Story SpoilersI prefer to know the plot of a story before I read it. There are a couple of reasons for this. On a visceral level, I don't like uncertainty; I like to know where I'm going. More important, however, is that on a professional level, I'm pretty good at anticipating plots. So when I'm reading a novel for the first time, it is like a puzzle; I'm trying to figure it out—match wits with the author, so to speak. This has certain benefits. It makes me hyper aware of each thing the author does and why he does it. But it isn't exactly fun and it stops me from losing myself in the story.

If I know the plot, I am better able to get inside the characters. I enjoy my time with them. And I'm able to evaluate the story on a broader scale. All of this may explain why I have never lost the child's interest in watching the same film again and again. I do the same thing with short stories. I do it with parts of novels—I've read certain chapters of Don Quixote many, many times. But I don't think I've ever read a whole novel more than twice; I don't have the time or reading speed for that.

It turns out that I am not alone in this preference. Two scientists at the University of California, San Diego have published a paper in Psychological Science titled, Story Spoilers Donít Spoil Stories.[1] Jonathan D. Leavitt and Nicholas J. S. Christenfeld write in their abstract:

[P]eopleís ability to reread stories with undiminished pleasure, and to read stories in which the genre strongly implies the ending, suggests that suspense regarding the outcome may not be critical to enjoyment and may even impair pleasure by distracting attention from a storyís relevant details and aesthetic qualities.

I would go further. Consider the following story:

A man wakes up late. He's in a panic. He quickly dresses and goes to the kitchen where he finds his wife, in her dressing gown, leaning against the sink in the dark. He asks her why she didn't wake him. She tells him they really need to talk. It unnerves him, but he has to get to work. He grabs some coffee and runs out the door. As he is unlocking his car, a truck comes around the corner, hitting and killing him.

I think that story has a surprising ending. The story implies some ominous confrontation between husband and wife that will hang over the day. But instead the guy is killed by a random occurrence. Surprising, boring, and completely lacking drama.

One of the hardest things about writing fiction is creating an ending that makes sense without being boring or obvious. But more and more, stories end satisfyingly rather than surprisingly. Consider the film The Sixth Sense. Most people find the ending of that film quite surprising. I know I did. And yet, if that were all it was, it wouldn't have been good. I've seen it a half dozen times. What brought me back was the sadness of the film. The first time I watched it, I was focused on the boy. Every other time, I was focused on the husband and wife.[2]

Tim Parks wrote an excellent article in The New York Review of Books called Why Finish Books? In it, he makes the case that reading a book is a certain experience and when we've had enough of that experience we ought to stop. He further suggests that we get over our childish obsession with equating finishing a book with accomplishment.

I think this is excellent advice, even if I find it hard to follow. Friends of mine have told me how they skipped certain parts of novels—the technical chapters in Moby Dick, for example. And I've always been horrified. It seemed to me that I wasn't reading the book if I skipped even a word. In hindsight, I was deifying the writers. As a writer now myself, I know how silly that is. Part of a story may seem boring to me because, well, it's boring. Writers are not perfect, especially the great ones.

My current novel is fundamentally about a guy trying to figure out who killed his girlfriend. The plot is very much like the kinds of things Scott Turow writes. But I've been wondering why the book goes on a ways after we find this out. And I think I now know. I could write a plot summary in a couple of paragraphs, and you might find it clever—or not. But the ending would have no emotional impact, even though the ending is poignant; it would definitely make me cry. However, the only way it works is if you sit with the main character the whole way through and get to know him. The only way I know to trick you into doing that is to create a clever plot. But if you stopped reading the book halfway through, you would have got the experience that is most important: meeting my character.

Often novels annoy me. I want to know how they end, but the book doesn't seem worth it. If the book is a blockbuster, I can turn to Wikipedia for a summary. Of course, this is useless for me, because I don't read blockbusters. Wikipedia does not have summaries for the vast majority of novels, because, you know, most Wikipedia users don't read novels other than the Harry Potter books. (But just look at all the summaries of movies!) So I slog through the book to find out how it all turns out, even when (Especially when!) I figure I already know.

Is that any way to appreciate a novel?



[1] I heard a couple of news stories about this late last year. It sounds like something I would hear on NPR or read in Ezra Klein's WonkBlog. But I don't know. There is a very easy video introduction from ABC News, but I didn't get it from them.

[2] I am disinclined to reveal the ending, because it is fun to have that experience. However, knowing that there is a surprise ending is enough of a spoiler. And some people don't even need that. My mother, a master of plot deconstruction, had it nailed within 5 minutes.