Saturday, February 18, 2012

Where Do You Stand on the Spoiler Question?

How surprised do you need to be in order to enjoy a story?

The topic came up last year when Ann Patchett's State of Wonder came out. The reviews were full of spoiler alerts, lest the final twist in plot be revealed in an untimely fashion. In a sense, spoiler alerts tell us that a surprise is in the offing--and for many, that surprise is a motivation for reading, and even purchase. 

The ending to State of Wonder certainly did come as a surprise, not an entirely pleasant one. However, the reader in me doesn't require pleasant surprises in every book. 

According to research published in the journal Psychological Science, knowing the ending of the story before you read it needn't hurt your experience of the story. It can actually help you to enjoy the story more. 

How is this possible? 

According to The Spoiler Paradox, storytelling serves a number of purposes beyond entertainment. The human "theory of mind" means that our ability to attribute thoughts, desires, motivations and the intentions of others is useful in predicting and explaining the behaviors of others. Stories are part of our development of these skills. The time-honored classic tales (think Oedipus, Job) frequently communicate complex ideas. Knowing the outcome can simplify the story and enable the reader to engage more deeply in the processing of the details.

This perspective makes sense to me. I have read many, many biographies of the life of Jesus. I certainly know the "story." Yet as I read through the various interpretations of those events, I find myself more engrossed in the writers' interpretations of them as I strive to understand the concepts that have made him such a compelling historical and religious figure.

Not every story has the depth and complexity to survive "spoilage". Whodunits tend to depend upon the constant nudging the reader's cognitive dissonance for slogging through multiple volumes (she wrote, thinking of the Stieg Larsson trilogy). But for stories which challenge our multiple levels of understanding, surprise may take a back seat to our greater comprehension of the details that have brought us to the inevitable end.