Do spoilers spoil the fun?

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 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.


  1. Johnny Vector says

    Penn & Teller have a bit where Teller does the cups & balls trick with clear cups. You can see exactly when he palms the balls and how he’s misdirecting you. I find that to be just as much fun as when you can’t see what he’s doing, because he does it so well. It’s similar with stories. If it’s a well written story, I don’t care that much about surprises. There are lots of movies that go exactly where I expect them to, but they do it really well. One of the first I consciously thought that of is Kinky Boots. It’s a totally unsurprising feel-good story, that I’ve seen before dozens of times in different forms. But it’s so lovingly written and acted and shot that I consider it a great movie.

    OTOH, of course if the surprise is a major part of the fun, it’s mean to spoil it.

  2. says

    I am one of those who not only does not mind spoilers at all, but actually seeks them out. I do not like surprises, at all, in any form.

  3. anat says

    I love spoilers. In fact I am not inclined to read or watch anything unspoiled. I search for spoilers, and if I’m reading an unfamiliar book I make sure to spoil myself by skipping back and forth. My typical reading pattern is -- read the first few pages, skip to the very end, then read several random bits here and there until I get the skeleton of the plot, and only then go back to the beginning and read the whole thing, while occasionally still skipping ahead now and aagin.

  4. seachange says

    There are two different kinds of pleasure here, and they are being conflated.

    There are some stories that I like that I read/watch again, because I do like the story. Many of them are quite predictable. The kiddie show by Disney called Phineas and Ferb is an example of multiple variations on the exact same show. Sesame Street when it first came out (I wasn’t quite the little kid then, but still young enough to watch it) was a chaotic mishmosh but nowadays it’s formulaic and predictable but still fun to watch. At the time it first came out it was thought that children’s brains needed the chaos, but they think now that children like the comfort of repeatability when learning.

    That’s just the pleasure of any fiction and what I think is being “tested” here.

    Some people like to be surprised. This is a pleasure separate from that of storylistening that cannot be repeated. IME folks who like to tell spoilers are when you get to know them in general spoily spoil spoilsports, so of course they’d come up with a study like this so they don’t feel like the BAD PEOPLE that they are.

    I didn’t find Colombo all that fun to watch.

  5. says

    Personally, I don’t mind spoilers most of the time. I’m more interested in how exactly the plot goes from one state to the next one. I don’t care about being surprised by some big plot twist at the very end. For a practical example, let’s say I’m reading a detective and somebody tells me who the culprit is. I wouldn’t mind such a spoiler. Why not? I’m more interested in how exactly the crime was committed. A single fact, namely knowing who the culprit is, doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of finding out the details. Alternatively, let’s say I’m reading the same detective and somebody gives me a very detailed explanation about how exactly the crime was committed and how the detective figured it out. Now this is the kind of spoiler that I would no longer like, because I don’t want to know all the details about what will happen next in the book.
    By the way, there have been plenty of cases where I intentionally sought spoilers for some novel I was reading. I’m OK with a bit of suspense and guessing about what will happen next, but occasionally writers overdo their attempts to keep the plot mysterious, which results in me not understanding what’s going on. I don’t like being confused and not understanding what’s going on in some story; in such cases I intentionally look for spoilers online.

  6. ridana says

    I’m extremely anti-spoiler, but recognize that that can be taken too far, where people get upset if they’re told almost anything about a piece beyond the title and genre. And while I appreciate the efforts of others to police spoilers, sometimes they’ll point out that there are spoilers in the opening credits of a series, which only serves to actually spoil it, because people who haven’t seen it (or read the source material) don’t recognize that what they’re seeing is a spoiler, until it’s pointed out. smh

    After sneakily revealing the end of short stories when describing them to test subjects

    Define “sneakily.” The paper really doesn’t, giving only one example, for stories that weren’t a mystery or didn’t have twists. Basically the kind of story that few people would care about being spoiled on (e.g., kid gets thrown out of church and instead of just having a fun morning off, *shock!* learns life lessons by feeding a homeless guy). If the reveal is so sneaky, people probably didn’t realize they were being spoiled until the end (see my first paragraph), so while they still enjoyed it, they enjoyed it in a second reading way.

    A second viewing/reading is a different experience, and I do usually enjoy series of all types more the second time because I don’t have to learn all the characters and world-building, and see things I didn’t have time to notice before (also for anime, I can watch the dub and not have to read subtitles). But that doesn’t mean I don’t want the firsthand experience of discovery/surprise I get during an unspoiled first viewing, and spoilers rob me of that. In the terms of this study, they essentially make a first viewing the second viewing.

    I also hate it when, in discussions of ongoing series, I try to speculate on what’s going to happen and people who know either tell me if I’m right or wrong, or say something that still obliquely tells me. People familiar with the story don’t realize how much they can give away by what they don’t say. I’d rather they didn’t reply to my guesses at all.

    The only time I don’t hate spoilers is when I don’t care at all about the story being told and am just consuming it to kill time. I’ll happily read spoilers for those just to clarify what’s going on, or in case I get bored and drop it, I’ll know how it ends anyway.

  7. file thirteen says

    I have had several spoilers spoil my enjoyment. When I said I’d had a game recorded and someone thought it funny to blurt out the final score. When someone inadvertently revealed a major plot twist in a series I was watching, a series where either major character could come out on top. After the spoiler, the duel of wills became much less interesting because you knew which one would win.

    I feel I need to explain that last comment in more detail. This wasn’t a nice series where the good guy inevitably wins (it was Death Note, a Japanese anime since you ask), and I much prefer that kind of thing. Maybe we’re getting that in series now, but many movies still have formulaic happy endings, and even those that don’t often telegraph the end by throwing a mournful score at the viewer to let them know what’s coming. I am inevitably disappointed when a movie ending becomes obvious before it occurs.

    So, my biggest spoiling, if you can call it that, was when watching The Sixth Sense at the cinema, by me myself. Early on through the movie I worked out what the big “twist” was -- my mistake was not to realise I’d spoiled it for myself. Then as the movie progressed, it became more and more obvious that I was right until they made it so clear that “surely everyone knows by now”. I was getting more bored by the minute because the story didn’t seem to be advancing. Then at the end, when I waited for a “real” twist, that was it. What an utter waste of time! To this day, I loathe that movie.

  8. mnb0 says

    “Do spoilers spoil the fun?”
    It really depends on the genre. In the mystery genre (think of Agatha Christie), when a lot depends on the question whodunnit, they absolutely do. A prime example is Usual Suspects; as soon as I correctly had concluded who Kayser Soze was the movie became soso.
    However in French crime noir (a prime example being Le Clan des Siciliens) I don’t spoil anything when I reveal that the criminals (the Delon and Gabin characters) lose at the end. These movies are totally about the how, not the who. Personally I find it much more enjoyable to rewatch such movies several times than mystery movies. The Columbo series started in 1971, so I bet it was influenced by the success of those French movies.

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