Spoilers are everywhere. Ten or fifteen years ago when you said the word ‘spoilers’ people would assume you were talking about that bit on the back of a car. Now, people will stick their fingers in their ears and yell “No no no I haven’t seen it yet!” until you shut up or go away. Spoilers – or rather, avoiding spoilers – have become so ubiquitous that it’s actually become part of the marketing process. Just look at this April Fools’ stunt from right before season eight of Game of Thrones was due to start:
But is this actually a good thing?
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. Spoilers can be really annoying. If you’ve been anticipating something for a really long time, then finding out who dies at the end or who was really the murderer before you’ve actually seen or read it can drive you crazy. Some stories really benefit from the reader or viewer not knowing the ending. Let’s look at Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, which I’m going to spoil in the next sentence so jump to the next paragraph if you’re planning on reading it. In this novel, the narrator believes that her husband Maxim was madly in love with his first wife, Rebecca, and this sends her into a spiral of self-doubt and anxiety that threatens to take her life. In fact, we find out that Maxim’s marriage to Rebecca was a sham, he hated her, and in fact killed her. This revelation puts the rest of the book into a completely different light, forcing both the reader and the narrator to radically change their opinion of pretty much every character in the book up to that point. That turn-everything-on-its-head moment isn’t something that you get twice.
Of course, having a spoiler-free attitude to stories works best in certain genres. Mystery and detective novels are the obvious choice here. If the whole story is about whodunnit, if you find that out before you’ve even cracked open the book then you might not have as much fun reading it as if you went in blind. But this doesn’t just apply to certain genres. If part of the fun of the story is speculating about what might happen, then knowing the ending ahead of time actually can ruin stuff.
But this is a pretty reductive approach. True, there’s something very special about reading or watching an ending play out for the first time, but that’s not the only part of a story. There are countless other things that make a story good apart from a neat twist at the end, or a shocking character death. How a story ends is not the be-all and end-all.
If all you’re interested in is how a story ends then you’re missing out on a lot of other things that make fiction good – whether that’s the writing style, the character development, or the scene-setting. Focusing too much on spoilers ignores all the other parts of a story that need to work and puts the focus on plot alone. This can hurt both the audience and the creators. By focusing too much on spoilers, the audience is encouraged to overlook the other components of a story, and the creator is encouraged not to focus on these either, because the draw will be the ‘shocking twist’ that will set all of Twitter a-flutter.
This creates a disposable attitude to fiction. If the ending is all you care about, then why would you bother reading or watching something again? You already know how it ends, so what’s the point? But this kind of thinking isn’t necessarily the best approach to fiction. If all you care about is the ending, you’re not very likely to read or watch something again, and it’s often a second or third read that really lets you appreciate a book. Also, let’s just take a minute to acknowledge that coming up with a good ending is really hard and not a lot of writers can do it. If all you care about is how the book ends and that doesn’t meet your expectations, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.
And that’s not the only ways in which obsessing over spoilers can harm a story. The desire to have endings that no-one can guess can lead to writing worse endings overall. A proper twist needs to be set up properly throughout a story, so that when a reader or viewer looks back they can see the threads that lead up to that point and say ‘yes, that makes sense’. Let’s take a spoiler-y look at the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire. This seemed like a shocking event at the time but actually, the set-up was always there: for all his military prowess Robb Stark made bad political decisions and in hindsight, his betrayal and death seem completely obvious. But if that set-up wasn’t there then it would seem like a cheap thrill, rather than a logical consequence of a character’s actions.
The set-up is a necessary part of how the twist works, but with the focus on having the twistiest ending or the most shocking character death, writers are encouraged to just slap some murder in there for the sake of getting talked about. This is completely understandable – if people pay attention to you, you’ll get more sales, and it’s more difficult to make a living as a writer now than ever before so why wouldn’t you do that – but if this isn’t done properly it can make readers feel cheated. It also encourages a disposable attitude to fiction from a more commercial point of view. If publishers market a book based on the twist at the end it might get a buzz, but odds are six months later you’ll see a huge stack of them in every charity shop. If people buy something for the ending they are effectively making it a one-use-only story, so why wouldn’t they give it away?
Fiction is not disposable. You can still enjoy a story knowing how it ends – in fact, the more times you read or watch something the more things you might notice about it, and the more layers you might uncover. But the current climate around spoilers doesn’t encourage people to see things that way. If all we focus on is the ending, that strips the story down to its most basic component parts. We’re encouraged to consume more and more stories by the focus on spoilers and how things end, but that disposable attitude to fiction takes away all the fun of how you get there.
So go ahead. Spoil yourself. You might enjoy it.