Tuned In

Dead Tree Alert: Don’t Fear the Spoiler

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In roughly another week, the Olympics begin. And since they will be taking place several hours ahead of any U.S. time zone, will be streamed live online by NBC (at least for anyone with cable or satellite) and will be reported on instantly via Web and social media, they’ll undoubtedly be greeted by the signal cry of the Internet era: Dude! Spoiler-alert that crap!

The Olympics, in other words, are entering the Age of Spoiler Hysteria, a phenomenon well familiar to anyone who follows pop culture (say, for instance, pre-coverage of The Dark Knight Rises). In my new column in the Olympics issue of TIME (subscription required), I argue that spoilers, much-feared and -fretted-over, are a phantom menace. They don’t spoil anything–or at least not as much as you think–and may even make experiencing a story better:

Despite the sugar rush that a shocking “reveal” offers–and from Inception to Lost, pop culture today is reveal-crazy–that’s not what lingers from a good story. It’s Luke leaving his ruined farm on Tatooine and seeking his destiny in Star Wars; Carrie Mathison chasing her demons in Homeland; Don Draper distilling heartbreak into an ad-campaign pitch on Mad Men. What finally mattered about The Sopranos was not the surprise ending but what it meant, what Tony deserved and how we responded to everything that came before it. Any story that can be ruined by giving away the ending wasn’t worth your time in the first place. Does anyone refuse to see Romeo and Juliet again because we know they [spoiler] themselves?

This isn’t another attempt to codify The Official Rules for Spoilers. (Dan Kois already did that brilliantly.) I do believe people have every right to talk about things they’ve seen on Twitter, and that it’s my responsibility to stay off if I care that badly about being spoiled. And I believe that not only should critics be able to discuss plot points in reviews (something that used to be a given but now apparently requires “SPOILER ALERT” in flashing letters) but that giving evidence and examples is a requirement of criticism. I also believe in being considerate; a little warning for an out-of-the-blue reference to something recent won’t kill you. But that’s my opinion, not the law.

Also, I don’t mean to say that if you’re bothered by spoilers, you’re wrong. I don’t like being spoiled on something out of the blue, either. And as I wrote recently about bingeing on TV seasons, I resist the idea that there is a right and a wrong way to watch TV.

But I do think that, as technology has made delayed viewing easier and spoilers more accessible (or unavoidable), people have increasingly, and unnecessarily developed a hair-trigger defensiveness about spoilers. As a critic (and simply someone who reads a lot of movie, book and TV reviews) I definitely find more people reacting to the tiniest advance details and plot descriptions as if the critic had revealed The Final Prophecy at Fatima. And yet as a lay viewer, not just as a critic, I can’t really think of a time when my enjoyment of an honestly good story was ruined by knowing what would happen at the end.

Do I think that what’s true for me is true for everyone? No. But I suspect it’s true for more people than realize it, and not just because of the University of California study that found that subjects enjoyed spoiled stories more than unspoiled ones. Hearing a spoiler takes away the one-time-only discovery of a twist or an ending, and when that happens to you without your consent, it feels like a violation.

An unwanted spoiler does take something away, but not, I think, the pleasure of actually reading or watching a story. Rather, it takes away from the anticipation before watching it–wondering who dies, whether they’ll get off the Island. It takes away the tantalizing sensation of realizing that, in just a few weeks or days or hours, you’ll know this thing that you do not now know. But it doesn’t take away the myriad surprises on the way to getting there, the thrills and pleasures of watching a story play out. If a spoiler could spoil what’s truly good about a story, why would you ever rewatch a movie?

Why that is is intriguing, and I can’t say I have a complete answer. I think there’s some analogy to Hitchcock’s theory of suspense: that knowing a terrible thing is going to happen is far more terrifying than not knowing it’s going to happen. And as I say in the column, knowing the ending frees you from obsessing over the what of a story and lets you appreciate the more important how and why. Fixating on “twists” and “reveals”–an excessive obsession and crutch of TV and movies today–treats stories like Rubik’s Cubes: solve them, and you’re done.

Another theory I have, and one I had to cut from the piece for space reasons, is that knowing a spoiler allows you to experience a story the way a child does. The first fairytales we hear are predictable. They follow rigid formats and they have built-in rules for our protection: good guys will win, problems will resolve happily. You know that, but does it keep you from enjoying the story? Just the opposite. Only as adults do we start thinking of narratives as problems to master, as problems to solve, as antagonists to outsmart. Whereas toddlers our response to a “spoiled” story is: Again! Again!

I repeat: I know not everybody sees it this way! Not even all kids. Tuned In Jr. avoids spoilers whenever he can. But his younger brother–Tuned In Jr. Jr.–is absolutely hungry to hear spoilers for movies he hasn’t seen, and he pumped a friend ruthlessly for Harry Potter spoilers while we were in the middle of reading the books. I can only guess, but it may be that being freed of some anxieties (will Harry be OK? what happens to Voldemort?) made hearing the story more fun, not less.

Older brother, on the other hand, is in the middle of reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time, and recently a friend of his let slip what happens at Mount Doom in The Return of the King. He was annoyed, but he kept reading–he just got past the Battle of Helm’s Deep–and he’s loving it.

All of which is to say, if you truly hate spoilers, that’s your business, but don’t let it take over your life. What’s truly worth appreciating in a good story is unspoilable. And a story that can be ruined by a spoiler was already spoiled to begin with.

16 comments
katie1421
katie1421

I think it really depends on the kind of spoiler. Knowing that someone is going to die doesn't necessarily detract from the process of how they get there, or how other characters on the show respond to it. As lots of people have pointed out, knowing what's going to happen can sometimes even enhance the experience. But I do think that there are certain spoilers - usually the kind that involve a couple of seemingly-unrelated plot strings finally coming together in an unexpected but totally appropriate way - that are absolutely the best when they're experience without any knowledge of what's coming. Getting totally blindsided by an event that makes perfect sense in hindsight is one of my favorite things in fiction.

In general, I really like not being spoiled the first time through a book/movie/TV show. You get all excitement and satisfaction that comes from being surprised, and then a second watch-through, when you can look for all the clues that point to what's coming, is a completely new and rewarding experience. Spoilers tend to mesh those two experiences together, and I think that's kind of unfortunate.

BemusedOne
BemusedOne

A friend of mine used to get really irritated when I'd pick up an issue of People before she'd perused it, and read things aloud or make comments as I paged through it. Can magazines have spoilers?

lucelucy
lucelucy

I'm an emotional coward.  I read ahead in books, checking the end of the next chapter to see how things are going by then.  If I get nervous about a character, I'll page through to get some idea of whether or not they survive.  It often happens that my daughter will see a show before I get around to spending a few hours with the DVR, and if things get dicey I will ask her if somebody or other gets killed.  She's a very mean daughter and she refuses to tell me.  If she had to find out the hard way, so do I.  I don't remember ever using that line with her when she was growing up.  Didn't King Lear have a good line about this?  Something about snakes' teeth?

That being said, I don't want to know the entire plot.  Just how the scary stuff turns out.  Then, emotionally prepared, I can settle back to watch how the story unfolds.  So, I'm grateful for the Spoiler Alerts.  But I wish somebody had told me that little Sophia was a zombie in the barn.  I'm an old lady.  There's only so much I can take.

The Hoobie
The Hoobie

I'm the same way at times---I got about 170 pages into the first Game of Thrones book, and even in that tiny chunk of the book, I had to jump ahead at one point to reassure myself that [SPOILER] didn't [SPOILER]. And exactly---it's really just the scary parts you want a yes-or-no answer to before you continue.

I think James nailed it above when he says that can be a way to alleviate anxiety so that you can better enjoy the book/movie/show. :)

Craig_Ranapia
Craig_Ranapia

The best snarky spoiler warning ever was on a blog post about Downton Abbey: WARNING - CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST WORLD WAR

crocostimpy
crocostimpy

On topic: I don't like spoilers of any kind. I don't even watch the scenes from next week's show on TV. It won't ruin a movie/book/show for me, but it definitely takes away a big part of the story. I like the surprises.

Off topic: Kudos to your son for reading LOTR. Any pre-teen (I'm just guessing here) who can get through it deserves some credit. It's a hard read because of the style of writing and all of the character and place names.

darlingcruella
darlingcruella

I've always had to defend myself to friends whenever they find me actively searching for spoilers. They seem to think that spoilers are irredeemably evil or something. But I find that knowing how things turn out actually make me enjoy stories more because on the way to the ending, the real story happens. It is indeed not about who lives and dies at the end, but it's about how and why these things happen that make a story powerful.

majnun99
majnun99

"I argue that spoilers, much-feared and -fretted-over, are a phantom menace. They don’t spoil anything–or at least not as much as you think–and may even make experiencing a story better"

-- Sincerely, a guy who gets paid to tell you about something before you've seen it.

Firozali A.Mulla
Firozali A.Mulla

Hillary Clinton, who has steadily chipped away at

the more than $25 million in debt her campaign amassed

during her run for president, owes only $100,000, according to Federal Election Commission disclosures for the second quarter of 2012.

Running for president is

expensive, and although the subject of campaign

debt has usually

been synonymous with Newt Gingrich in the past several months,

Clinton is among the many former presidential candidates who've departed the trail in debt. She suspended

her campaign in June 2008 owing the $25 million but had paid off enough by the

end of that year to owe $5.9 million. Almost four years later, the campaign

owes $100,000 to one entity, the firm of Penn,

Schoen amp; Berland for

consulting and polling fees. Penn, Schoen amp; Berland is a market

 

research firm headed up by a

trio of long-time advisers to both Bill and Hillary Clinton: Mark Penn, Doug

Schoen and Michael Berland. She travels places to tell all “Please do

help Syria, our troops need cheering. Now will she pay this or not is the huge

question. And we talk of corruption in many small states. I thank you Firozali

A.Mulla DBA

 

 

 

 

 

 

ZSMorgan
ZSMorgan

James,

Maybe your kids can be Tuned In Jr. and Tuned In Jr.-er.  It sounds cuter, and doesn't make me think that your already a grandpa.

The Hoobie
The Hoobie

James, you seem to be on a 70s rock binge with the blog post titles these days---first, "Smoke on the Water," and now this. Step away from the black light poster! :)

(Ack, okay, that's three comments on one post in an hour for me. Back to work, me!)  

Justin Charlton
Justin Charlton

I inevitably read the last two pages of every book I pick up, and I'll still enjoy reading the book. I think you're right; the story and subtext are more enjoyable than any plot twist or "big reveal."

For movies, I usually go to Wikipedia and read the plot summary to decide if I want to pay to see it. If it sounds like a movie I'd like to see, I'll still enjoy watching it even though I know then ending.

My wife, though, does not like have any story spoiled, so we've made a compromise at home. No spoilers will be discussed. Ever. She's decided that we're both very happy with that arrangement.

The Hoobie
The Hoobie

The mere fact of missing so, so much good TV over the course of my adult life, and having to catch up on the shows at some point later, while still, you know, living in the world means I've had to become much less spoiler-averse. And I'm cool with that! I know Omar dies in The Wire, for example. I know a player gets paralyzed in FNL. Still want to watch these shows! Curiosity still piqued!

As you said, some spoilers actually help me, I find. It helped this non-reader to discover idly from a random tweet from a critic that an upcoming episode of Game of Thrones included (ugh) a scene where babies are killed. That way I could steel myself and thus, you know, not have to run out of the room when that scene happened.

Similarly, knowing from reviews (and from my limited knowledge of WWII history---thanks, Ken Burns!) that episode 9 of The Pacific focused on the horrors of the brutal fighting at Okinawa helped me brace myself and be ready for that (excellent) episode.

In an opposite example, I wasn't spoiled at all for one of the most potent hours of TV I've ever experienced, Battlestar Galactica's "The Ties That Bind," in which we learn Cally Tyrol's fate. That episode just devastated me. I was crying for 15 minutes after it ended. Mr. The Hoobie earned his husbandly keep that evening by holding me and patting me on the back until I stopped sobbing. Yeesh.

And I didn't even like Cally! (At the beginning of the episode, anyway.)

BUT, just as you said, if I had been spoiled about Cally's fate, I don't think that would have lessened the episode's impact on me one bit. The power in the episode lay in things like Cally vomiting when she sees what she thinks is confirmation that her husband's having an affair. And things like the off-kilter, surreal way her baby son's star-projecting magic lamp is shot.  So it was the whole episode that added up to just destroy me, not the plot-related upshot of it.

All that said, one thing that does still bug me is live-tweeting from the East Coast of great lines from comedy shows that are temporally impossible for me to watch at that moment. NUSSBAUM! :)

anon76returns
anon76returns

Wait, WHAT happens to Omar?

Just kidding.  I too have yet to see the last season of the Wire, but thanks to Wikipedia I know most of the particulars.

A funny story to support James' theory:  knowing my own predilections (and upon hearing JP's and Lev Grossman's reviews of the books), I knew that Game of Thrones would be my style of story.  However, I didn't feel that I had enough time to read the multiple thousand-page tomes before the tv series came out, so I completely spoiled myself on Wikipedia, reading every article on the books amp; characters I could find.  Then the show started, and I couldn't bear it any longer, I broke down and bought the books and read them in a week.  Long story short:  I enjoyed the heck out of them, in spite of my self-inflicted spoilage.  I normally hate to hear spoilers (and spoilers about sporting events are known to set me off), but I have to admit, in this case it came out OK.

The Hoobie
The Hoobie

(As a minor inside-BSG kvetch---SPOILER ALERT?!---that episode's power is one reason I wish they hadn't decided to retcon Cally and Tyrol and Nick's relationship later on in the show. Ugh. Poor Cally. And I never understood why it was so important that only Hera be the one-and-only true you-know-what. I think people could understand and accept the ending of the show just fine even if there had been one or two more you-know-whats.)