Spoiler AlertWe enjoy stories more when we know the ending.

Spoiler AlertWe enjoy stories more when we know the ending.

Actors are notorious for spoiling their own movies. David Prowse accidentally revealed that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father two years before the release of The Empire Strikes Back.

“You lose that wild openness you might feel in your own life.”

You might remember where you were on July 19, 2007. In New York City, it was sunny and cool, with a scattering of popcorn clouds sweeping overhead. Most importantly, it was a Thursday—two days before the official release of the final Harry Potter book. And yet, on every newsstand that morning was a New York Times book review titled, “An Epic Showdown as Harry Potter Is Initiated Into Adulthood.”

By the fifth paragraph, readers were told, among other spoilers, that half a dozen beloved characters died, that a war had begun, that Voldemort’s followers breached the walls of Hogwarts and that Harry and Voldemort fought.

Anger flooded the internet. J.K. Rowling said she was “staggered that some American newspapers would publish purported spoilers in the form of reviews in complete disregard of the wishes of literally millions of readers, particularly children.” The New York Post responded with the article, “Why Does N.Y. Times Hate Kids.”

We don’t like spoilers. Or, as it turns out, we think we don’t like spoilers. A 2011 study from UC San Diego proved that we enjoy a story more—not less—if we know the ending. College students given full synopses of stories (including their surprise endings) reported greater satisfaction (on a scale of one to 10) after reading than students given the same stories without synopses. “Spoilers are actually story enhancers,” one researcher said. “You get to see this broader view, and essentially understand the story more fluently.”

But the angry resistance is real. (Try convincing a Game of Thrones fan that empirical evidence shows it’s better to know ahead of time who dies by the end of each season.) Where that feeling comes from is a question the researchers didn’t ask, but it’s one that’s worth considering.

In a story, you travel beside a character, binding your consciousness to theirs. You build intimacy through empathy—experiencing the world as he or she does, coming to resolution together. If you already knew that Jane Eyre was falling in love with a married man, you wouldn’t feel her same swoop of devastation on her wedding day and, when she later discovers him widowed, the swell of joy the moment she touches his outstretched hand. Knowing the ending would mean a break from Jane’s reality—a step away from her intimate purview and toward the author’s overview instead. When a story is spoiled, you lose that wild openness that you might feel in your own life—surprise coming without warning and changing you in ways you can’t imagine. That unfolding sense of mystery can’t be measured in a laboratory on a one-to-10 scale of satisfaction.

ISSUE 52

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