At The Frontal Cortex (a blog you should bookmark), Wired contributing editor Jonah Lehrer reveals his backward reading habits (yes, he likes to peek at the endings first) and cites a study that may indicate people enjoy stories more when they know spoilers ahead of time ("Spoilers Don't Spoil Anything"). Is this why some moviegoers actually want to see trailers that consistently give away not only a movie's major plot developments but the best lines and most memorable (that is, salable) images?
I'm always in favor of spoiler warnings in criticism out of respect for readers who should be able to choose whether they care about discovering certain developments or twists if they haven't seen the film under discussion yet. If, like Jonah Lehrer, you prefer to know about endings (or story points beyond the basic premise) in advance, then go ahead and watch the trailers or skip to the end of the DVD or peek at the final pages of the book. Nobody's stopping you. But don't try to force your ways on the rest of us. The critic who delights in giving away spoilers is like the drunken heckler who's seen a stand-up comic's act and shouts out the punchlines before the jokes are set up.
I'm also interested in counter-intuitive arguments, however. (I'm fascinated that today's electric cars actually create more pollution and consume more energy than gas-powered vehicles, because of how their batteries are manufactured and charged -- which is not to say that we shouldn't make them, because the greater the demand, the more efficient the production cycle will become. And, of course, the less we rely on coal to generate electricity, the cleaner that process will get.)
While I question the statistical significance of the data in the study Lehrer cites, I do find some of Lehrer's observations intriguing. (I enthusiastically recommend his book about the arts and the brain, "Proust Was a Neuroscientist.") He concludes his post with three "random thoughts," to which I will respond one by one:
1.) In this age of information, we've become mildly obsessed with avoiding spoilers, staying away from social media lest we learn about the series finale of "Lost" or the surprising twist in the latest blockbuster. But this is a new habit. 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.
Genres do set up expectations: You can reasonably assume that a gangster picture or a war movie will not end with a wedding (though they might begin with one: "The Godfather," "The Deer Hunter"), or that, say, a slapstick romantic comedy will not end with the deaths of the protagonists (though it can be done: see Buster Keaton's 1927 "College"). But knowing in advance that something is a comedy or a tragedy really tells you only a little about the direction of the story's momentum, or the tone of a movie's vision. We don't always know exactly what kind of story we're being told until it's over -- which, I suppose, is part of Lehrer's point. But, personally, I'm not so sure I "like it best when suspense is contained by the formulaic." I'm happiest, I think, when I have no idea where the movie might take me, intellectually or emotionally; when unpredictable shifts in tone make me feel that anything could happen.
2.) Just because we know the end doesn't mean there aren't surprises. Even when I cheat and read the final pages first, a good thriller will still surprise me with how it gets there. Perhaps we've overvalued the pleasure of the shocking ending at the expense of those smaller astonishments along the way. It's about the narrative journey, not the final destination, etc. Christenfeld and Leavitt even speculate the knowing the ending might increase the narrative tension: "Knowing the ending of Oedipus may heighten the pleasurable tension of the disparity in knowledge between the omniscient reader and the character marching to his doom. "
Billy Wilder used this approach in "Sunset Boulevard," beginning with Joe Gillis dead in Norma Desmond's swimming pool as he narrates the tale of his own demise -- which emphasizes the fatalism of this Hollywood film noir. Starting a story at a climactic point and then looping back to show how the characters got into their predicament is a familiar storytelling device that creates a kind of narrative tension or suspense. Sometimes the characters themselves find themselves wondering how they got into this pickle. And sometimes we aren't let in on what's really happening until we return to the opening scene later on.
By the time "Fight Club" circles back to Tyler Durden and his hostage, we have a radically different perspective on the dynamics between the characters than we did at the beginning. "Out of Sight" was originally structured chronologically, but director Steven Soderbergh decided to give the opening a little more panache. So, Jack Foley (George Clooney) emerges from an office building in a huff, rips off his tie and throws it down -- freeze-framed in mid-gesture. What's he so mad about? We don't have to wait terribly long to find out, but the fun is in discovering how this moment sets the rest of the story in motion.
But these are choices made by the filmmakers. If they'd wanted to tell the story some other way, then they had that option. (Anyone who remembers the cut and straightened-out US theatrical release version of Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in America" knows how crucial such decisions can be. That version was horrible, even though the storytelling was -- in theory, at least -- more direct. Some like the chronological "The Godfather: A Novel for Television" that Francis Coppola pasted together in 1977, but I think it's a defacement, flattening out the inter-generational counterpoint that gives the "Godfather" saga, particularly the superior "Part II," its resonance.)
Any story worth telling is going to be more than just a formula or an outline and will contain "smaller astonishments" (not necessarily plot developments, but details, moments, images) along the way. We should at least respect artists/storytellers enough to let them tell their stories in the ways they prefer. That's their art. Is it more fun to know the punch line before the joke? Maybe, if the joke is constructed that way (e. g., Carnac the Magnificent). The tale, or the joke, succeeds or fails in the telling.
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....
This makes some psychological sense to me, as perhaps a variation on Stephen King's "ten-foot-tall bug" phenomenon, in which the reveal of a story's monster is greeted with shock, followed almost immediately by disappointment ('cause it could have been worse). However, I feel almost as sorry for those who pride themselves on predicting plot turns as I do for those who crow about their ability to spot continuity errors. What piffling ways of looking at movies. I like to be surprised (or "fooled," if you prefer) -- not just for the sake of novelty, but because of a story well-told, a line well-written and delivered, an emotion well-played, an image well-composed, a cut well-judged...