Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father. Did we just spoil the entire Star Wars franchise for you? Not necessarily, according to a recent study from the University of California, San Diego, where entertainment's effects on the human mind are the subject of serious scientific inquiry. Do plot spoilers ruin a story, or do they enhance the experience? Rather than just give the answer away, here's a brief guide:
What did the researchers do?
Researchers asked 30 college students to read three different stories by writers such as John Updike, Raymond Carver, and Agatha Christie, and rate their enjoyment of each one. The trick: One story had a plot spoiler in a separate paragraph at the beginning, another had a spoiler worked into the text early in the story, and the third was read as originally written. The students then rated their enjoyment of each story.
What did the study reveal?
Readers consistently enjoyed stories where the plot was revealed early in the tale. Ironically, this was especially true in murder mysteries and other stories with surprising plot twists, where the enjoyment would seem to hinge on the element of surprise. Even in more literary stories without a "surprise ending" or plot twist, the students got more pleasure out of the stories when they knew the outcomes early.
Why would a plot spoiler enhance the story?
There are a handful of theories. One is that the plot just isn't that critical: "Plots are just excuses for great writing," says Nicholas Christenfeld of UC San Diego, as quoted by TIME. "What the plot is is (almost) irrelevant. The pleasure is in the writing." Or perhaps "surprises are much more fun to plan than experience," says Jonah Lehrer in Wired. "The human mind ... registers most surprises as a cognitive failure, a mental mistake. While authors and screenwriters might enjoy composing those clever twists, they should know that the audience will enjoy it far less."