Indulging In Indirection

Readers actually enjoy stories more when authors are less coy:

Subjects significantly preferred the spoiled versions of ironic-twist stories, where, for example, it was revealed before reading that a condemned man’s daring escape is all a fantasy before the noose snaps tight around his neck. Subjects read stories as-is and with introductory paragraphs that gave away the endings, or spoilers. In almost all cases, they preferred the “spoiled” stories. The same held true for mysteries. … Subjects liked the literary, evocative stories least overall, but still preferred the spoiled versions over the unspoiled ones. (more; study; HT Patrick Salsbury)

Students also learn from teachers who are more direct:

When Detterman began teaching…

I thought it was important to make things as hard as possible for students so they would discover the principles for themselves. … Now … I try to make it as easy for students as possible. Where before I was ambiguous about what a good paper was, I now provide examples of the best papers from past classes. Before, I expected students to infer the general conclusion from specific examples. Now I provide the general conclusion and support it with specific examples. (more; HT Bryan Caplan)

If readers enjoy stories without surprises better, and if students learn better from teachers who are similarly direct and unsurprising, why are authors and teachers so often indirect, and why do readers and students support them?

Two obvious complementary explanations stand out:

1) Readers and students prefer to signal their cleverness at figuring out what an author or teacher is saying. Overly direct authors or teachers insult us via visibly presuming our inability to follow subtleties.

2) Homo hypocritus is in the habit of speaking indirectly:

It is easier to use play talk to evade talk rules if groups develop a very local culture and language – particular words and associations that have particular meanings due to the local history. This makes it harder to clearly convince outsiders that something illicit was communicated. (more; see also)

I recently read Pride & Prejudice, and noticed how much the author flatters the reader, and how much the characters flatter each other, by speaking indirectly yet presuming that listeners understand the intended meanings. Only fools speak directly when indirection is possible, it seems.

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  • Matt C

    There are direct status effects from how much precision you ask for, too. Cool people don’t want or need everything spelled out for them. It’s anxious and nerdy types who always want to get the details nailed down in advance.

  • babar

    “readers”, “learners”, blah blah blah. WHICH readers, and WHICH learners?

  • Rob

    “Without even mentioning sex, Austen depicts characters representative of women’s short-term mating strategies. Even more interesting is the fact that college students are able to extrapolate this information from British Romantic
    Literature, written in a different style of English, and interpret and use the information for their own imaginary mating efforts.” (Source)

  • roystgnr

    The best stories I’ve read and seen tend to be the ones which work on multiple levels, so that even if you miss all the subtext and you don’t understand any of the subtlety, the story as-read still makes perfect sense the whole way through, but there are additional themes, references, and ironies that may require more effort or background knowledge to spot. The result feels like a sort of information compression: as long as decoding the indirection isn’t *necessary* to understand the story, not having it decoded explicitly by the writer saves time and avoids boredom.

    But maybe most people disagree, or maybe *I* really disagree but I can’t tell because I can’t do a double-blind study with only myself as a subject. The only flaw I can see in this study is that it doesn’t make any attempt to address the value of multiple readings. Without spoilers, you can appreciate the story once for the surprise and/or mystery, then a second time for the dramatic irony. With spoilers you’re effectively forced to “skip” the first reading.

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  • Adam

    If a story is spoiled, then the reader will be able to detect its subleties — things like foreshadowing — on the first reading. These sorts of literary tricks tend to indicate skilled, intelligent writing; and since the reader wants to look intelligent and discerning to the experimenter, I predict that readers would exaggerate how much they liked the spoiled version of the story.

    Otoh, signalling is so integral to fiction that it might be silly of me to speak to motive. Pleasure from signalling is as valid as any other, right?

    (Sorry for necro.)