17 Jul 2012

Spoiler Alert: Stories Can’t be Spoiled

2 Comments Personal Thoughts

A drawing of some buildings and a clock towerSmart women know that the greatness of a novel is rarely about what happens–it’s the why and how that draw the reader in.

In fact, research shows that knowing what happens doesn’t detract from the reader’s experience. A report published in Psychological Science states that “story spoilers don’t really spoil stories and that readers significantly preferred spoiled  over unspoiled stories.” Although the research is clear, there are still some of us who don’t want our endings revealed.

Nonetheless, we can think of many novels that expose the ending up front. One in particular comes to mind: Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying. By the time the reader has finished the first few pages, she already knows what happens. The brilliance and the beauty of the story is found in the relationship between a falsely-accused man and his reluctant teacher. There are many other examples, and if you like historical fiction then clearly you are comfortable knowing how the story ends.

Most books (like movies and plays) can be boiled down to a handful of plots. The surprises and excitement lie in the details and in the way the story unfolds. The truth of the matter is that there are hundreds of ways to tell the same story, and often authors re-tell a story from a different point of view. Think about Genesis and Adam and Eve, then Paradise Lost–then East of Eden; not to mention the hundreds of stories about sibling rivalry (a must-read is Ethan Canin’s novella “Batorsag and Szerelem.” Consider Jane Eyre and The Wide Sargasso Sea (Jean Rhys), and perhaps even Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot; and last, King Lear and A Thousand Acres (Jane Smiley). The point is that smart women want to witness transformation of character and this rarely depends on the logistics of the story.

Where do you stand on this issue? Do you stop your friends mid-sentence so they don’t tell you what happens? Or does knowing how it all ends relieve you as the researchers report? Let us know. We’d love to hear from you.

written by
Lisa Forman Rosen is an avid reader and facilitator of book clubs in Miami, Florida. She has worked at the University of Miami since 1986, first in the Department of English Composition as a lecturer and now at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine as a writer. Lisa created this site to share her love of literature with others and expand the conversation into the virtual world.

2 Comments for“Spoiler Alert: Stories Can’t be Spoiled”

  1. Deborah says:

    Stories can be told and retold. English history can never be overdone or overdiscussed for me. This is a blog about books but talk about re-telling,
    Farewell My Queen is a recent movie about the last three days of Anne Boylen,
    filmed on location at Versailles – such stunning authenticity and costuming is
    the cat’s meow to me
    She Wolves is a marvelous new book about the women who ruled England after the death of Henry VIII – and before Elizabeth I took the throne.
    Another fascinating piece of narrative history.
    After the only male heir of Henry died, these women ruled. Fascinating

  2. Judy S. says:

    I have a very strong opinion about “spoilers,” which I avoid despite my custom of reading just enough of good book reviews to get a sense of whether a new book comes highly recommended.

    Authors of fiction choose carefully the pace at which they reveal information essential to the plot. This rhythm determines the books “cadence” and usually provides a good deal of its excitement if it’s a “page turner.” In a way, the relationship between author and reader is “privileged,” in the sense that nobody but the reader should decide to risk changing the author’s pace by peeking at forthcoming pages.

    Richard Ford’s wonderful new novel “Canada,” which is currently featured in this blog, is a great example of how an author impels the reader to read avidly by providing the intrigue of events or key aspects of character eventually to be revealed. The first sentences of the novel are “First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.”

    The reader is immediately “captured,” curious not only about parents as bank robbers but also about who will commit a murder, and why. The murders do happen much later in the narrative, and the curiosity created by those few sentences is essential fuel that moves the reader with sustained interest through the first person retrospective narrative (which in other writers’ hands can become deadly dull).

    I am grateful that, thanks to my practice of skimming lightly through the reviews, I had no idea where the plot would take Dell Parsons and me. I think that even the most universal of themes demand respect for the element of surprise and the timing of revelation that the author selects.

    Granted, my insistence on avoiding spoilers has resulted not once but twice in my passing hours with eyes wide open after innocently choosing (respectively) Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” and Du Maurier’s “Don’t Look Now” as stories that might lull me to sleep on restless nights. This is the risk I choose to take. My plea to reviewers and friends alike will remain, “Keep your page-turning hands (i.e.,your words) off of my suspense.”