Readings & Workings

Spoil Sports


L. Rhodes

Assuming that you haven't already seen it, I'm going to spoil The Usual Suspects for you. According to psychologists at the University of California, San Diego, that's okay. In fact, it might help you appreciate the movie even more.

Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt tested the effect of spoilers by giving subjects short stories to read. Half the group was told major plot points ahead of time; the other half was left to discover those plot points for themselves. Survey says:

Subjects significantly preferred the spoiled versions of ironic-twist stories, where, for example, it was revealed before reading that a condemned man’s daring escape is all a fantasy before the noose snaps tight around his neck.

The same held true for mysteries. Knowing ahead of time that Poirot will discover that the apparent target of attempted murder is, in fact, the perpetrator not only didn’t hurt enjoyment of the story but actually improved it.

Subjects liked the literary, evocative stories least overall, but still preferred the spoiled versions over the unspoiled ones.

So if it's true that spoilers actually enhance our enjoyment of stories, even those that seem most likely to be ruined by advance knowledge, why do so many of us get so upset when we run across a spoiler? In an editorial for Time's Tuned In blog, James Poniewozik suggests that digital media is driving our defensiveness. The argument goes that,

… as technology has made delayed viewing easier and spoilers more accessible (or unavoidable), people have increasingly, and unnecessarily developed a hair-trigger defensiveness about spoilers.

That may be so, but I seem to recall the trend gaining momentum even before it was possible to accidentally read a tweet about the episode of Breaking Bad you missed last Sunday.

In fact, the first time I remember feeling that advance knowledge of a plot twist had significantly undermined my enjoyment of a story was circa 1995 with The Usual Suspects. A capsule review in a newspaper (emphasis on paper) had listed Kevin Spacey in the role of "Verbal Kint/Keyser Söze." That, by the way, is the spoiler I promised at the beginning.

And it's here that the weakness of the UCSD research begins to show. Their experiment relied on 12 stories divided into three categories: ironic-twist, mystery and literary. To be sure, the plot of The Usual Suspects involves a mystery (who is Keyser Söze?) and an ironic twist (it's the guy telling the story!), but those aren't what makes spoilers so threatening. Rather, it's the way that the story is told that makes it vulnerable.

To the uninitiated, the interrogation of Verbal Kint may look like a rather straightforward framing narrative. Really, though, it's an exercise in misdirection. The story Kint tells is devised extemporaneously to throw customs agent Dujon off his scent $mdash; a fact that only comes to light within the narrative when Dujon belatedly recognizes that Kint was drawing inspiration from elements around the room. It's a well-done sleight-of-hand, but the thrill rapidly deflates when you know from the outset that you're being misdirected and from what.

Obfuscation is so central to The Usual Suspects that it's reasonable to talk of it belonging to a special category of story, the misdirection narrative. That is to say, some stories invest so much time and effort into concealing a fact from its audience that prior knowledge undermines the telling. It's possible to watch or read a well-done misdirection narrative for an appreciation of the craft involved, but the misdirection itself no longer works.

The fact that many mystery stories rely on misdirection to preserve the mystery until the denouement goes a long way toward accounting for our expectation that spoilers would ruin the story. But misdirection is often a cheap tactic in mystery stories. Those that abuse misdirection will be ruined by prior notice. The mysteries that really satisfy — and that, therefore, survive — are those that rely on some other narrative strategy, or are judicious in their use of misdirection.

The problem with the UCSD research is that it doesn't really test for misdirection narratives. Their reliance on short fiction may have been a liability on that count. In one piece on their results, Dan Kois told NPR's All Things Considered,

I feel like a novel cannot offer the same kind of visceral shock and pleasure that a great plot twist in a visual medium usually can.

I'm inclined to agree that novels are harder to spoil, but not, as Kois suggests, because the written word is somehow less visceral. Rather, movies and television lend themselves more readily to misdirection narratives, in part because they don't seem to be addressing the audience directly. The Usual Suspects works in part because the Kint/Söze character has a believable in-narrative reason for all of the misdirection. As a result, the audience doesn't feel that it's being lied to. They feel, rather, that their having been misled is a consequence of their having eavesdropped on a character that is being misled.

It's not impossible to do something of the sort in a novel or short story, but because the written word is so much closer to direct address, the terrain is more treacherous. Since the UCSD researchers weren't specifically looking for misdirection narratives, it's little surprise that they missed an entire class of stories that are, contrary to their findings, spoiled by prior knowledge.

If demand for spoiler warnings have increased in recent years, it may be because misdirection narratives went through a relatively recent period of vogue. The Usual Suspects was followed in 1999 by The Sixth Sense, a movie that succeeded at the box office largely on the strength of its twist. That catapulted M. Night Shyamalan to fame, ensuring a regular stream of high profile misdirections for the better part of a decade. And if we trace the trend in the opposite direction, we find the theatrical cons of David Mamet making their way to the big screen with increasing frequency, perhaps culminating in 1997 with the critical reception of The Spanish Prisoner.

That may be a clue. All misdirection narratives are essentially con jobs. (That said, not all movies about cons are really misdirection narratives — Ocean's Eleven features some misdirection, and centers on a con, but there's nothing really to spoil there, since it gets by on affability and laughs.) Was there, then, something about the atmosphere of the late 1990s — some form of political anxiety, perhaps — that alerted us to the appeal of misdirection narratives? That, unfortunately, is a story for which I have no spoiler.

Spoil Sports first appeared at http://cultureramp.com/spoil-sports/