Spoiler Alert! (Watch this make people not read the post.)

The Boston Globe has an interesting piece from January about spoilers and how we respond to them. Short form: for many people, spoilers actually enhance, rather than detract from, their enjoyment of the full story. And this is true even for people who are convinced that they prefer not to have any spoilers at all.

I would put myself in the camp of not wanting spoilers, but when I read through the reasoning presented in the article, it was exactly what I would have predicted. By knowing where the story is going, we allay our subconscious anxiety. Knowing that Character A lives means we don’t have to be as afraid for her; knowing that Character B dies means we’re prepared for it when it comes. As brilliantly cathartic as it can be to go through those experiences without the psychological safety net, that works best when we really, really trust the storyteller not to disappoint or betray us. And how often is that true?

A story can work even when we know the ending — even when we can quote the entire thing line for line. Usually people say this is because you can still appreciate the craft, the process by which that ending comes about, and there’s a lot of truth to that. But it isn’t the whole story (no pun intended). A good enough narrative can still pack its emotional punch as well as an intellectual one, even on a revisit. My favorite example of this is Apollo 13, a movie I adore and have watched quite a few times. Not only is it familiar to me, it’s based on freaking history. You would think that by now, there would be zero suspense for me in the question of whether they’ll get home safely or not.

And yet, every time I watch that movie, I’m on the edge of my seat during those minutes of radio silence.

There’s a secret ingredient that makes it work: empathy. Sure, I know that the astronauts will be safe. I knew that even before I sat down to watch the movie. But the characters don’t know. And because my heart is with them, because I am imagining myself in their shoes rather than sitting comfortably in my own, I am petrified and tearful, just like they are. And when it all turns out okay, I get the same cathartic release.

I find myself thinking that when people say spoilers ruin the story for them, I am the most inclined to believe the ones who also never re-read books, never re-watch movies. But I have plenty of books and movies I revisit, and enjoy just as much (or more) the second time around. So it makes me think that, for me at least, what spoilers ruin are bad stories. Weak ones, that don’t do the work of making me empathize with the characters, and don’t provide the intellectual pleasure of examining how the dominoes got lined up. They have to rely on the element of surprise to engage me, and once that’s gone, they’ve blown their wad. Good stories survive the spoiler process just fine, and maybe even turn out better for it. I can relax into the experience, knowing I’m in skilled hands.

Possibly this explains why I love movie trailers as much as I do. I still get annoyed when I think the trailer gave the whole story away (and feel pleasant surprise when it turns out I’m wrong — that’s happened in the oddest places, sometimes), but I like the preview of what I’ll be getting. I read the cover copy of books, I read friends’ reviews (though I sometimes — not always — avoid the ones that say they contain major spoilers) . . . but I don’t go as far as some do and read the last five pages. I’m sort of tempted to try that now, and see how it goes. After all, the good books should, in theory, be unharmed.

But I’ll still put spoiler alerts on things I write. It’s expected courtesy these days, and I might get lynched if I didn’t. So I’ll just say: it’s okay. You’re allowed to highlight the hidden text, to click through and see what’s behind the cut. I won’t judge you for it if you do.

0 Responses to “Spoiler Alert! (Watch this make people not read the post.)”

  1. tekalynn

    And that’s why I (usually) like spoilers. If I know the overall arc, I can relax and let the story take me where it needs to go, without having to obsess over where it will end up. Spoilers are little checkpoints to keep the story on track.

  2. laylalawlor

    I … sort of agree and disagree with this? I mean, I definitely agree that for a lot of people, spoilers can enhance and improve a person’s reading or viewing experience. Everyone is different. And you never know until you try! Besides, spoiler alerts are the best of all possible worlds — people who want to avoid them can avoid them, and people who want to read them can read them, and everyone is happy.

    But as a confirmed spoilerphobe, I’m also used to people telling me “Oh, it doesn’t really spoil your enjoyment” or “Well, you would have known that after you read the book anyway, so what’s the harm in me telling you?”

    Shorter version: You don’t really feel that way, so here, let me fix that for you.

    And trust me, I’m 35 and I’ve done it both ways, many many times — I’ve read without spoilers, and I’ve succumbed to the temptation to peek ahead, to look at cover blurbs and trailers and spoilers on websites. And, based upon experience, I have found that very often, knowing what’s coming does reduce my enjoyment and anticipation. Not always. But often enough that I’d rather be as restrained as possible.

    There is a particular pleasure and excitement that I get from my first reading of a book (or my first viewing of a movie or TV show) that I can never have again. Rereading or rewatching (and I nearly always reread and rewatch things I really liked!) is a completely different experience. Sometimes it’s worse, a pale shadow of the emotional highs and lows of reading it the first time. And sometimes it’s better — there are times when a second reading, knowing where everything was going, opens up brand-new vistas that I missed the first time around.

    But I don’t want to lose that first, unspoiled experience, because I can only have it once.

    • calico_reaction

      Sometimes it’s worse, a pale shadow of the emotional highs and lows of reading it the first time. And sometimes it’s better — there are times when a second reading, knowing where everything was going, opens up brand-new vistas that I missed the first time around.

      But I don’t want to lose that first, unspoiled experience, because I can only have it once.

      I already commented, but you said it so much more succinctly. This. Exactly this.

    • Marie Brennan

      I’m also used to people telling me “Oh, it doesn’t really spoil your enjoyment” or “Well, you would have known that after you read the book anyway, so what’s the harm in me telling you?”

      Well, that’s daft of people. Logic fail!

      You’re right that the first experience — good or bad — can never be re-created. Which is another reason to leave individuals in control of deciding whether or not they want spoilers, rather than making that decision for them.

  3. maratai

    I’m one of the people who generally prefers to be unspoiled, and if I want to be spoiled on something specific (Does character X die horribly? Does this TV show get really racist? etc.), I will specifically ask. I like playing plot chess–trying to predict the next plot turn–and this really only works the first time through, unspoiled, for stories where that kind of plottiness is part of the setup. (This is also why I have so much trouble reading romance novels unless they have really funny dialogue. It has been explained to me that it’s not a bad thing when a romance novel’s every plot development can be seen from 200 miles away, but that sort of means I am not their target audience.) Now, I do get pleasure out of rewatching/rereading because then I can admire the setup. But when people spoil that first time through, it means that the game is ruined for me.

    That being said, if you spoil something for me, eh, I’ll survive and play the game against something else next time.

    • Marie Brennan

      I think what I hate the most, personally, are non-specific spoilers. If you warn me that somebody will die, but don’t tell me who, then I will spend the entire time being distracted by trying to guess the answer. I’d rather get the whole thing, or else none of it.

  4. calico_reaction

    To me, as someone who does re-watch movies & television shows but does not really re-read books (TBR pile is way too big to justify it), there’s something to be said about the experience, good or bad, or reading/watching something and having NO IDEA what’s going to happen. That is its own experience, thinking that the author is going to do one thing and being wrong. It’s exciting, and it raises emotional tension.

    And then, when I know how it all works, I can go back and admire the piece for what it’s doing and what it is. Then I can go back and admire the construction.

    But there is something utterly enjoyable about not knowing what’s ahead and hanging on for the ride. I would have never been asked to be spoiled for big twists like FIGHT CLUB or THE SIXTH SENSE, because that first experience, not knowing what’s going to happen, it can’t be beat. But yet both are movies I enjoy re-watching.

    And consider watching television shows as they come out. I personally love not knowing what’s going to happen in, say, FRINGE, and I’ve been watching it live since its premiere. But I also can’t wait to have the whole story after this final season so I can go back and watch with a knowing eye and a keener mind. It’s two totally different experiences, and I’d hate to be robbed of either one.

    I have a small stack of books that I can’t wait to re-read, and not all of them because said books had a major twist.

    And, for the record, bad books are the ones I tend to spoil for myself. If I’m reading along and sensing it’s not worth my time, I seek out spoilers like gangbusters to manage my expectations.

    • Marie Brennan

      I agree with you about Fight Club and The Sixth Sense . . . but then, those are both examples of a twist being done delightfully well (at least for my own personal taste). I put myself into the storyteller’s hands, and they didn’t drop me. On the other hand, my enjoyment of several of Shyamalan’s later movies would have been vastly improved by me knowing the twist in advance, because his handling of it got steadily worse, and I started to feel cheated instead of entertained.

      And that’s why there have been a few occasions when somebody recommended a movie I’d never even heard of — never seen a trailer, never read any reviews, had no idea what I was going in for — and told me I should stay as unspoiled as possible, and I did. Not all of those have worked out, but if I have reason to think that I can trust what I’m going to get, I’m more willing to jump in blind.

      • calico_reaction

        It’s funny: months before we saw The Village in theaters, my husband saw the trailers on television and said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if INSERT TWIST HERE?”

        So I had that TWIST in my mind the entire movie, and damn if my husband wasn’t right. In that case, I don’t know if I would’ve felt cheated had I not known the truth. I’m sorry I’ll never find out, but it was a testimonial to how predictable Shyamalan’s twists had become.

        For me, when it comes to books, movies, television, whatever, I need a very basic premise and then, if that’s not enough to get me to spend my hard-earned dollars, enough solid word-of-mouth to encourage me to take part in said entertainment. I don’t like doing too much though: my brain plots along with the movie or book, and I get antsy when I’m waiting for a certain THING to happen, be it something spoiled in the trailer or the backcover blurb.

        I try to avoid trailers as much as possible, especially since Hollywood has a very bad habit of showing the last scene of the movie in the trailer. They did this in Avatar, but most notably in Drag Me to Hell, and it was such a dynamic scene that I kept waiting for it to happen, only to realize the movie was going to end on said scene, and that that made an already bad movie worse in my mind. :-/

        • Marie Brennan

          I didn’t guess The Village’s twist that early, but I thought of it about three minutes into the movie — and spent the next hour hoping really really hard that I was wrong.

          Sadly, I was not.

          I found the discussion of movie trailers in the Boston Globe article to be interesting — the evidence that they actually play better with audiences overall if they give away more. I think it’s possible to do that wrong (e.g. I wish the trailers for The Avengers hadn’t so prominently shown the Hulk grabbing Iron Man out of the air), but I do see why it pays to give the audience candy of that kind.

          • calico_reaction

            I wish the trailers for The Avengers hadn’t so prominently shown the Hulk grabbing Iron Man out of the air.

            Yes. That’s the stuff I wish Hollywood would be careful about. Because as soon as Iron Man started falling, I remembered that shot in the trailer, and the anxiety went away like that, which, for me, isn’t satisfying.

          • Marie Brennan

            I get that they wanted to show moments of the Hulk doing his Hulk thing — the sort of thing that would make fans punch the air. And it isn’t like I would have believed that Tony was going to die in that fall, even if I hadn’t seen the trailer. But I would have been wondering how he would survive — would the arc reactor sputter back to life? Would Thor grab him? — and would have felt a surge of glee when it turned out to be the Hulk’s doing. Instead it was just, “there you go,” with no real effect at all. I wish they’d found another Hulk Moment to show instead.

  5. maladaptive

    Yeah, this is why I’m not usually a spoiler-avoiding person. Spoilers usually tell me if I want to get into something or not, and it drives me crazy when people say stuff like “Yeah, I loved when this super awesome thing happened when [ spoiler ].” And I’m like, but I want to know! At least make it clicky text!

    I know a lot of people just don’t want the “surprise” ruined but… I hate surprises, for the most part, because they’re mostly bad. If I know that terrible couple got together from the start, I would spend less of the book/movie/tv show raging and going “I hope they don’t!” because it detracts from everything else. I also hate suspense, though, those tense times when you’re flipping pages, barely reading what’s in front of you because you gotta know. I have missed huuuuge sections of books because something is left on a cliffhanger and then there’s another chapter with other characters. I remember nothing about the interlude.

    Granted I am also an intensely anxious person. >.>

    • Marie Brennan

      Heh. I know what you mean, about zooming over words without really reading them. For me it mostly happens at the ends of chapters, and I put my hand over the last few paragraphs so I won’t just zip straight to them and miss the final steps of the path. But then, yes, a part of me is paying attention to controlling my reading, rather than living 100% in the story.

      The anxiety can be good (when it gets resolved well) or it can be bad (when it doesn’t). Alas, the bad times may well outnumber the good, depending on one’s personal threshold.

  6. celestineangel

    Can’t access the link for some reason, so I’m just responding to your post here.

    I really don’t like spoilers. But then again, I don’t consider character death or other highly emotional events to be a disappointment or a betrayal of the reader by the author. I believe an author doesn’t have that much of an obligation to their readers… if they did, then there’d be no room for any character death, because every character is someone’s favorite. The only obligation an author has to their readers, in my opinion, is to write a good story, whatever that entails.

    For me, spoilers ruin a story not because I’m relieved to know my favorite character lives, or angry to know they die… they ruin a story because I spend every moment of the reading/watching experience waiting for that one thing to happen. It happened with one of Jacqueline Carey’s books… I was spoiled about a character death pretty early on, and after that, that’s all I could think about. I just wanted to get to that part, to see how it happened. And the spoiler specifically named that character and their relationship with another character… a relationship that hadn’t happened yet, so yet another spoiler.

    I reread books and rewatch movies all the time, and I completely agree with you that a good narrative can recapture our attention and emotions just as easily after the first read. I still cry every damn time at the end of Where the Red Fern Grows, and My Girl. But for the very first time, I’d really rather prefer to be shocked, surprised, and amazed. If it’s a good story, it’ll be worth it even if it puts me through the emotional wringer. That’s what makes reading fun to me, and why I want to publish my own work one day.

    I won’t even talk about reading the ending first.

    • Marie Brennan

      I don’t consider those things to be disappointment or betrayal, either — when they’re handled well. If they’re handled badly, it’s a different matter. And how up in arms I get depends on how high my hopes and expectations were going in.

      As per my comment above, I get distracted when I’ve been given a non-specific spoiler, i.e. “somebody dies,” but they don’t tell me who or when or how. I can think of an example where I knew precisely what was coming, and was waiting for it to happen, but (for me) it didn’t have the distracting effect; then again, the context was one where I could guess the timing. (Season finale of a TV show. The Bad Thing was very obviously going to happen at the end of the episode.) What it did do was lend painful irony to everything leading up to it, because I knew what was coming. The experience was enjoyable — but then, I can’t say for sure how that episode would have played if I’d had no idea the event was coming.

    • nipernaadiagain

      “they ruin a story because I spend every moment of the reading/watching experience waiting for that one thing to happen”

      This has, for me, spoiled pleasure of reading some murder mysteries – rationally I know that setting the stage properly should make the experience much more well-fleshed, but I just cannot read properly when I know someone will be killed soon.

      It would go something like this: “on this page? … No. Lets skim thorough the next page diagonally just to find out … Not yet. Lets leaf thorough couple of pages fast just to see who will be murdered …”

      As you can see, any flesh the writer has worked into that part of text will be most likely missed by me, as I am just waiting for the murder to happen.

      • Marie Brennan

        That’s not unlike people who don’t engage with romance because it’s obvious from the get-go that the two leads will fall in love with each other and live happily ever after. It isn’t a flaw in the genre — for many readers, it’s a feature — but it doesn’t work for everybody.

  7. eve_prime

    Apollo 13 is the very example I use for explaining why suspense doesn’t really depend on not knowing the outcome. (I love to watch that movie, and I burst into tears every time.) Of course, there are other reasons for not spoiling things, but I agree that it’s nicer to let others decide for themselves if they want to know. I’ve been known to glance ahead if I’m finding I’m too distracted with wondering if someone survives or if a couple get together or whatever. I also tend to reread a good book again immediately – the first time I’m too rushed to get a sense of resolution, so I need the second time to appreciate the quality of the writing.

    One academic paper I’ve come across reviews different theories for why people can still experience suspense when rereading a book. They were: We do forget some aspects of the story; it can be too much work to retain it all.
    Maybe we pretend to forget on purpose.
    On rereading, our motivation may shift so that we don’t care as much about suspense; we’re more free to enjoy the atmosphere and the details.
    If we identify wholly with a character, we can experience the story from their perspective.
    (The author’s own idea:) We may be rereading with a sense of “vicarious doubt” – we identify emotionally with the characters so that we can share their suspense about the outcome, which is not the same as having a real suspense about the outcome.That last one seems like a nuanced version of the fourth one, and it seems intuitively right to me.

  8. Anonymous

    What I’d love to get: This request is stupidly open-ended, and I admit it. If that’s a problem, feel free to contact
    [Error: Irreparable invalid markup (”) in entry. Owner must fix manually. Raw contents below.]

  9. Anonymous

    Man, I loved the Gabriel Knight games back in the day, but I remember so little of the plot now that I couldn’t begin to write fanfic about them. I wonder, if I set up a Windows VM in Fusion, if the games would run in it? Hmm…

  10. Anonymous

    Flying with a cold is vile. You have my sympathy.
    I’m glad you’ve had a good time, however.

  11. Anonymous

    Thanks for the Rolling Jubilee link (what a great idea), and the video–amazing. I hope you make it back to 4th Street. I recently finished the 4th Onyx Court novel, and really enjoyed them all (with maybe a slight preference for A Star Shall Fall, which was powerful and moving).

Comments are closed.