we want stories to spoil
July 14, 2014 11:30 AM   Subscribe

My honors student is planning out her thesis and is looking for enjoyable short stories (that are in the public domain, preferably) that end in a twist. Details (and a few spoilers!) inside.

We are interested in the effect of spoilers on the enjoyment of stories. A study (PDF) was published a couple of years ago (and made it to the blue ... twice, with much heated discussion) in which it was shown that readers rated short stories with surprise or twist endings (think "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge") as more enjoyable when the ending was given away than when the ending was not given away. We are interested in replicating these findings and testing their limits, as well as seeing what kinds of characteristics or readers might influence the extent to which spoilers increase or decrease enjoyment of spoiled stories. The kinds of stories we want tend to fall into two categories: those in which a character is suddenly revealed to be something that the character (and the reader) didn't realize (like The Sixth Sense, where we learn near the end that the protagonist has been dead throughout most of the film), and those in which a character's fate suddently (and probably unexpectedly) changes, like in O. Henry's "The Last Leaf", in which a dying woman gets unexpectedly better. Because of our interest in these two types of stories in particular, we don't think we're just going to use the same stories that were used in the original study.

Finally, we'd like each story to be readable by a "normal" reader in about 10-15 minutes. Each participant in our study (which we will begin this fall, with recruitment being done primarily via MTurk) will probably read three short stories, and we'd like the whole study to take each person less than 45 minutes.

Thanks in advance for your suggestions!
posted by anaphoric to Science & Nature (19 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
Lottery winner

Perfect day for bananafish

A good man is hard to find

Childs play

Most dangerous game

tell tale heart

catbird seat



Yellow wallpaper

Selempica Girl Diaries

Harrison Bergenson
posted by saucysault at 11:35 AM on July 14, 2014 [16 favorites]

Came here to recommend Harrison Bergeron by Vonnegut.
posted by gnutron at 11:42 AM on July 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Kate Chopin - Desiree's Baby

Also pretty much all of Roald Dahl's short stories end in a twist, and they're twisted and dark and amazing, but I don't think they're public domain yet.
posted by Mchelly at 11:54 AM on July 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Edith Wharton, Roman Fever. The only short story I've read where the twist happens in the very last sentence, and all the people I've ever shown it to react with a gasp when they read it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:58 AM on July 14, 2014 [8 favorites]

The Necklace by Guy de Maupassant.

Very short and the twist is also in the very last line.
posted by humph at 12:21 PM on July 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

A Rose for Emily
posted by jeudi at 12:37 PM on July 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

O. Henry was the original plot-twist king. His best-known work ("The Gift of the Magi", "Last Leaf", "The Ransom of Red Chief") has been heavily anthologized so might not offer the element of surprise that your student is looking for, but he has lots of lesser-known stories.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 12:42 PM on July 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Here's an O. Henry story I used to use to teach irony (it's got several kinds in it). It also has a twist, as one would expect: The Cop and the Anthem.

There's audio at the link.

Here's something I just discovered: The Cop and the Anthem starring Charles Laughton and Marilyn Monroe (introduced by John Steinbeck!).

Here's a more accessible version of The Cop and the Anthem translated into "American English" (as opposed to O. Henry's "Old Timey American English"?) by the US State Department.

Translate this, StateDepartment: WTF?
posted by notyou at 1:09 PM on July 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

"The Painted Door" by Sinclair Ross.
posted by snorkmaiden at 1:10 PM on July 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

A.S. Pushkin, The Queen of Spades.
posted by mogget at 1:44 PM on July 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Open Window, by H. H. Munro (Saki). Here is the story, and here is a synopsis. She might want to read a few of the other summaries on that page, as well.
posted by wryly at 1:54 PM on July 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

Murder in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Alan Poe
posted by Jewel98 at 2:51 PM on July 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Monkey's Paw by W.W. Jacobs fits the second category. Some Sherlock Holmes stories would surely fit the first, though I can't think of a particular one (you could do a search for SH and 'disguise').
posted by Comet Bug at 7:15 PM on July 14, 2014

My favorite is "Good Country People," (.pdf) an examination of pseudo-nihilism and what becomes of it when it rubs up against The Real Thing. And so much more.

Flannery O'Connor was the tits.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 7:17 PM on July 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you everyone for the suggestions! We won't be able to use all of these in our study, of course, given the limits of our funds (to pay participants) and the attention span of our participants. My student and I will be reading these and rating them for how spoilable they are, and we'll pick the top three (along with a few alternates) in each of the rough categories that I mentioned in the original post. When we have data, I'll share preliminary results (right here in the responses to this thread seems like a good place to do so). When the project is written up, I'll share a draft of the paper here, too. If we ever manage to get this published, we'll announce it to you somehow. We'll also be sure to acknowledge AskMeFi and ask the mods if it's appropriate to post something in MetaTalk about this. But this is putting the cart way before the horse.

(We'll keep checking back here to see if new suggestions come in.)
posted by anaphoric at 7:51 AM on July 15, 2014

"Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge", "The Sniper"...
posted by hippychick at 9:13 AM on July 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Not that folks check back here too often, but for the record, we went with:

"Story of an Hour" by Kate Chopin
"Man from the South" by Roald Dahl
"Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut
"The Furnished Room" by O. Henry
"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" by Ambrose Bierce
"The Necklace" by Guy de Maupassant

We really wanted to use Edith Wharton's "Roman Fever" - it's terrific - but decided against it because it's a little long (about 15-20% longer than the longest story we chose, at least by word count) and we're asking our participants to read three stories and don't want to stretch their attention span any more than we need to; length also ruled out many other suggestions. In addition to length, we wanted to try to pick the best exemplars of particular types of plot twists, so our choices were further constrained. We got a lot of good reading in, though!

We are currently collecting data from undergrads at the University of Arkansas. As soon as we get a better feel for how long the study takes, we'll do another wave of data-collection via Amazon's Mechanical Turk. It won't be 'til late this semester (December) or maybe even January when we finally have data to share. As noted before, I'll ask the mods if it's okay to share results in MetaTalk.
posted by anaphoric at 1:56 PM on September 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Having just posted another similar question in AskMeFi, I thought now would be a good time to update anyone who looks here. My student collected data from about 120 participants in the fall, wrote up her results (spoilers do make things less enjoyable; not that surprising!) in her honors thesis, and graduated with honors about a week ago. We collected data from another 80 participants in the spring and are presenting the research at a conference this summer. We're also writing the results up over the summer to submit for publication. When I next talk with my student, I'll ask her if she's okay with me sharing her thesis with the AskMeFi community, at least until I can share the submitted version of the paper.

For those curious about other, related research, some recent publications (we got scooped) may be of interest, both showing that spoilers made stories less enjoyable (one paper has much stronger results than the other):


posted by anaphoric at 10:29 AM on May 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

Final update from the asker:
This research has finally made it through the pipeline and has been accepted for publication in the journal Discourse Processes. Those interested in reading a full report of the research can view the manuscript here. Please MeMail me if you have any other questions about how this all went down.
posted by cortex at 9:46 AM on January 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

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