Surprise, Confirming or an Uncertain Ending: Which Gets You The Most Readers?

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The most popular mysteries are those with a
high degree of uncertainty from the beginning.

The mystery and crime fiction genre draws large audiences, for example, with the “Law & Order” TV franchise or the best-selling novels by John Grisham or Mary Higgins Clark.

Neither writers, editors, publishers nor, as it turns out, researchers knew what makes various forms of crime fiction popular or appealing to consumers. Sure, we might guess, even make an educated guess. But do we really know based on reproducible results?  Now we do.

According to Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University, “The mystery genre is one of the more complex genres. Mysteries have multiple suspects, and multiple possible motives, which all add complexity. It is much different than a suspense story which just has a good guy vs. a bad guy.”

Research by Knobloch-Westerwick shows that not everyone enjoys a murder mystery with a surprise ending. People with low levels of self-esteem prefer crime and detective stories that confirm their suspicions in the end, or the confirming ending, while those with higher self-esteem enjoy a story that goes against expectations, or a surprise ending.

In other words, readers or viewers with lower levels of self-esteem prefer crime and detective stories that confirm their suspicions in the end, probably because it makes them feel smarter, while those with higher self-esteem enjoy a story that goes against expectations.

If you're an author or screenwriter that specializes in surprise endings, readers with low self-esteem will read or watch one of your stories and not come back for seconds.

If you're an author or screenwriter that exposes the bad guy early on then building evidence against this character until the end, you're going to lose readers or viewers that are easily bored. (Exceptions prove the rule: Columbo knew who dun it early on, but his richly developed character was so appealing that viewers stuck with the story to see the always surprising and often funny ways he solved the crime. ~ Ed,)

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But everyone seemed to enjoy mysteries where there were no strong hints of how the story would end, the study found. To draw the most readers, then, your endings should be uncertain, neither surprising the reader or viewer, nor confirming their suspicions. Give them the evidence, have fun with your characters, while appealing to a broader spectrum.

About the study
Knobloch-Westerwick conducted the study with Caterina Keplinger of the Hanover University of Music and Drama in Germany, published in a recent issue of the journal Media Psychology.

The study involved 84 German college students. The students all took a variety of written personality assessments. They then read a short, one-page mystery story in German titled “Murder Because of Lust or Greed?” The story was about a businessman who was murdered, with two likely suspects: the victim's wife and his lover.

The confirming vs. the surprise ending
The students read one of three versions of the story.
  • One version presented both suspects as equally likely to have committed the crime (the uncertain ending.) 
  • A second version hinted that one of the suspects was more likely the killer than the other, and that suspect was later revealed to have been guilty (the confirmation ending). 
  • The third version also hinted that one suspect was more likely to be the murderer, but in the end the killer turned out to be the other woman (the surprise ending).
After reading the story, the participants rated how much they enjoyed the resolution of the story.
  • People with low self-esteem rated the surprising ending as much less enjoyable than the confirmation ending. 
  • People with high-self-esteem reacted in the opposite way, disliking being confirmed and enjoying being surprised.
  • One implication from this is that the most popular mysteries would be those with a high degree of uncertainty from the beginning.
“Mysteries that thwart or confirm expectations in the end only pleased some of the mystery readers,” she said. Knobloch-Westerwick said while certain stable personality traits, like self-esteem, influenced enjoyment of mysteries, there may also be situational factors that have an effect.

“If you have a bad day at work that threatens your self-esteem, you might enjoy a confirming mystery resolution more than you would normally,” she said.

Readers that think vs. readers easily bored
Students in the study who scored high on a measure of susceptibility to boredom were slightly more likely to enjoy the story with high uncertainty.

Participants in the study were also tested for “need for cognition” – the tendency to enjoy thinking deeply about issues and situations in life. Those that scored higher on a scale for need for cognition enjoyed the story less than others, probably because this short story was rather brief and simple, she said. They would probably enjoy a more complex mystery plot.

Overall, Knobloch-Westerwick said mysteries probably appeal more to people who enjoy thinking more than average.

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Story Source: "Low Self-esteem? Avoid Crime Novels With Surprise Endings." ScienceDaily, 6 December 2006.

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