Columns > Published on April 30th, 2015

The Element of Surprise: An Anti-Spoiler Manifesto

Pictured above: River Song, a character from Doctor Who. She WILL shoot you if you talk about spoilers.

Science has already (somewhat) proven that spoilers don't inherently ruin any chance of enjoying a narrative. In a 2011 study conducted by researchers at the University of California San Diego, participants were given twelve short stories, some of which contained spoilerific paragraphs imbedded in the text, some without. Across the board, the readers tended to favor the stories whose plots were revealed ahead of time. According to an unnamed author from a BBC News article:

Although the study could not explain why, it suggested the brain may find it easier to process a spoiled story.

'You get this significant reverse-spoiler effect,' study author and professor of social psychology Nicholas Christenfeld said.

'It's sort of as if knowing things puts you in a position that gives you certain advantages to understand the plot.'

Co-author Jonathan Leavitt added: 'It could be that once you know how it turns out, you're more comfortable processing the information and can focus on a deeper understanding of the story.'

Of course, this is one hundred percent true. I've had countless endings to books and films spoiled for me, but I nonetheless enjoyed those narrative journeys. This logic applies to rewatching or rereading stories as well: what I enjoy after all the bare-bones story elements have been revealed is, ultimately, the well-told tale, which I'm better equipped to intellectually understand and deconstruct. It's a bit like sex: the first time you experience it, it's exciting and new and maybe a bit awkward/uncomfortable, but the more you do it, the better it gets.

And yet, despite this essential knowledge, I'm a staunch anti-spoiler advocate. Yes, it is absolutely true that spoilers do not inherently ruin the overall experience of a film or book, but they do rob audiences of that most thrilling of narrative components, the element of surprise, which is also bolstered by a scientific thumbs-up. Consider this recent study from John Hopkins University (as reported by ScienceDaily):

In a paper to be published April 3 in the journal Science, cognitive psychologists Aimee E. Stahl and Lisa Feigenson demonstrate for the first time that babies learn new things by leveraging the core information they are born with. When something surprises a baby, like an object not behaving the way a baby expects it to, the baby not only focuses on that object, but ultimately learns more about it than from a similar yet predictable object.

Stahl and Feigenson came to this conclusion by running a series of tests with eleven month-old children, in which a red rubber ball was rolled down an incline and either stopped against a wall at the bottom of the ramp, or appeared to "magically" pass through the wall (most likely via an opening the babies could not see—the article does not reveal the researchers' secrets). The infants showed little to no interest in the ball that behaved predictably, whereas they thoroughly explored the "magic" ball by tapping it against a table to test its solidity, behavior not displayed with the the ball that hit the wall.

Although this study focused on infants, other research from 2001 reveals the adult brain works much the same way, and that furthermore unpredictable elements actually activated one of the "pleasure centers" in the brain. Again from ScienceDaily:

Scientists at Emory University and Baylor College of Medicine...used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure changes in human brain activity in response to a sequence of pleasurable stimuli, in this case, fruit juice and water. In the study, a computer-controlled device squirted fruit juice and water into the mouths of research participants. The patterns of juice and water squirts were either predictable or completely unpredictable.

Primary researchers Gregory S. Berns and Read Montague had originally theorized the study participants' brains would react most significantly to their preferred beverage. However, across the board, a different pattern emerged:

...the human reward pathways in the brain responded most strongly to the unpredictable sequence of squirts. The area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens...recorded a particularly strong response to the unexpectedness of a sequence of stimuli.

This particular region of the brain, by the way, also lights up when a person shoots up heroin or snorts a line of cocaine. Thus, not only do surprises ignite our curiosity, as demonstrated by the Stahl/Feigenson tests with infants, but they also give us pleasure on par with super-addictive drugs.

If you go around spoiling narratives on purpose, well, you're a dick, and I don't know that there's any help for you.

Think about that for a moment, then apply this knowledge to your own fiction-consuming experiences. Recall those instances in which a plot turn or twist made your brain explode with WTFs?!?!? or Holy Shits! Think about the first time you read/watched Fight Club. Think about the Red Wedding in A Storm of Swords/Game of Thrones, or the season four finale of Breaking Bad, or that sly protagonist shift in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, or the killer reveal at the end of that film. Think about all the truly effective jump scares in every horror film you've ever seen, and ask yourself, "If I'd known they were coming, would I have enjoyed them as much?" Horror, in fact, is perhaps the best genre for this argument—part of their essential joy lies in the fact they take us into the realm of uncertainty. The best of the best horror writers constantly dangle us of over a cliff of suspense, and we have little to no idea when the author's hands will drop us further into the abyss. How disappointing would it be if, upon your first viewing, you already knew where those drops would occur?

This logic even applies to narratives that lack the rewatch/reread factor. Every title I mentioned above warrants multiple viewings to fully understand the nuances behind the narrative choices. But consider something like The Sixth Sense, which is a decent enough movie with a now infamous twist ending that no one saw coming (Well, almost no one; I had my suspicions). Here comes the SPOILER (for any of you left on the planet who haven't seen this movie): turns out child psychologist Bruce Willis was dead THE ENTIRE TIME! He was nothing more than one of the "dead people" little Haley Joel Osment saw. The ultimate problem with this ending is that it is one hundred percent tacked-on, because Bruce Willis's character isn't our protagonist—despite what M. Night Shamalyan seems to think. The kid who sees dead people is the actual focus here, and he's the only character who's known the "twist" ending throughout. Revealing his psychologist as a ghost has no bearing on his character arc whatsoever—I mean, in a roundabout way it does, since the boy has to learn not to fear the ghosts that approach him, and the psychologist helps him on this journey. But the audience may as well have been in on the secret too—and in fact, I believe the narrative would have been far more satisfying if we knew from the outset the movie was about a child psychologist ghost helping a kid get over his fear of ghosts. That's one hell of a pitch!

But despite that, it was kinda fun to have the rug pulled out from under us upon first watching the film. Dumb and ultimately detrimental to the rest of the movie, sure, but it definitely made us go, "Ohhhh." As it stands, the twist ending is really the only reason to watch The Sixth Sense, and once you've experienced it, there's really no reason to revisit it, at least from a narrative standpoint (the photography in it is quite nice). It's a one-and-done kind of movie, but if you already know the twist, there's just no point in bothering with it at all.

Thus, whether the story in question contains surprises that enrich what has come before and what will come after, or there's just one surprise that is basically the narrative equivalent of a Haunted House "Boo!", spoilers do rob films and books of an essential enjoyment factor, and thus should be avoided.

But what's to be done? We live in a socially-connected world now, in which information—and that includes spoilers—are just a few clicks and taps away. Moreover, the landscape of consuming media has changed, especially where television is concerned. Many people no longer view episodes of their favorite shows on the night it airs, but rather later that evening or even within the next few days, either because they DVR'd it or they're streaming it from Hulu, Amazon, iTunes, etc. So if you look at a your Twitter or Facebook feed long enough, you'll find out the demise of a prominent character on The Walking Dead (this happened to me twice). If you as an individual genuinely don't care about spoilers, that's cool, but as Wheaton's law asserts, don't be a dick about it and post them online. Conversely, if you do care about spoilers, understand that people will be dicks anyway, so it's best to just stay away from social media altogether until you're able to watch the most recent episode. Also, if you're AMC and you air shows like The Walking Dead, in which characters die all the time, don't post about it on your own social media feeds or on your website. That's a dick move, AMC.

If a particular film or TV show is based on a book, and you've already read all the books and thus know, in a general sense, what's going to happen next, try to refrain from talking about further plot developments around those of us who aren't as well-read as you. Doing so is a dick move. Conversely, if you're not up-to-date as far as books are concerned, understand that people are dicks, and if you even hear mention of, say, Game of Thrones in a group of people, best to just drown out their conversation with the GoT theme inside your head and move away from them as quickly as possible. Also, some people aren't dicks, and perhaps they're trying to have a conversation that they don't intend for you to hear, but you hear it anyway. If you're familiar with these people, politely ask them to pause their conversation until you've put some distance between yourself and them.

If you accidentally spoil something for another person, then laugh it off and say, "Oops, sucks to be you. Maybe you should've watched/read it already," you're a dick. Genuinely apologize, because it was plainly important to the person not to have this particular narrative spoiled. Conversely, if someone accidentally spoils something for you, and they genuinely apologize about it, don't be a dick and continue to punish them or pout or gripe. Accept their apology and move on with the knowledge that, even though the element of surprise is now gone, you will still be able to enjoy the narrative. 

If you're a writer, put a spoiler warning in your articles. I timed it, and it takes anywhere from three to five seconds to type the word "spoiler." It isn't hard.

If you go around spoiling narratives on purpose, well, you're a dick, and I don't know that there's any help for you.

Also acknowledge that there's a statute of limitations here. I don't know if I can put an actual number on it, but at the very least we can all agree that if the identity of Rosebud in Citizen Kane is revealed to you before you see the film, you really have no recourse to be upset. The movie's damn near seventy-five years-old now. I'm honestly surprised when people don't know what Rosebud is at this point in time.

Remember, research has proven that spoilers both matter and don't matter, depending on the context. If spoilers don't concern you, that's fine, but understand that some people are deeply concerned about them, and you should try your best not to ruin those surprises for other people. However, if you're one of those people that are concerned about spoilers, understand there's another side to this the coin, and that, the existence of some wicked-awful dicks aside, most people don't mean to spoil narratives for you. Nine times out of ten, it's an honest mistake, and you should definitely let them off the hook when it happens (unless it's a recurrent problem, of course). We all simply have to meet each other halfway on this thing, and we'll be fine.


What side of the fence are you on? Do you care about spoilers? Why or why not? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.

About the author

Christopher Shultz writes plays and fiction. His works have appeared at The Inkwell Theatre's Playwrights' Night, and in Pseudopod, Unnerving Magazine, Apex Magazine, freeze frame flash fiction and Grievous Angel, among other places. He has also contributed columns on books and film at LitReactor, The Cinematropolis, and Tor.com. Christopher currently lives in Oklahoma City. More info at christophershultz.com

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