Spoiler Alert!

[Originally posted on my blog.]


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.