not a spoiler just because they didn't explicitly tell you what it was.