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You’re Spoiling Everything: Is Obsessing Over Spoilers Making Stories Worse?

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.

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Me on my way to make that pun. (image: giphy.com)

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.

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I have made this exact face reading several books (image: giphy.com)

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?

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To make a box fort, of course! (image: cbc.ca)

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.

6 thoughts on “You’re Spoiling Everything: Is Obsessing Over Spoilers Making Stories Worse?”

  1. I have to disagree there. Weather a book or a movie, you only get the experience of reading/seeing it without knowing what will happen next ONCE. And for me, a story which surprises me, automatically ranks higher for me, because it didn’t go the beaten path. But a story can’t surprise me if someone decided to tell me about it beforehand.

    I do agree that the quality of a story can’t just hinge on the twist. That’s what makes Shawshank’s redemption so much better than, say, Usual Suspects. It works even if you know how it will end, and in fact, knowing how it will end really changes the viewing experience the second time around. But again: In order to experience this contrast you have to see it unspoiled the first time around.

    Plus, the marketing is kind of part of the experience either. I mean, I was lucky enough to watch Psycho before I know what the movie was about, but I don’t think that this experience equals what the audience experienced back in the day, when they were told all the extra-rules connected to watching Psycho. But at least I have the experience of not knowing what was going on till the end. I feel sad for all those who watch Psycho the first time while already knowing the famous shower scene, because they are missing out on a one time experience.

    1. I take your point about the element of surprise but for me, that’s actually way far down the list of what makes a story memorable/enjoyable. I do like it when writers try and do something different, sure, but I much prefer it when writers go off the beaten track with character or worldbuilding elements than with plot points. For example with the Harry Potter series, there was never any real doubt that Harry was going to defeat Voldemort and a lot of the ‘big reveals’ I managed to guess before the last book came out (like Harry having to sacrifice himself and Snape being in love with Lily). This didn’t affect my enjoyment of the series at all, even though some of the plot points I thought were pretty obvious. For me what made the series memorable was the setting and the characters, rather than the events of the plot.

      1. Sure, but when it comes to “defeating the villain” the surprise is never that it will happen, but how it will happen. I certainly didn’t see Harry winning by literally sacrificing himself for everyone in Hogwarts.

  2. I guess a lot of it depends on whether the journey or final destination is more important for an individual reader. I’m more of a journey kind of person, and potentially weak endings or twists I saw coming don’t automatically make me dislike a book. I’m also a re-reader, but am starting to notice that not all fiction stands up to the re-reading process if there has been too much emphasis placed by the author on creating twists to surprise/shock a reader, as indeed, that experience can only really happen once.

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