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How Do You Say “Spoiler Alert” in French?

Spoilers make everything better.

Quite a bit of attention has been given to the counterintuitive findings of this study by Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt of UC San Diego’s psychology department. The gist is that when readers were told in the ending of a story before they read it, i.e., the ending was spoiled, readers enjoyed the story more. I was reminded of a Faulkner seminar I once took; we read Absalom, Absalom, and the teacher pointed out that the first pages of the book provide an outline of the entire story that follows. It’s as if Faulkner were saying, here, I’m going to give away the surprises of the plot here at the beginning, so that you can forget that crap and we can focus on the important stuff. And, indeed, one of the authors of the spoiler study is quoted saying, “Plots are just excuses for great writing. What the plot is is (almost) irrelevant. The pleasure is in the writing.” Faulkner would approve.

But, but…

But the researchers are careful to note that they do not have a new recipe for writers to follow. After all, spoilers helped only when presented in advance, outside of the piece. When the researchers inserted a spoiler directly into a story, it didn’t go over quite as well.

Isn’t that odd? I’m curious how exactly the spoilers were inserted into the stories. Did the readers sense that the altered stories were betraying themselves? I dug out one of the stories the researchers used, “The Bet,” by Chekhov (not one of his best, by the way), and it wasn’t clear to me how a spoiler could be inserted into the text without disrupting the rhythm of the piece. Maybe a skilled writer could give away the ending in a story in a way that gets the benefit without losing the reader. But, taking the study’s result at face value, apparently the lesson for writers is that they should never try insert spoilers into their stories; instead they should send spoiler e-mails to their readers before the readers have had a chance to read.

In America, to say that you could see the ending coming from a hundred pages away is a pretty terrible insult to a book. (This notion has been codified in Flannery O’Connor’s often repeated construction, that a story’s ending should seem “surprising yet inevitable.”) But this is not necessarily a universal principle. I’m not as widely read in international literature as I would like to be, but a friend who does literary translations from French once told me that the notion that endings must be surprising seems to be an idiosyncrasy of contemporary English literature. The rest of the world doesn’t necessarily care so much if you can see the ending as it approaches. C’est la vie. Oui? And now the science seems to say maybe they’re onto something.


About Nick Arvin

Author of The Reconstructionist + a couple other books.

7 comments on “How Do You Say “Spoiler Alert” in French?

  1. Beth Obermeyer
    August 22, 2011

    Sometimes I read a story a second time. I know how it ends but love how the details get told, see new clues each time, appreciate the obstacles more. Can I say this? In my new book, the reader knows at the start that 1,801 townspeople will gather on a tough downtown street, all have found tap shoes and learned the dance, to open their arts center. The story is over three decades old and still in the news. Sometimes the reader likes to be in on the hunt.

  2. susannadonato
    August 22, 2011

    Very interesting. Sometimes I think I do enjoy a book more if someone has told me what happens in the end, but I think I enjoy it that way as a writer, not a reader — when I’m watching out to try to see how the author “did that.” On the other hand, I also know people who like to know the ending (of a book or a movie) because it relieves the tension/nerves and they can just enjoy the journey.

  3. Heather
    August 22, 2011

    Bookworm kid that I was, I always hated getting to the end of a good book, so I made a conscious effort to “forget” the ending after I read it, so that I could have the full pleasure of re-reading it. And I re-read my favorites many many times. Unfortunately I became so good at this that I now cannot remember the endings of books or movies to save my life. Strangely, as I would get closer and closer to the end on a re-reading, I would actively imagine the ending going either way, and then just revel in the telling as it unfolded. So I guess what I’m saying is I agree with the study. Endings are overrated; the pleasure is in the telling.

  4. Nick Arvin
    August 22, 2011

    Heather, that’s amazing. Your story reminded me of a novel, THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT’S WOMAN, by John Fowles (by the way, how much more “French” can I work into this post, I wonder?). It’s written in a way that provides two alternate endings for the reader to pick from. Sounds gimmicky, but within the larger framework of the novel it makes perfect sense. It’s a fantastic book.

  5. Tom Walker
    August 22, 2011

    I agree that knowing the ending has changed my experience reading a few stories. I think it has something to do with being told “you are going to Disneyland” and once you know that you think “well, ok Mr. Smartypants writer, let’s see how you take me there from your starting point.” So maybe it engages the reader more in an adventurous or critical way to see if the path is entertaining, believable, and ultimately if it forces you to keep turning pages. Which in the end is what I imagine you writer folk want us to do. N’est pas? (vous voyez que j’ai fait là?) But knowing this, then why don’t I immediately read the endings to all my books? That’s where the psychology comes in. People tend to “spoil” things quickly and succinctly (Dumbledore kills Yoda!), whereas if you read it within the pages or you flip to the end of the book you absorb more of the context and lose some of the adventure. That’s just my theory though that I made up just now.

  6. Aray
    August 25, 2011

    It’s been a million years since I read it (maybe it was Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos?) but there’s a book that indicates the fate of its characters with symbols from their first introduction, as in any character with an asterisk will be dead by page 50, etc. I thought it was a fun way to spoil things, without really spoiling anything. After all, it’s the how, not the what. (If only I knew how to say that in French).

  7. Edward Gauvin
    September 13, 2011

    Apres tou, l’important n’est pas ce qui arrive, mais comment cela arrive. Thanks for the link, Nick!

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This entry was posted on August 21, 2011 by in Uncategorized, Writing and tagged , , .

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