Wed
Mar 18 2009 5:32pm

Matters/Antimatters: Spoilers

Hi, my name is Steven Padnick, editorial assistant at Tor Books, and welcome to MATTERS / ANTIMATTERS, the new Tor.com/Suvudu joint venture!

With each installment, I will post about a topic of interest to the science fiction, fantasy and general genre community, and Kaitlin Heller, my… ahem, colleague at Del Rey, will offer a response on Suvudu. Or vice versa.

Today, I’d like to talk about that bane of internet discussions, spoilers

No, not “one who seizes the booty,” but the revelation of a plot element, thus denying a potential viewer or reader the enjoyment of surprise and discovery.

While I am sensitive to the desire to approach each work of fiction as pure as the driven snow, so that each reveal and twist is felt as viscerally as possible, I feel that the mania to remain “spoiler-free” hinders discussion and promotion of genre work.

First off, it is impossible to discuss with any seriousness a work of fiction without revealing its plot, and especially its ending. Certainly, setting your Facebook status to “Snape Kills Dumbledore” is a dick move. And reviews and jacket copy, texts meant to help you decide whether you want to see or read a work, probably shouldn’t go into too much detail about how everything resolves. But discussions and critical analyses, such as appear on this site and others, need to address works as a whole. How can we debate the depths of Snape’s character without ever mentioning that he kills the representation of Order and Good, or assess the thrashing he gives Harry after that without acknowledging he was under orders from Dumbledore the entire time? Writing around spoilers—that is, writing for the least informed member of your audience—limits how deeply you can actually delve while writing.

Additionally, this mania hurts the promotion of genre work. Two years ago, Marvel Comics published Captain America#25, in which Captain America is killed. But rather than spoil this dramatic turn of events, Marvel released absolutely no information about the issue to retailers, comics reviewers, or fans until the day of sale. When news of Captain America’s death hit mainstream outlets like the New York Post, comics shops around the country were left flat-footed and out-of-stock in the face of a demand they had no reason to anticipate. As high as sales were, and as many new customers came into shops for the first time, how many new customers left disappointed, and how many sales were lost, simply because Marvel didn’t want anyone, even the people who sell their books, to know what was in them.

Spoiler-phobia also hurts the development of a fan community. One of the great joys of finding, say other Battlestar Galactica fans on the internet is finding a space in which you could talk in depth about the latest episode, listen to interpretations and ideas you would never have thought of on your own, and connect with others like you around the world. But people feel stifled in what they can say for fear the spoiler-police will come down on them for mentioning that Starbuck is a Hylon. This creates an unwelcoming atmosphere that divides fans into those that know and those that don’t.

To me, this mania seems particularly irrational, because in the long run spoilers really shouldn’t have that much of an effect on one’s enjoyment of a work. Knowing the plot does not “ruin” the quality of anything good you read or see. Sure, it’s a shocking twist that the chick has a penis, but The Crying Game is still a good movie even if you know that beforehand. Similarly, it’s rare that anyone these days sees a Shakespeare play without knowing who lives and who dies, and yet people still go to Romeo and Juliet. And every opera I’ve been to provides a complete plot summary in the program, so you don’t have to worry about the plot while listening to the music.

Conversely, anything that is ruined by knowing particular plot points isn’t worth re-watching, and probably has few qualities other than a trick of storytelling. Michael Bay’s The Island wastes its first hour (and title!) on a fake-out story about supposed survivors of an environmental disaster and their sterilized home, and its second hour on the usual Bruckheimerian explosions and chases. Had the movie actually been about their lives as clones, and not about the reveal that they are clones, it might have been a good movie about identity and the ethics of bioengineering.

Finally, people are far too extreme in their quest to remain spoiler-free. I get that people hate to have endings ruined. But people complained that knowing Leonardo DiCaprio died ruined Titanic. What, exactly, were they thinking? The boat wasn’t going to sink? But that’s not the half of it. John Scalzi joked on Twitter that the Comedian jumped, and people complained about that he spoiled Watchmen. When DC relaunched Justice League of America, people complained that depicting the stars on the cover spoiled the book.

Scalzi suggests a spoiler statute of limitations, a period during which one should be careful about revealing plot points, but after which complaints about spoilers can be safely ignored and/or mocked: one week for television, one year for movies, five years for books. I’d probably add one month for comics, and shorten the period on books, but that sounds about right. But only as far as casual conversations go.

For a serious review, where someone is trying to explore the deeper meanings of a work, it is not their responsibility to protect you from unwanted knowledge. It’s certainly not their responsibility to anticipate which particles of information will putrefy your enjoyment of a given text. In the end, that responsibility falls to you, to stop reading articles about works you haven’t experienced yet. No one forces you to read. On the other hand, if you’re complaining about spoilers for works you DO know about, and are just concern trolling on behalf of others, please give serious consideration to getting a life.

Thank you.

Kaitlin, what do you think?

19 comments
Faith Cheltenham
1. thefayth
First! I'm seriously considering getting a life but just haven't gotten around to it yet!
Samantha Brandt
2. Talia
Hmm, I know you're not asking me, but I fail to see how worring about spoilers holds anyone back.. pretty much all anyone asks for in that regard is a "spoiler warning!" at the start of any given article, and then, after that, analyze away!

Is it really that much effort to tag a "spoiler warning" on an article? I mean.. really?

For me, finding something out abruptly in advance does, in fact ruin the experience for me, or significantly lessons my enjoyment of it. For example, while the sopranos were on the air, You'd constantly hear about the latest shocking plot twists on the radio, and quite a bit of description of the final episode as well. As a result, I havent bothered renting the rest of the DVD's. I _hate_ knowing what to expect..
Egglie
3. Egglie
"In the end, that responsibility falls to you, to stop reading articles about works you haven’t experienced yet."

Sums up my opinion entirely, why read an internet discussion on a book that is in the public domain already without bothering to read it? Stop reading other peoples comments about the book/series - go away and finish it first!!

I am really enjoying the WoT re-read on this site which is totally spoiler ridden (complete with warnings). It has been a pleasure to discuss with other fans how the early books forshadow events later on.

I associate the term spoilers with internet discussions so that's what I am referring to here. Obviously, I realize that spoilers sometimes appear in press articles or media trailers where you might not know to expect them (particularly for TV or films) and that is annoying. The marvel comics scenario certainly seems ridiculous too.

However, I think that if you seek out a fan site you should expect that the whole source material would be discussed.
Chris Meadows
4. Robotech_Master
To some extent, not reading about stuff you haven't seen yet makes sense.

The problem comes when you're reading forums that discuss both older and newer works. It's entirely too easy for people not meaning to read anything about the new stuff to come across spoilers by accident if people have not adequately protected them.

Anymore, it seems that people have to try to avoid the entire Internet until they have a chance to view or read whatever it is for themselves if they want to go unspoiled about anything major these days.
Egglie
5. jere7my
To me, this mania seems particularly irrational, because in the long run spoilers really shouldn’t have that much of an effect on one’s enjoyment of a work. Knowing the plot does not “ruin” the quality of anything good you read or see. ... Conversely, anything that is ruined by knowing particular plot points isn’t worth re-watching, and probably has few qualities other than a trick of storytelling.
We only get one chance to experience something for the first time. We only get one chance for our fingers to clench on the arms of the theater seats, for our hearts to pound and our mouths to go dry, for the adrenaline to spike. We only get one chance to try to solve the puzzle for ourselves. We only get one chance to not know what happens next. That visceral reaction is part of the enjoyment of and engagement with fiction.

Most works are not "ruined" by knowing what happens. Many works are lessened. I've watched The Empire Strikes Back many many times, but nothing beats the gut-punch of realization I got when I heard that Vader was Luke's father. It was one of the great moments of my kidhood. Knowing everything that happens doesn't ruin the experience when I go back, but it changes it, and I want the opportunity of experiencing a work in as many ways as I can.
Spoiler-phobia also hurts the development of a fan community. One of the great joys of finding, say other Battlestar Galactica fans on the internet is finding a space in which you could talk in depth about the latest episode, listen to interpretations and ideas you would never have thought of on your own, and connect with others like you around the world.
Over-prevalent spoilers can hamper this as well. What point is there in debating the true nature of Starbuck if Ron Moore comes onto the board and spells it all out for everyone before the episode airs? Episodic fan communities form, in part, because people enjoy chewing over the scraps of clues they've received to date, putting forth and retracting theories in a churning, organic flow that interacts with and is informed by each new episode. If all the answers are known beforehand, there's less to discuss, less opportunity for debate and factionalism and entrenchment and moments of clarity and all the other fun stuff that happens on fan boards.

If we accept that this process of discovery is both worthwhile and community-building, shouldn't communities that are behind the curve be allowed to go through their own version of the process? If a show airs a year later in the US than it does in the UK, wouldn't UK viewers popping into the US forum with the real answers stifle the community? Shouldn't people who can't afford HBO be allowed to rent the Sopranos on DVD and have their own voyage of discovery?

The solution is simple, and was settled twenty years ago on Usenet: provide spoiler warnings, as specific and granular as seems prudent, then discuss in as much detail as you want. Discussion isn't stifled, and people who want the rush of the first time aren't spoiled.
Richard Fife
6. R.Fife
Mmm, spoilers. My girlfriend at the time spoiled the end to 6th sense for me. I still loved the movie, and I enjoyed seeing the /how/ as much as I would have with the reveal. Well, that and I probably would have noticed no one talks to Bruce Willis cept the kid.

I definately agree with Steven that anything that is spoiled because of a spoiler is more of a cheap trick ("boo! gotcha") than a masterful piece of work worth re-reading. Heck, I had a huge chunk of WoT spoiled for me, including Moiraine's death, the White Tower Civil War, and the end of Lord of Chaos, before I ever finished book one. I still have read it several times and I am sure anyone from those threads can tell you I spend way too much time in them.

I think the big problem is what constitutes a spoiler. As Steven said, some people claimed that depicting the characters of the Justice League on the cover was a spoiler. Heck, I've seen book-covers that could be spoilers for anyone who has read the first couple chapters and has a decent understanding of genre tropes. But I still think, for the most part, it is the viewer's (spoilee's?) responsibility to say "Oh, a thread about X which I haven't seen, I better not read it until I have seen it." If you are looking for recommendations, discussion threads are really not the place to do it.
Egglie
7. gymble
Whether or not spoilers ruin a work is up to debate, but I think that it's hard to argue that knowing a spoiler changes your experience of a work. Yes, it's possible to go overboard with spoiler-phobia. I know people who will refuse to watch promos and will cover the list of guest star credits at the beginning of a TV show. This is their prerogative. But at the same time, I'm not sure that I know of any case where knowledge of a spoiler improves appreciation of a work.

For some, spoilers don't change much about how they watch or read - which tends to be dependent on both the person and the work. But for me, I find that spoilers frequently do spoil things for me. If the spoiler is incomplete, as in a factoid that occurs at some later time, then I'll spend a lot of time waiting for the spoiler to occur and not paying attention to what's going on now.

The other thing that has happened to me rarely, but I see frequently, is the phenomenon when groups of people get together to discuss spoilers. Almost inevitably, these people are the ones who sour on the show (or movie, or what have you) first. They form opinions about the upcoming episode based on the spoilers and won't relinquish those opinions even if the spoilers turn out to be wrong or different in context.

While I think that it's unreasonable to expect to avoid all spoilers, especially for older works, I do think that there's a certain amount of courtesy involved when discussing spoilers. Reviews have to tread a difficult line, but the extent of the spoilers needs to take into account the audience. There's a large difference between a review written to attract new viewers, etc. than one meant to act as a discussion springboard for old ones. Mostly, I put the burden on those not wishing to be spoiled, but it's helpful if others provide basic warnings and exhibit common courtesy.
Lena Vogelmann
8. kalafudra
I'm with Talia on this one. Nobody (or at least nobody sensible) forbids you to discuss every single thing with Spoilers. All people ask for are Spoiler warnings.

The thing is, there are two things I read reviews for - one is to see what the reviewer thought about the same thing I saw/read/heard/etc. And the other thing is to see whether people liked something and if it sounds like something I'd like to see/read/hear, too.
If it's the first case, I don't mind Spoilers at all - in fact, I'd find it weird if there were none.
If it's the second case, I just want a quick "this book is worth reading" or "this book is abysmal" from a source I trust more than the blurbs on the actual book. And there I do mind Spoilers. Because of the same reasons jere7my outlined in detail and I won't do it again. :)

The thing is - sometimes it's hard to know whether a review is an in-depth discussion about something or just a short recommendation (or warning). And then I appreciate a quick heads-up.
John Chu
9. JohnChu
"All people ask for are Spoiler warnings." That sounds so reasonable, but people don't apply that demand reasonably. Let's take "The Comedian jumped" as an example, because Twitters accused John Scalzi of spoiling Watchmen:

1. Unless you've already read Watchmen, you're not equipped to parse that sentence let alone find it funny.

2. The investigation of someone who has fallen off the side of a building is how the graphic novel starts.

3. Watchmen is over 20 years ago. Yes, there will always be people who haven't read it yet and it will be new to them. However, by that logic, there can be no statute of limitations. Do you really want people to be right when they get into a huff because you've spoiled the ending to Oedipus Rex?

Defining what is a spoiler broadly is counterproductive. It shuts down discussion, and isn't even useful to those trying to stay unspoiled. With an expansive definition, they'd have to sign off the internet until they've read all of known literature. Certainly, they can't read this blog post.

Obviously, the judiciously placed spoiler warning is a good thing. People who want to go into a work with no foreknowledge can do so. Placing a spoiler warning on any reference to a work isn't useful. People trying to avoid all discussion of a work can simply do that. They don't need the words "spoilers" to cue them.
Egglie
10. drxray
Snape killed Dumbledore? Great. Thanks for ruining it for me.
rick gregory
11. rickg
A couple of thoughts... it's easy on a website to write an intro and put the spoilers behind a link that clearly says "Spoilers ahead". However you can't do that on, say, Twitter or Facebook. So if you're talking about an show that's airing (say the series finale of BSG) then it's really up to you to avoid the web until you've seen it. On the West Coast of the US? East Coast people will see it first, so don't surf between the air time on the East coast and when you see it.

Have a DVR or you watch it on Hulu? Great.. but YOU decided to time shift so it's up to YOU to deal with the consequences of that. I'm sure that a lot of people will want to talk about the finale of BSG the day after it airs. They can't be held responsible for your decision to Tivo it and watch it Sunday.

Second, all spoilers aren't equal. "The chick is a guy at the end of Crying Game" is a big one... so is "Snape kills Dumbledore." There are smaller happenings of the form "Oh and X finally kisses Y" that usually aren't material to the outcome of the piece.

I agree with Scalzi on the statute of limitations... it really comes down to "If you care that much, read the book/see the movie or show." For example I never did see the Crying Game - but how much could I care if I've not seen it in, literally, a generation? In fact, I'll go one further - the more important the event, the more responsibility people have to engage if they care about spoilers. The BSG finale has been hotly anticipated - for a regular episode of season 2 you might reasonably argue for a week long statute... but for the series finale? Sorry, you get a day.
Torie Atkinson
12. Torie
@ 11 rickg
all spoilers aren't equal

Amen to that. I'm generally averse to big spoilers like those you mention, but I find that spoiler culture has gone beyond just the "Snape Killed Dumbledore" and "Keyser Soze" types of reveals--sometimes if you mention the premise of something people will flip out.

I get in trouble for this a lot, because I don't consider the basic plot of a book or movie or television show to be a spoiler. Others want to approach everything blind, on its own merits, and while that's admirable in a kind of way, it's also wholly unrealistic in the media-saturated infosphere of 2009.

@ 5 jere7my

I understand that, but I find that I'm only incredibly spoiler-averse to things that I really want to see/read, in which case I'll go see or read them.

I think what bothers me is that spoiler-phobia leaves the onus on those-who've-seen to not say anything, rather than on the person in question taking responsibility and not investigating things he/she doesn't want to know about. Spoiler warnings only do so much.
rick gregory
13. rickg
"...it's also wholly unrealistic in the media-saturated infosphere of 2009."

It's especially annoying to me when people participate all of these new ways of communicating and then complain about actually having communication happen. "Oh yes, I read blogs, subscribe to feeds in Google Reader, hit Facebook and Twitter... but NO SPOILERS." Um...

Just like there's not just one kind of spoiler, there's not just one way of hearing spoilers. The person who, knowing you've not seen or read something, deliberately tells you a critical point is a jackass. However, if you choose to read blogs, hang out on Facebook or Twitter it's really hard for you to be taken seriously when you complain that people are talking about a movie or book. Don't want information? Then don't go stand in the middle of the firehose of information that is the web.
Ben HM3
14. BenHM3
I agree with the trend here that freedom to speak includes speaking about spoilers. I also like the idea that we're adult enough to be polite to protect accidental listeners from a spoiler w/o their expressed permission.

Beyond that, it's caveat emptor: You want to approach with no advance info? Then filter your consumption. A friend is very, VERY diligent about avoiding any/every review of any movie she's the least bit interested in.

And the power of a spoiler? Those poo-pooing it are either too shallow to grasp the argument, or too self-centered to be bothered with a "No Spoilers Please" request. Knowing the twist utterly destroys the content-creator's starting point. I love re-watching "Fight Club" because each time I get that echo of the incredulity and mental Cuisinart that I had the 1st time.

And that's one of the attractions of revisiting our content. To enjoy that little reminder, seeing our naive selves suddenly enlightened, when we became one of those on the inside.

Sure, this much after the release, there should be a spoiler statute of limitations on Fight Club so I can safely say that Keyser Soze kills Aaron, and we can all share the laugh.

Nice thread, good subject. Off to read Suvudu.
Egglie
15. jere7my
Re: Facebook and Twitter, of course it's up to individual people whether they want their posts to be spoiler-free or not, and it's up to their friends and followers if they want to continue friending or following them. If someone posts spoilers to Twitter more than once or twice, I'll cheerfully unsubscribe from their feed. No drama.

I don't find it burdensome to both browse the net and avoid spoilers, and I started out on Usenet in 1990. Professionals (like the nice folks here at Tor) are usually good about spoiler protection, and my social contacts are generally considerate enough to use LJ-cuts and whatnot.
Egglie
16. Seamountie
OK, I really dislike getting a spoiler. It is not that it will "ruin" a good read or view - and I agree that if the surprise is all that is there, it hardly rates as really good - but it does take away from the ultimate enjoyment of that first read/view.

So, as a rule, I stay away from ANY forum on a series that I am currently involved in. And that in itself diminishes the enjoyment.

Not all of us are blessed with the ability to follow all books or TV or comics in a current and up to date manner. I happen to live in an place that TV is non-existent (yes there are places like that - and in North America too) so watch my TV via DVD. (The internet is too slow and too throttled to use that either). By the time I get to watch, the stuff I want to discuss is usually a year old - or more. I can throw out a comment, but no point in coming back 'cause its old hat.

Pointing out that a comment has spoilers in it, to my mind, is just good manners, and if a comment site doesn't want you to use them, then don't. If you can't comment without spoilers, then go to a forum that allows them.

And Steve.....what's a Haylon...never mind, I don't want to know, I'll find out for myself....
Gary Young
17. Gary
I don't really give a damn.

If you want to read spoilers, do so. If they annoy you, don't read them.

I am 1000 times more interested to know why I can't buy Tor or Del Rey new releases as eBooks.

All I want to do is give you my money.

Why won't you take it?

Gary R. Young
Mississauga, Canada
Egglie
18. JeffF
I don't generally get too worked up over spoilers - a work that's well-crafted (or at least fun) should hold up to knowledge of most any details.

There's a (very) small class of works for which spoilers actually matter to me, however, because the spoiler actually changes one's view of the entire work. Some examples off the top of my head (SPOILER WARNING, of course): Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery", The Usual Suspects, Fight Club, and The Sixth Sense. Some mystery stories probably fall in this category as well. I don't think The Empire Strikes Back really makes the cut, but Watchmen and the BSG Cylon list (dammit, Steven!) come a little closer.

I think that a reasonable person should understand that some works are defined by their twists. Each of these is almost two works - the one you see the first time, and the one you see the second. Spoiling the twist really denies someone the chance to experience that first work. I think I've only seen or read a few things in my life that really fit in this category, and those are the ones I think are worth of spoiler warnings.

This doesn't really solve the problem, of course, since I'm trusting in the reasonability of people on the internet. Different people will also have different thresholds, but this is mine.
Eirin Saeves
19. Eirin
So...this "life" thing...Where can I get one of those, then?

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