Would you like to read a PW review that went something like this? “The butler turns out to be the murderer in the latest cozy from Jessica Fletcher. In a classic gather-the-suspects-in-the-parlor ending, the modern Miss Marple again IDs the culprit, this time by realizing the significance of the depth of sprinkles sunk into an ice cream sundae on a hot day, after several other characters—the pastor, the chiropodist, and the actuarial student—come under suspicion for a couple of chapters each.”
I wouldn’t. As a reviewer, I routinely struggle to find the happy medium between too much and too little information, precisely because I believe that “spoiler” is spot-on to describe revelations of significant plot developments that ruin the work for the creator and the audience. You can’t step in the same river twice, and you can’t encounter the same story twice either. The engagement writers seek from their audience is vitally connected to the question, “What happens next?”
So, when on page one, a female cop and her prosecutor boyfriend are introduced, and on page three, he gets it in the neck, what to do? Including the murder victim’s identity in the review inevitably affects the reader, who on meeting the prosecutor, knows not to get too emotionally invested in him, and also knows exactly what his fate will be. Even fudging matters by writing that the lead loses someone close to her to violent crime (so that “this time, it’s personal”) will lead to wondering exactly when and how, rather than whether the male in the relationship will survive the book. But saying too little leaves only unhelpful vagueness—“NYPD Detective Inspector Hound must find who’s behind a fatal shooting”: how does that differentiate the book from hundreds, if not thousands, of others? I try to avoid spoilers, but if there’s a significant development early on, it’s hard to be a purist. I asked an experienced reviewer about this. He said that he tries to rearrange the book’s chronology so that surprises remain.
All this seemed uncontroversial to me before this past August, when a UC–San Diego professor and grad student published a study in Psychological Science, “Spoilers Don’t Spoil Stories.” Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt maintain that, rather than ruin a book, TV show, or film, revelations of what happens later on in a story increase enjoyment. And since their findings appeared in a peer-reviewed professional journal, the pair did more than make an assertion. They ran three experiments, taking 12 short stories and creating three versions for their subjects; the unaltered, spoiler-free text, one preceded by a paragraph disclosing the ending, and one with the spoiler placed in the body of the story. Their findings—most readers preferred the spoiled stories, even the Hercule Poirot one. Professor Christenfeld attempts to explain the data by contending, “Plots are just excuses for great writing. What the plot is, is (almost) irrelevant.”
With all due respect and at the risk of being labeled an unsocial scientist, I strenuously dissent, even without having run my own controlled trials. Many’s the book that’s given me pleasure even without the transcendent prose of a Diane Ackerman. Good writing, combined with cleverness, can produce a book as engaging as any literary masterpiece. Despite a lack of character depth, Agatha Christie’s ingenious plotting, in book after book, is what made them popular. And while I’m a John Dickson Carr fan, in awe of his artful misdirection in his impossible crime novels from mystery’s golden age, I wouldn’t call his writing “great.” I think that similar arguments can be made about other storytelling art forms: Shakespeare’s plays, the first two Godfather movies, even jokes.
I didn’t need a scientific study to tell me that.
There are readers who, like my daughters, twins Michal and Tamar, 8, and Elianna, 5, want to know that things will turn out okay in the end, who prefer to sacrifice suspense for peace of mind (unlike my twin sons, Shaul and Ephraim, 11). And considering youth, the study’s participants, recruited from “the psychology subject pool” at UC–San Diego, were most likely students, although the article did not qualify as to age. But to conclude, based on one experiment, that the majority of readers fall in this category is overreaching, at best. I’ll continue to match wits with John Verdon’s Dave Gurney or Paul Halter’s Owen Burns as they solve what seems insoluble. And when I review a book, I’ll expend mental energy revealing just the right amount of plot to give a flavor of it, without significant surprises.
Picker is a freelance writer living in New York.