Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Spoiler Alert: There is No Such Thing

By Andrew E. Kaufman

I’ve been spending about 98% of my time going crazy lately. No, really, I have. If you don’t believe it, ask those who know me.

I’m getting ready to release my new novel, a psychological thriller, The Lion, the Lamb, the Hunted. But that’s not the problem—it’s what happens during the process that puts me on the Crazy Highway. Lots of second-guessing. Lots of worrying.

My latest neurosis came after sending copies out to beta readers. It appeared there was a bit of a plot issue—as in, nearly everyone had it figured out about halfway through.

I panicked.

My editor told me to chill, that it was okay for the readers to figure it out, as long as they don’t feel as though my protagonist is a complete moron for not doing the same.

A trusted writer friend also told me to chill, that it was okay because "Doesn’t everyone like to feel smart?"

Even the beta readers who figured it out said it wasn’t an issue because they thoroughly enjoyed the story from start to finish and that even though they knew the what, they still read on to find out the why.

Did I listen? Hell no. I panicked some more, started doing my usual mental machinations, then went through the manuscript trying to figure out where I went wrong. After that I restructured the novel adding new elements and chapters in order to camouflage my apparently transparent plot.

Problem solved. All was right with the world.

Until, that is, I read this article about a study done right here at the University of California, San Diego. Volunteers were asked to read different versions of twelve stories written by John Updike, Roald Dahl, Anton Chekhov, and Agatha Christie. One had the spoiler worked into the opening paragraph, the second had it written somewhere in the body of the work as part of the story, and the last gave no hint of the ending, whatsoever. The results? When asked to rate their enjoyment, the readers almost always chose the one with the spoiler right up front.

In a written statement, one of the study’s organizers said:

"Plots are just excuses for great writing. What the plot is, is (almost) irrelevant. The pleasure is in the writing." Another said that knowing the outcome helps the reader follow the story better, and as a result, enjoy it more.

I'm not sure about the first statement, but can see how the second might apply. And I'm thinking our editor at large, Jodie Renner might have some opinions about this as well.

So I'm wondering: did I waste my time rewriting my novel? Does knowing the plot decrease your enjoyment? Take the survey below and let me know, then feel free to add your comments. You can view the survey results here.


  1. Drew, I know I've told you before...sometimes I read the first chapter, then the last chapter, then go back and read the whole book. Not always, but sometimes. I have loved books that I can figure out, books that I can't figure out and books that I knew without a doubt what happens because someone has told me the ending. Knowing the plot does not decrease my enjoyment, but I don't think you wasted your time. If a book is well written with great characters, I can enjoy it just as much if I'm clueless the whole time (WSS). And I have no doubt yours is very well written with characters that I'll love.

  2. This is a fascinating subject! Many of my readers say they love my novels because they're always surprised by the ending. Yet I read that article when it came out and started to wonder. I'm on several mystery forums and have heard readers say they figured things out ahead of the protagonist and still loved the story.

    Did you waste your time? Not if you made the story better. And I'm confident you did. Best wishes with your launch.

  3. In general, I appreciate a good surprise. A bit of a twist energizes both the story and my brain cells.

    Having said that, figuring out the who or the what doesn't always explain the why. As long as there's a reason to keep turning the pages, and the story is well-written, and I care about the characters, and there are some decent subplots, and the setting works, I'm there.

  4. What Peg said. LOL

    But yes, that's what I love most about LJ's books - the surprise twist at the end! That delights me and makes me close the book with a big smile of admiration for the author's skills in weaving a compelling plot with a very satisfying ending.

    I haven't read a lot of books where the author reveals the outcome partway through, and I'm not sure I'd like that. Foreshadowing and hints, yes, but as I'm reading along, I like to try to guess "whodunnit" or how on earth the hero is going to defeat the nasty villain. I think I might be a bit disappointed if I figured it out halfway through.

    So in my opinion (as both a reader and an editor), Drew, I think it was a very good idea to use beta readers, and I'm sure the extra time you put in after will really strengthen the story. Many writers wouldn't have been so conscientious at that point - good for you!

  5. Thrillers and suspense stories often provide some sort of easily-understood antagonist right from the start. The movie 'Cliffhanger' is a good example, where the audience knows all about the bad guys. Television telegraphs plot points and as often as not the audience can supply the next line of dialogue. What the readers hate is unresolved crimes, unpunished criminals, cars that did not blow up and go over a cliff...readers don't identify with plot. They identify with characters and situations.

  6. I agree with the survey - it's about the writing. The only time it bothers me that I've figured things out is if the characters are either too undeveloped to be interesting or too stupid to realize they should have figured it out, too.

    Two movies serve as examples: Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity. We are shown the ending, then given the details in flashback, if you will. Does that spoil your enjoyment, knowing it will not end well for William Holden or Fred MacMurray?

  7. I have a friend who often reads the end first because she said it makes her too nervous to enjoy the book if she doesn't know what happens. I never understood that. Books are like life--you really don't know what's going to happen. But then, maybe that's why some people like to know the answers, so that it isn't like life.

    I not only don't want to know the end, I don't want to know much of anything about a book before I start reading. For me, reading is about the process--whether it's a mystery or a mainstream book.

    But I do agree that "why" can be as important as "what" happens. One of my favorite Ruth Rendell books is Judgment in Stone. You know on the first page who did it. The book is about why--and it is a page-turner.

  8. I don't mind figuring out the plot but I enjoy the novel more if it keeps me guessing until the end. The only time I get annoyed is when the ending is obvious to everyone except the protagonist. However, if you felt compelled to do a little re-write I don't think that's a bad thing. The writer has to be satisfied with the work in the end. I'm really looking forward to reading The Lion, the Lamb, the Hunted!

  9. If it's a well written story, I doesn't matter if I know the outcome or not. I'll read for the shear pleasure of the story. And even if the plot is airtight and a mystery to the end, if the writing sucks, so does the story. (I hope that made sense). And if I can figure out a plot line before the end of the book, right on. But like that person in the study said, "I might have figured out the what, but I have to find out the why".

    I've read several books more than once, knowing the outcome, and still enjoyed them just because they were a good book. It's kind of like watching a movie over and over. You know who gets it in the end, but you can't help yourself.

  10. Have not read the other posts yet nor taken the survey yet ... I will! For me, I am not sure that knowing the plot up front is important but I do enjoy being fed clues that allow me to at least think I have figured it out. Sometimes I am correct and other endings hit me with an ah ha moment. I'm good either way but do think it is okay for a reader to know where they are going. Interesting post, as always, Drew!

  11. If it's a good, well-written story, it doesn't matter if I know the outcome or not. I don't usually seek out spoilers, but if I come across one accidentally, I really think I enjoy the book as much as I would have if I didn't know the ending.

  12. So far it seems the study is proving to be pretty accurate, at lease with our survey--although there are plenty of votes for not wanting to know the ending as well. It really is a fascinating topic.

    Will it make me stop trying to surprise my readers? Probably not. I'm still a firm believer that the Ah-ha moments in a book are golden. Having said that, I may not obsess over it as much now.

  13. Drew, I don’t like knowing the end of a story, especially in a mystery or thriller. I prefer it when the writer has established a couple of ways, or more, that the story could go. It seems if one wants to know the answers half-way through a story, then they should watch TV, as many of those shows are not well written, and one knows the ending before the second commercial.

    Write what you love, tell the story your way; readers will follow if they like your characters, your voice and style. So play with the doggies and don’t worry a lot. You are good at what you do and you know that. (and so do many of us.) :-)

  14. Drew, I second everything Linda said! Well put, Linda!

  15. Thanks very much, Linda and Jodie. I appreciate the compliment. And you are right. I'm a believer that you should always follow your passion when it comes to writing and pay close attention to it, that if you do, the rest will fall into place.

    I just forget to follow my own advice sometimes.


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