Not to ruing the Crying Game (now available via streaming on Netflix– another tidbit from Roger Ebert) for you, but damnit, you have had 19 years to see by now. More notably, the latest research suggests that knowing the surprise twist does not actually diminish our enjoyment of movies, books, etc., that take advantage of this. I love being surprised, but hey, the science says I’m wrong. Jonah Lehrer:
The experiment itself was simple: Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt of UC San Diego gave several dozen undergraduates 12 different short stories. The stories came in three different flavors: ironic twist stories (such as Chekhov’s “The Bet”), straight up mysteries (“A Chess Problem” by Agatha Christie) and so-called “literary stories” by writers like Updike and Carver. Some subjects read the story as is, without a spoiler. Some read the story with a spoiler carefully embedded in the actual text, as if Chekhov himself had given away the end. And some read the story with a spoiler disclaimer in the preface.
Here are the results:
I will note, though, that these are means. Surely, for some people– though the data suggest a minority– there really is more pleasure in actually being surprised. Also, I totally disagree with Jonah Lehrer’s third intuition on the matter:
3.) Surprises are much more fun to plan than experience. The human mind is a prediction machine, which means that it registers most surprises as a cognitive failure, a mental mistake. Our first reaction is almost never “How cool! I never saw that coming!” Instead, we feel embarrassed by our gullibility, the dismay of a prediction error. While authors and screenwriters might enjoy composing those clever twists, they should know that the audience will enjoy it far less.
First, these differences are statistically significant, but I wouldn’t call it “far less” enjoyment. And I almost never feel gullible or stupid. If done well (i.e., Crying Game, Sixth Sense), I’m impressed at the craft in the storytelling. Actually Lehrer’s first point got me thinking, too:
After all, mass culture consisted for thousands of years of stories that were incredibly predictable, from the Greek tragedy to the Shakespearean wedding to the Hollywood happy ending. (Did this hankering for shocking endings begin with The Usual Suspects? It’s not like Twitter could ruin the end of a John Wayne movie.) What this research suggests is that the lack of surprise was part of the pleasure: We like it best when the suspense is contained by the formulaic, when we never have to really worry about the death of the protagonist or the lovers in a romantic comedy. I’d argue that, in many instances, the very fact that we’re seeing a particular type of movie (or reading a particular type of book) is itself a giveaway, a reminder that we know how it will all turn out. Every genre is a kind of spoiler.
I’m thinking maybe I really am different from the average person. One of the reasons the Wire was such a great show, was that you could truly believe the creators might kill off any character. In the real world, sometimes the good guy dies. I was just watching this week’s Breaking Bad last night and I really would not have been totally surprised if one of the show’s leads had been killed off. The fact that I was even considering that as a possibility, is one of the things that makes Breaking Bad so much better than ordinary television.
You may be convinced otherwise, but personally, I will still avoid spoilers. I’ll end the post with one, though. Not to ruin it for you, but the Apes take over in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. .