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Don’t ruin the ending for me!

Friday, September 2, 2011
posted by Rita Handrich

I love to read. Now, I tend to read while driving courtesy of my iPod and recorded books. And when this study first came out, I was appalled. ‘Stories are not spoiled by spoilers’. I knew intuitively that it was not true. I want to be pulled along, drawn in and surprised by a good book. I certainly don’t want you to ruin the ending for me.  And someone dares to intimate that telling me the ending will only make the story that much more enjoyable?  I don’t think so.

Researchers used twelve different short stories composed of three types of themes: ironic-twist, mystery and literary. Some stories were presented with a brief ‘spoiler’ paragraph and others were not. In the research, subjects preferred the spoiled versions of all three types of stories. Why? The researchers hypothesize that we like things easier to process so when we know the ending, we prefer the story. They also suggest that we simply enjoy good writing and knowing the story’s ending does not diminish our pleasure.

And as I read their research, I realized a key difference was the idea of a brief, short story. When I am reading, I’ve made a commitment to a longer story. It’s hours and hours of pleasurable uncertainty, and miles and miles of road. I often know whodunit by midway through but I still enjoy getting there. And in that way, the researchers are right. I don’t mind knowing the end if I still don’t know how we get there.

It’s the same for jurors. They start their work knowing the end of the story. The course of trial is about knowing how we got there. In essence, who did what to whom and when and where and (most importantly) why. The key to telling that story is in pacing, carefully constructing the narrative and then in telling the story in an engaging way that does not lead jurors to ‘check out’ along the way. Therein lies the ultimate value of pretrial research. You can see what aspects of the story are particularly compelling to the listener.

And in the ultimate irony, jurors have to choose between two versions of the same story—the plaintiff/prosecution version and the defense version. Which story will they enjoy more? Who tells the story better? More credibly? Whose story more closely aligns with my own attitudes and values and therefore fits into their world view?

It’s good to know that spoilers don’t spoil stories told well. The challenge in court is to never lose sight of the fact that what you are doing is telling the best story you can weave together from the facts of the case.

Leavitt JD, & Christenfeld NJ (2011). Story Spoilers Don’t Spoil Stories. Psychological science PMID: 21841150


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