By promoting one technique, the twist, and one effect, surprise, stories get bent out of shape. They try too hard to counter expectation and resist predictability. The Lord of the Rings is totally predictable from beginning to end, but the series does not suffer for it. William Shakespeare gave away the end of his tragedies by billing them as such and no one seemed to mind (Romeo and Juliet even told the audience the story in a prologue). Columbo, a classic crime serial, reveals who committed the murder at the beginning of each episode and succeeded in making the investigation thrilling to watch. Stories that promote surprise over character end up as mere soap opera, a series of sensational shocks. That corrodes credibility, while some reveals – it was all a dream! – do not so much blow minds as waste time. More significant than all of this, though, is the fact that surprise is overrated. A study carried out by Jonathan Leavitt and Nicholas Christenfeld of the University of California, San Diego, in 2011 found that knowing how the story ends doesn’t hamper enjoyment – it increases it. Fittingly, the researchers announced their conclusion in the title of their me “Story spoilers don’t spoil stories”.
Here’s a more scientific example of how this tendency works. Two psychologists, Peter Ditto (of the University of California, Irvine) and David Lopez (founder and CEO of iAnalytics Statistical Consulting), told participants that they would take a test to determine whether they had a dangerous enzyme deficiency. For the test, participants had to put a drop of saliva on a strip and then wait for the results. Some learned that the strip would turn green if they had the deficiency; others learned that green meant they did not have the deficiency. The strip wasn’t a real test — it was simply a piece of paper that ever changed its color. The result? Participants who hoped to see the test strip turn green as evidence that they didn’t have the deficiency waited much longer than those who hoped not to see it turn green. That is, people waited more patiently for data when they believed the data would reassure them than when the believed it would scare them.