Recently I wrote about receiving an email that had a major spoiler for a recent film. The email was from someone I did not know who had sent it out as a mass mailing.to everyone at all connected with my university. In the discussion that followed my post, some readers said that knowing how things turn out actually increased their enjoyment. It turns out that there is some evidence in support of that position.
‘It’s not the journey, it’s the destination’ might seem like trite advice, but when it comes to storytelling, the worn adage actually seems to hold up to scrutiny. Just ask Nicholas Christenfeld, professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego: in a 2013 study, he put our cultural obsession with so-called ‘spoilers’ to the test. After sneakily revealing the end of short stories when describing them to test subjects, he found that their enjoyment of the fictional narratives actually increased – a conclusion that perhaps isn’t so surprising if you think about how many times you’ve watched your favourite movie or read your favourite book. However, Christenfeld still found that there was a forceful knee-jerk aversion to the idea of having a story spoiled, so you might still want to restrain yourself before blurting out the latest Game of Thrones twist to friends and insisting it’s for their own good.
(I think the adage should read ‘It’s not the destination, it’s the journey’ for the rest of the passage to make sense.)
Here is Christenfeld discussing the study.
In my own case, I am a big fan of the mystery genre that usually takes the form where a crime is committed and the sleuth reveals the culprit at the very end in a dramatic denouement. But on occasion, I have enjoyed reading the same books again but in a different way, where on the second reading I look for the subtle clues and details that I missed the first time around. It is true that once released from the focus of trying to predict what might happen, one can pay attention to many other things that one might have otherwise missed.
In the case of the TV series Columbo, the crime is shown right at the beginning and you know who did it. The whole story involves a cat-and-mouse game between Columbo and the villain about how he figures it out and then gets the evidence needed to make an arrest. It is a lot of fun.
Ultimately it comes down to respecting the wishes of the writer/creator and the reader/viewer. If the story was written with the idea of building up the suspense for a big reveal at the end, then most people will get their enjoyment from that. So one should respect that and not gratuitously spoil it for them. In the age of the internet, there are many sources where people can get the full plot before reading or seeing it, if that is what they prefer.