I am one of those terrible people who reads the end of a book before deciding whether to buy it. It’s ridiculous behaviour – I’m doing myself out of the anticipation that builds up during the course of the story – but I can’t help myself. I have to know that there’s a good strong closing point. Cliffhangers send me into paroxysms of rage and impatience, literally bouncing up and down on the sofa. Most of the time I write the end of my stories first as well. They’re heavily edited later to make sure everything ties in smoothly, but the basic anchor is there.
What is this obsession with knowing the end ahead of time? Is it simply impatience and a generational inability to cope with delayed gratification? Is it a need for reassurance that there is an ending, happy or otherwise? Is it simply an insatiable curiosity? Despite people ever so carefully (most of the time) working around spoilers on places like Facebook, I actually quite like them. If they’re dangled in front of me with the option of spoiling, I will go for the tidbit every time.
Apparently I’m not alone. Some students in San Diego did a bit of research into this and concluded that spoiling actually enhances the enjoyment people get out of a book:
They make some good points, too. The one that really struck me is that this care over spoilers is a modern trend – ‘back in the day’ people generally knew what the end was, but read the book or went to the play or listened to the bard anyway. The Greeks all knew that Troy lost; in 1997, despite being fully aware of the likely outcome, enough people went to see Titanic that it became the first film to gross over $1bn.
There is a theory that says people don’t like surprises, unless they see them coming:
The human mind is a prediction machine, which means that it registers most surprises as a cognitive failure, a mental mistake.
I don’t necessarily agree with this. The M Night Shyamalan twists, for example, I absolutely loved despite not working them out in advance. But they are tricky to pull off, and there can be a risk of alienating your audience especially if, as the quote indicates, they feel conned or stupid.
There is, of course, another trick to all this and that’s the power of wilful forgetfulness. I can watch the same films and read the same books over and over because I am willing to forget the details in order to enjoy them again. It’s the same with reading the end first – the sting of suspense is drawn, and I can then read without worrying about the finale.