Why this is a ridiculous idea:
1) Nobody says spoilers “ruin our pleasure” from a story. The problem with spoilers is that the details are discovered when I’m reading twitter or glancing at review headlines or standing behind a blabbermouth in line for the concession stand, but I want to learn the details when I’m fully immersed in the experience. I don’t want some stranger who’s already seen the movie to be in charge of when and how I learn the details, and I don’t want to spend the rest of my life remembering how I learned about The Big Reveal in line at Save-Mart.
2) Yes, knowing some details of the ending can enhance the audience’s pleasure. Every good storyteller knows that, which is why every story is arranged in its own particular way.
3) “What definitely doesn’t work is incorporating spoilers directly into the stories – that simply makes for bad storytelling.” Wrong! A well-told story provides plenty of information in the beginning, allowing the details to unfold in a particular way. This arrangement makes the story what it is: a comedy or romance might reveal the climax early to keep the tone light, while a mystery or a drama might hold the vital secret until the final scene to maximize the tension.
(This statement is a reference to the investigators’ experiment of inserting “spoiler” paragraphs into the stories to test whether that enhanced readers’ pleasure – which (SURPRISE!) it did not. Most people don’t like their movies interrupted by commercials either.)
4) If this idea is fundamentally wrong – if spoilers really do reduce the experience of watching or reading a story – what does this study reveal?
I suspect the study produced the results it did because knowing the “spoiled” details reduced the tension and emotional investment in the story, making the adventure less traumatic and turning the focus on the cleverness of the storytelling rather than the emotional ups and downs offered by the story itself.
A story that’s been “spoiled” can still be enjoyed, but it’s a different kind of enjoyment: more aloof and analytical, less traumatic and personal. The ‘pleasure’ may be enhanced, but the depth and richness of the experience, the complexity it offers and submission it demands, may be diminished.
A story may offer more enjoyment the second or third time than it did the first time, but it’s not the same type of pleasure. Much of the experience may even be through a kind of nostalgia: rereading a story, I enjoy remembering how much I enjoyed it the first time.
It’s a bit like bringing a child to Disneyland. Part of the fun is had in experiencing the park vicariously, imagining how much fun it would be to see for the first time. The adult may very well enjoy the visit more than the child, in part because the adult can enjoy their own pleasure even while they share that of the child. But an adult life is diminished if all of life’s pleasures are experienced indirectly, through others.
In a way, we all like to know the ending ahead of time. Maturation is largely a process of figuring out what things in life aren’t going to work, and learning to avoid them. Many arguments simply aren’t worth having, and many emotional experiences seem to be more trouble than they’re worth.
But we read and watch stories to recapture those demanding emotions we may avoid in everyday life. Nobody who watches Game of Thrones really wants to battle the undead in a frozen wasteland, but we seek out this unpleasant experience because it appeals to much that is dormant inside each of us. In some way, the raw emotions stirred by the traumatic experiences onscreen are familiar. They remind us of who we really are: powerful, uncivilized, and…unspoiled.