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Do Spoilers Ruin a Good Story? No, Say Researchers 238

Hugh Pickens writes "According to a recent study at the University of California San Diego, knowing how a book ends does not ruin its story and can actually enhance enjoyment. It suggests people may enjoy a good story as much as a good twist at the end, and even if they know the outcome, will enjoy the journey as much as the destination. 'It could be that once you know how it turns out, you're more comfortable processing the information and can focus on a deeper understanding of the story,' says co-author Jonathan Leavitt. Researchers gave 12 short stories to 30 participants where two versions were spoiled and a third was not. In all but one story, readers said they preferred versions which had spoiling paragraphs written into it. Even when the stories contained a plot twist or mystery, subjects preferred the spoiled versions. 'Plots are just excuses for great writing,' says social psychologist Nicholas Christenfeld. 'As a film director, your job isn't really to come to the conclusion that the butler did it. A single line would do that.'"
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Do Spoilers Ruin a Good Story? No, Say Researchers

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  • Not so (Score:5, Funny)

    by theweatherelectric ( 2007596 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2011 @12:15AM (#37103094)
    I read the article but the summary spoiled it for me.
      • I'd say whether it would be ruined or not at least in films (sadly I just don't have time to curl up with a book, barely have time to see maybe 1 movie a month) is whether or not it is a really good twist ( Six Sense) or a lame one you can see coming a mile away (Everything else directed by M Night).

        Frankly VERY few movies have a twist good enough that finding out will ruin the thing, most are so telegraphed that frankly who cares. I mean who didn't see the twist coming in say Unbreakable a fricking mile

        • by GrpA ( 691294 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2011 @05:58AM (#37104882)

          I think this view is somewhat shortsighted. As an author who enjoys writing stories with a solid twist in them, there is some validity to what you say, but then again, it depends on what you're trying to get out of the book.

          I find 98% of my readers don't spot the twist in my story until it's actually put to them and even then I spell it out for about 90% of them. The other 2% see it but only when it's getting really close, despite it being obvious from chapter 1.

          The purpose of the twist is to provide enjoyment - to set the reader up so they almost see it coming but can't quite work it out. To give them a chance to keep on guessing and to see how close they got. To achieve this, I use the bias of the reader against them so that they keep second guessing themselves until the final twist is revealed. To make sure all the clues are in plain sight is essential, but I still avoid showing the obvious thread between them.

          This also serves the purpose of giving the story re-readability. So that someone can read it a second time while knowing what the twist is and see all the subtle things they missed or misunderstood the first time. Nuances in conversation, tweaks in attitude. In this way the second reading is sometimes more important than the first.

          And I think that the missing piece of the research here is to consider whether the reader is reading the story once or twice. If knowing the twist, even one like the sixth-sense twist, helps you enjoy those nuances and you're only going to read the story once or watch the movie a single time, then sometimes knowing can enhance the enjoyment.

          I had never considered such before, but having thought about it, it actually makes sense. But I won't be posting any spoilers... Feel free to ask though. :)


      • What are you talking about? There is no such character in Chapterhouse Dune.

    • Re:Not so (Score:4, Funny)

      by davester666 ( 731373 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2011 @12:29AM (#37103208) Journal

      That's a switch. Normally, the Slashdot summary is so poor, it could be a summary for pretty much anything.

      And after writing the above, I thought of those generic fake movie trailers for some kind of sci-fi action film but I can't where I saw them.

    • Kenny dies (Score:3, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward


  • by 0123456 ( 636235 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2011 @12:20AM (#37103124)

    The only stories ruined by spoilers are the ones which rely on silly twists for effect. I know in any Bond movie that he's going to get the girl and save the day, but I've still watched most of them (OK, maybe that's not true of the most recent one because it was so awful that I couldn't handle more than fifteen minutes of it before I turned off the DVD so I've no idea how it ends).

    • by jhoegl ( 638955 )
      HEY! A plot to steal water from a desert is just as plausible as a frickin lasers battles in space
      But way way way... less cool.
    • Bond movies are not really known for their great storylines. They tend to be set pieces with the barest of plots to string them together. This is especially the case some of the later ones (before the reboot). I can't comment too much on the most recent one because, like you, I found it unwatchable. (Edit: I mean that you found it unwatchable and I did too. I did not mean that I found both the movie and you unwatchable).

      Twists do not have to be silly. There have be a couple of movies that had twists that c

      • Twists do not have to be silly. There have be a couple of movies that had twists that caused me to immediately restart the film and watch it again to look at it in a whole new light. In those cases, knowing the ending would have completely ruined the amazement.

        I agree in theory, movies I saw before the rise of the internet and the spoiler fest (like, Fight Club for instance, or The Usual Suspects), I remember being blown away by the ending the first time I saw them. Books are the same way for the most part, although I generally don't read the genres with a lot of twists and turns, I'm more of a sci-fi/fantasy buff where the awe is generally in the depth of the universe being presented and how vivid it is.

        But knowing the spoiler doesn't make those movies any less

    • by Kagura ( 843695 )
      I'm watching Battlestar Galactica right now. I'm about halfway through the third season, and I would sorely hate to have the rest of the series spoiled for me. The direction the series is heading is still up in the air, and I'd rather enjoy the journey as the authors intended... not knowing exactly what will happen when or if they reach Earth, and how things will eventually turn out. I'm not looking at the story comments anymore... closing this tab now. ;)
      • CAUTION: Spoilers Below!!

        Optimus Prime is a Cylon.
      • Turns out that Baltar’s Head Six and Caprica’s Head Baltar that we saw throughout the series were neither delusions, nor were they communications sent through an implant. They were angels. And Kara Thrace, who had apparently died, only to return to help guide Galactica to Earth? Well, she was probably an angel too.

        So to find out that Galactica’s entire voyage — the series — was steered by angels literally sent from God

        And Laura's death could've been some kind of histrionic, melodramatic affair...but it was handled with class and grace.

      • by mwvdlee ( 775178 )

        Spoiler alert; like season 1 and 2, it gets worse after season 3.

      • One of the problems I had with BSG and Caprica is the amount of episodes that start with something interesting then, instead of continuing the story from there and developing it, suddenly theres a cut and "48 hours ago..." (or 2 weeks ago or whatever) and then the story that led up to the opening scenes.

        Its like the episode starts with its own spoiler.

        This seems to be becoming more and more common in TV series.

      • My advice is to stop watching at the end of Season 3. From there, it starts to go downhill (an entire episode in Season 4 about a boxing match? Did they really think the worst episode in the whole of Babylon 5 - TKO - was worth copying?) and then the ending is so truly bad it's makes you regret watching the rest. Just pretend that it was cancelled after Season 3, and there was a really great ending that they never got around to writing.
    • >>The only stories ruined by spoilers are the ones which rely on silly twists for effect.

      When I was a kid, I was told by my friends that Johnny Five died in Short Circuit. I ran out of the theatre when he got taken out, and waited in the lobby for it to end. (I didn't know he came back to life.) So yeah, spoilers really can ruin an experience for you.

      Also, Snape killed Dumbledore.

    • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

      OK, maybe that's not true of the most recent one because it was so awful that I couldn't handle more than fifteen minutes of it before I turned off the DVD so I've no idea how it ends

      Shame because in that is the one film where he doesn't get the girl. I suppose you could argue that he didn't in On Her Majesty's Secret Service too.

    • Someone told me the ending to the Sixth Sense, boy did that make it hard to bother sitting through.
    • by Daetrin ( 576516 )
      Apparently we read stories entirely differently. Half the fun of reading a new book is trying to figure out what's going to happen before it does. It doesn't even have to involve a twist, silly or otherwise, as long as the entire story isn't 100% predictable after reading the first page. As soon as i start reading a book i start formulating a theory about what's really going on, a theory that gets continuously adapted as more information is revealed. That theory can take a sudden left turn if there's a big
  • by Anonymous Coward

    It's not the destination that's important, it's the journey.

    • by artor3 ( 1344997 )

      But you can't always enjoy the journey if you know what will happen. In some books, you know what will happen without spoilers - most authors are very kind to their protagonists. This is especially true of television, or serialized short stories, where the protagonists must always live to fight another day.

      But in many cases, stories are more realistic. Unforeseen troubles dash the hopes of the heroes. It's a lot more fun if your hopes are dashed along with them, and if you are led to feel a bit of the s

      • by anss123 ( 985305 )

        Unforeseen troubles dash the hopes of the heroes. It's a lot more fun if your hopes are dashed along with them, and if you are led to feel a bit of the same despair that the characters feel, wondering if perhaps this story has a tragic ending. And it is that much more joyful when they find a way to come out on top.

        I almost always read the ending before the start. Of course, I don't always read the ending, but IME I tend to enjoy the "spoiled" stories more. Just as the article claims actually. Finally, science is on my side! Take that anti-spoilers! The possibility of a tragic ending does not enhance my enjoyment of the story in any case.

    • Sometimes the destination affects the journey. That's what made the difference when I watched the Perfect Storm (only a week back, didn't know anything about the plot before, though I had seen the huge wave scene before.). If I had already know that it really was a perfect storm, then certainly my view of the movie would have changed, and that drastically. In fact, I was feeling increasingly pissed off as the movie progressed, because I felt that there's going to be nothing different about this movie, that
    • by Xugumad ( 39311 )

      > It's not the destination that's important, it's the journey.

      You don't fly in economy class a lot, do you? :)

    • It's not the destination that's important, it's the journey.

      You've obviously never had to fly Ryan Air.

  • The difference is, most books/movies do not have a good story. Instead most are pretty typical and only have a single twist at the end to give it any life. Heck, most every story is a rip off of Shakespeare which in turn was a rip-off of folk tales.
    • Precisely, many movies are entertaining without needing a plot. I think that Michael Bay is pretty famous for not worrying about the plot.

      But, if you look at the format with which stories are told, the structure really doesn't work very well if you know what the solution to the problems the protagonist is dealing with are. You know that ultimately Sarah Connor is going to win out over the Terminator, but the movie wouldn't be anywhere near as interesting if you knew how that comes about.

      You know that in mos

      • by dintech ( 998802 )

        I think I would change that to the following:

        many people are entertainable without needing a plot

        For others, especially older viewers for some reason, a plot is prerequisite for enjoyability.

      • i hope you are not implying that michael bay films are entertaining.
        • Armageddon is a fun film.
          Dumb? yes.
          Over the top? sure.
          Full of un-necessary "Micheal Bay Explosions"? quite so.

          But it's fun, nonetheless. And fun is entertaining.

    • by azgard ( 461476 )

      Maybe the spoiler will spoil a bad story, but it won't spoil a good story. Because most of the stories are bad, we still need spoiler warnings.

      Interesting example where the spoilers are really bad is magic. But for example Penn & Teller often do include spoilers in their magic, and it doesn't make it any less appealing. I guess this debate will never be decided.

  • When they say spoilers, they are referring to the Colombo mystery where they first show you who done it, and are asking participants to compare that with a Murder She Wrote where you aren't told. So this is a study of whether twists at the end unconditionally enhance our enjoyment...

    Well, duh. Of course it depends on the whole story.

    They make it sound like people would enjoy Murder She Wrote the same even after a friend gave away the ending. The misdirection in the title is the only reason why people are r

    • by artor3 ( 1344997 )

      The funny thing is, Columbo mysteries can be ruined by spoilers as well. Traditional mysteries are in the "whodunit" format. With Columbo, you know who did it, and that they'll be caught (this is Columbo, after all!), but what you don't know is how they will be caught. If someone tells you, "Hey, in Suitable for Framing, Columbo touches the painting while in the murderer's apartment, placing his fingerprints on it to later prove the painting was there", then that episode won't be nearly as much fun.


  • I can think of numerous times where not knowing what would happen in a book gave me an actual rush as I read it. Whether it's not knowing if a character will live or die (such as the mom in "Room"), or the gut-churning shock of a surprise heartbreak (such as in the short story "The Girlfriend"), surprises add greatly to the emotion conveyed by a good story.

    Stories can be good without such surprises... I know from the start that Sam Vimes will always come out okay in Discworld, and I can still enjoy the jou

  • by ThorGod ( 456163 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2011 @12:29AM (#37103196) Journal

    Pretty sure it was the ancient greeks, anyway. They would have a chorus sing the outline of the story before the actual telling. IRRC, that's how Homer's poems start (in an academic/'good' translation).

  • At least a little. For instance, I read "Fellowship of the Ring" before seeing the movie, and I found I couldn't enjoy it as much because of the deviations in the story, so I decided to forgo the books until after seeing the other two, and I found I enjoyed both the movies & the books more that way.
    • For decades I know already that the proper order is "first watch the movie, then read the book". As the book is often so much deeper than the movie - but then most books you don't finish in a few hours. Even in the, what is it, 8-9 hours or so for the complete LotR trilogy. Though the images presented in the movie may "spoil" your imagination when reading the books.

      Quite some times I have been disappointed by watching a movie after reading the book it's based on. Even if it's years later. Indeed the images

      • by Uberbah ( 647458 )

        There are exceptions, however. The girl in Jurassic Park did nothing but scream in the book, whereas she was a lot less annoying in the movie.

        • by Nidi62 ( 1525137 )

          There are exceptions, however. The girl in Jurassic Park did nothing but scream in the book, whereas she was a lot less annoying in the movie.

          That's because, in the movie, they basically split Tim from the book into both Lex and Tim. In the book, he's both a computer and an dinosaur nerd, whereas Lex (who's also younger), is pretty much a tomboy. In the movie, Tim is just a dinosaur nerd while Lex (who is now older), is a computer geek. They probably felt like they needed to make Lex a somewhat useful character rather than the annoying little girl Crichton made her to be.

  • If knowing the ending ruined all enjoyment, we wouldn't re-read books or watch movies again.

    Still, there can be extra fun in enjoying a story for the first time and not knowing what will happen. You can only experience a story for the first time once; and if someone spoils the ending for you, you can't even do it once.

    I really enjoy a good mystery story where the author plays fair with you, and you actually have a chance at figuring out who did it.

    One of my favorites: the novel Too Many Magicians by Randal

    • by rtb61 ( 674572 )

      Books are most definitely not the same as movies or TV series. Reading is not the preferred pass time of the majority. The cheetos crowd that loves plot free, weak story, no thinking video content, as long as it full of, from the gut thinking and, action scenes, generally don't read and do not really re-watch content.

      People who really enjoy reading, who use their own imaginations to fill out the content, create the visuals, sound, smells, sensations and tastes of a story, of course the journey is just as

    • I may be unique in it, but when looking for books in a library I tend to read the first few paragraphs AND the last few paragraphs, to decide whether I like it (and that's actually largely based on writing style - after preselecting on genre/title/etc). The books that passed that selection I've so far always liked. Now admittedly I don't read much any more these days.

      • I judge a book by its cover. If Michael Whelan did the cover art, chances are I'll enjoy the book.
        • Sadly I agree with this sentiment! In the 90's Jody Lee and Michael Whelan were my initial guidepoints for picking new fantasy novels.

  • Turns out the researchers got picked on incessantly in school and, after some major embarrassment at their senior prom (involving diapers, shaving cream, and Velveeta), made a pact to be pricks towards the entire human race for the rest of their lives.

  • I bet it sure as heck would have ruined that movie for many who were surprised at the end Bruce Willis was dead.
    Sorry for those that have never seen it, I hope that did not spoil it for you.

  • Hermione decides she's a lesbian.

  • by MisterJohnny ( 2029510 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2011 @01:11AM (#37103438)
    A sample size of 30? Stop the presses, boys! We have a goddamned epiphany of modern science to write about here! Thoroughly researched and everything!
    • Not to mention other psychological variables not taken into account for. How on earth is the experiment similar to how people choose and read stories in the real world? They've been put into an experiment, so they are obviously going to behave differently. Did any of them even care about the story they were reading? If so, would they have cared about it as much as a story they had chosen by themselves purely for the purpose of reading? It reminds me of that experiment on free will, ignoring the fact that th

  • "and then were asked to rate them on a scale of 1 to 10."

    I'm tired of researchers thinking that how someone reports their preference has anything to do with their actual preference. I'm sure that these researchers are correct, that participants say they prefer the spoiled versions. I'm also certain that if you actually checked what they really prefer, you'd get very different numbers.

    How? I haven't the foggiest. But I'd be closer to "would they pay for it" or "purchase it for a friend" or do they enjoy the rest of their day, or are they depressed the next day, or do they get a headache a few hours later. Actual life stuff.

    To say that a person reports a preference usually leads to very bland, very mediocre, very simple in-this-case-stories.

    It always reminds me of the listening tests between cheap and expensive sound systems. Inevitably, people report prefering the cheaper ones, but no one ever measures the headaches hours later. People forget that quality sound reproduction is more than just what you can hear. Try listening to music for ten hours, then tell me if you're in pain, or not -- that's a lot closer to the determining the quality of anything.

    So, force participants to read only spoiled stories, or to read only non-spoiled stories. After fifty, I'd be crazy annoyed about yet another spoiled story. I'd never say "damn, how come none of these stories are spoiled?!"

    See the difference. Forget "which do you prefer?" and go with "which can you tolerate long-term?" or "which can you live without?".

    • Honestly, your method seems less tied to reality than theirs. How often do you listen to music for 10 hours straight or read fifty stories in one sitting? The result from a study like that might be more interesting for you, but I don't think it would be any more meaningful (I'd suspect less, actually).
    • I'm not very confident in my ability to rate sound systems, while I am confident in my ability to rate how much I liked a story, so I doubt that's a very apt analogy. Still, it would be interesting to hear how different methods of determining preference differ in this case. Your methods are
      • 1. ask "would you pay for it"
      • 2. ask "would you purchase it for a friend"
      • 3. ask "which can you tolerate long-term"
      • 4. ask "which can you live without"

      2-4 seem pretty silly. I might love a book but not want to buy it f

  • Not everyone reads books or enjoys movies the same way. I actually have a preference for material where I don't even know the genre up front, let alone the plot! Some of the most enjoyable books for me have been random selections. One of the reasons I stopped watching TV was the obnoxious trailers, ads, previews, and interviews would conspire to ruin every single blockbuster movie, without exception.

    There's been a trend recently for movie trailers to show every character, all of the funniest jokes, the plot

    • I can easily read a good thriller twice, my wife really considers it a spoiler if she knows how it ends. That's a sample of two and I took thrillers because they're clearcut cases. People read stories differently. Can a spoiler enhance the experience? Well, some stories, also of the suspense type, use it as a technique, starting with the final scene and then working their way up to it.

      • by bertok ( 226922 )

        I've only seen the Sixth Sense once, and I doubt I'll watch it again. The whole point of that movie was the shock of the revelation at the end. That got me in a way that would have been impossible if I had even a suspicion up front of what was going on.

        Even for people that like to know an ending, that movie would have been ruined for them if they knew the ending, or nowhere near as enjoyable at any rate. Here's the thing: even if they swear up and down that it was still a great movie, they'll never know how

        • by Zarhan ( 415465 )

          Actually, on subsequent viewings you can get kicks out of spotting the clues to the state of Willis' character.

          For example, the scene where the kid make the long exposition "They don't know that they are dead...", camera zooms right on Willis, and you *still* didn't get it on the first time. Also, the way things play out (such as the restaurant scene) both ways (lonely, sad woman vs. couple having a crisis)..

          • Exactly how I felt too. This is the exact same reason that I enjoyed watching Shutter Island through again. There are clues all the way through as to what's really going on but they slipped past because once again, I trusted that the protagonist's truth is the truth. Watch it again and there are some real stand-out moments when you think "How the hell did I miss *that*?"
  • In the stuff I read, the starting cast isn't necessarily the finishing cast: a major character might not survive past the half of the book. Knowing that so-an-so survives immediately removes any tension in any scene where their life is at risk. So while 'the journey may be better than the destination', in some cases, a spoiler destroys the journey.
  • Blanket statements from a small selection is idiotic.
    Some of the very best movies and books are based around a mystery.
    If you know the mystery, the whole point is ruined.

    If you already knew what the matrix was, what would be the point of the matrix first half?
    If you already knew who Kaiser Söze was, why would you listen to Lester for two hours?
    If you knew the plan and the villain and especially how it ends, would the watchmen have even a close to as deep an impact?

    Not saying that this is always the cas

  • This study tries to figure out in what way the average person enjoys a story. Aside from the fact that asking people to rate things from 1 to 10 is a great way to determine their favorite numbers and very little else, even if the study were completely accurate I wouldn't care. Why? Because the average person is the guy who makes Michael Bay, Twilight, The Jersey Shore, and Justin Bieber popular. They are the people who books like "The Secret" outsell actual literature. It's already well-established tha

  • It's the author that makes this choice. If they want to start with just before the climax then cut back to "7 days earlier...", that is their choice. The trouble with modern spoilers is that film and book marketing just want you to go see/read it - they don't care about the integrity of the story that the author devised. So often these days, film previews contain all the best scenes and lines, and ignore integrity completely.

    • That's completely different though. When they use this plot tool, they show you a cliff-hanger. Like in House, end of current series, you are told that something big and bad has happened, and House did it. You are not told what he did, who he did it to (mostly) and how it gets resolved. So there is still BIG questions to ask, like "How did this happen" and "What happens next". It would be totally different if you read the plot on wikipedia or somewhere and were told that he drove the car into her house, aft

  • - Hecubus, have you seen the movie "Presumed Innocent"?
    - Yes I have, Master, and his wife kills her.
    - But I haven't seen the movie yet... EVIL! EVIL!

  • You don't only have to worry about the number of participants tested in this type of experiment. If are making statements about stories in general; perhaps most/all of the 12 stories used where not particularly susceptible to enjoyment-spoilage.
  • Seriously, most good literature includes an element of telling the story before it's told. That is called foreshadowing. Foreshadowing gives and element of believability because it implies that a certain sequence of events creates a foregone conclusion. Which, in turn, aides to suspension of disbelief.

    All of these things are valuable tools to writers, and (oddly enough) includes spoilers. So I don't think that this is is incredibly insightful result.

  • i'm pretty sure anyone who is actually likes good cinema or books can think of several examples where a good story was enhanced hugely by a good twist. that being said probably 95% of movies etc can't really be spoiled effectively.
  • by BenevolentP ( 1220914 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2011 @06:44AM (#37105072)
    Watch "Triangle" for a nice movie that spoilers itself.
  • Not what. Everyone knows what's going to happen after reading the first chapter. Stories always run along the same plotlines. First, characters are introduced. Then some conflict is presented. If it's more intricate, the hero will first prevail until something gets him in a deeper struggle, then he resurfaces from it, overcomes obstacles and in the end he will save the day and the villain's plot gets foiled. That's how it ALWAYS runs. Ok, maybe not in a Gibson book, but essentially, that's the thread every

  • by Jekler ( 626699 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2011 @07:30AM (#37105322)

    Director M. Night Shyamalan stopped by a McDonalds and offered 30 patrons an advance screening of his next film but the popular response seemed to be "Just tell me what happens."

  • by Lazareth ( 1756336 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2011 @08:41AM (#37105808)

    Seriously, this study is old news. I can remember in history class that those who went to the theater in ancient Greece almost always knew the whole story beforehand. The whole idea was not being surprised by the end, but being entertained by excellent storytelling and acting. Of having the story _told_.
    We all knew (except for a few actively ignorant people) that Anakin Skywalker would become Darth Vader, likewise it was a foregone conclusion that Saruman would team up with Sauron, that Boromir would die an epic death and that Denethor was not all right in the head.

    Heck, when I started reading tropes on tvtropes I was a bit scared that I would risk spoiling a story and thus ruining it for me - because that was what I had been taught by society would happen - instead it became a great source for finding epic things to read or watch. The very knowing that some major character would pull off a thanatos gambit to secure world peace, after being a rather large douchebag for two whole seasons, made me that much more excited to actually watch it unfold.

  • He gives away the endings to all of his movies at the very start. I think he's a pretentious twit for making movies that way and I don't really enjoy them, but I seem to be in the minority as his movies are perennial favorites.
  • I've recently tried to watch 2 different sporting events that I DVR'ed, and had someone come in the room and accidentally spoil the ending.

    That really, really damages the enjoyment of watching.

    I wonder what that says about books/movies vs sports.

  • Spoilers may not ruin the story, but having a surprise every now and then is nice. Besides, for genres like detective stories, part of the fun for some people is in figuring out who is the criminal before it's revealed.

"The Avis WIZARD decides if you get to drive a car. Your head won't touch the pillow of a Sheraton unless their computer says it's okay." -- Arthur Miller