About spoiler warnings

(This is another case where I wrote most of the entry months ago but didn't get around to posting it 'til now.)

Several people whose opinions I greatly respect have (relatively) recently spoken out against spoiler warnings (in very different contexts):

  • In April of 2005, Matt C. explained in his blog entry "Spoiled Again!" that "spoiler warnings raise plot above other elements of a narrative"--though he added, "I realize most people value plot more than I do, and are disappointed when reviewers reveal major plot points."
  • In a comment on that entry, Nick M. noted: "offering a spoiler warning lends sanction to the idea that spoilers are important[, which] plays to a wrongheaded and foolish expectation."
  • In a comment on a journal entry of Nick's from around the same time, gadarene (I'm not sure whether you want your RL name associated with your username) referred to "the third-grade-playground concept of 'spoilers'." (Happy birthday, btw!)
  • In a comment on my journal entry about George Takei coming out, David Moles wrote: "If spoiler warnings really are required for a play that won a Tony thirty years ago, I fear for the humanity's future." Tonight (May of 2006), in a comment on an entry of mine about BSG, he wrote: "When did 'spoilers' stop having to actually spoil one's enjoyment to be spoilers?"
  • And in August of 2005, Debbie Notkin wrote a piece, "On Spoiling the Plot," in her Strange Horizons column, in which she said that she can understand wanting to avoid foreknowledge of major plot twists that the author didn't want readers/viewers to know about ahead of time, but that she doesn't get why some people don't want to know anything about the plot ahead of time. (She also says some smart and interesting things about ways to enjoy a work even if major surprises have been "spoiled" for you, and various related topics.)

And I have no objection to any of those folks (or anyone else) leaving out spoiler warnings when discussing a work. I certainly don't agree with people who insist that everyone must put up spoiler warnings when discussing any work, and I recognize that most of the above comments were made in response to people insisting that everything must be tagged with spoiler warnings.

Me, although I don't like seeing spoilers, I know there are a lot of unmarked spoilers out there, even in mainstream reviews. So when I'm preparing to watch or read a work where plot surprises are important to me, I avoid reading much that's been written about that work. Sometimes I'll read reviews ahead of time with sort of the attitude of an antelope watching for predators--poised to leap away the moment that the corner of my eye catches something that looks like it might be spoilery by my standards--which usually lets me read at least the first couple of paragraphs of most reviews, which often gives me a reasonable sense of whether I'm interested in the work or not. As soon as I'm sure I'm going to see or read the work, I usually stop reading reviews; then after I've seen or read it, I often go back and read reviews to see what other people thought. (And as soon as I'm sure I'm not going to see or read the work, I start reading reviews without worrying about spoilers.)

But. (You knew there was a "but" coming, didn't you?) For me, personally, not speaking for anyone else: the plain fact is, I do privilege plot.

There are a lot of other reasons to experience a given piece of art, of course. And I privilege some of those, too: for example, I love certain kinds of prose styles, to the point that if a story is stylishly enough written, I often don't care if the plot is predictable or nonexistent. Similarly with certain kinds of characterization and theme. In movies, I also admire impressive action, and impressive visuals, and good acting, and entertaining dialogue, and plenty of other stuff. It all comes back to Ben R's idea of "sources of reader [or viewer] pleasure" (thanks for that paradigm, Ben; I've been finding it really useful); there are a lot of such sources for me, and a plot in which I don't know what's going to happen next is only one of those sources, and if there are enough others in a given work, I may not care about plot at all.

Nonetheless, plot is generally a major source of reader pleasure to me, and knowing what's going to happen ahead of time does (usually) reduce my enjoyment of a work, at least a little. That may be foolish or wrongheaded of me, but it's a fact of the way I experience some kinds of art, and I confess that I'm not very interested in trying to change that about myself.

Some folks, in discussing this issue, say things like "But if plot were really that important, you wouldn't be able to enjoy reading/seeing a work multiple times." And in fact I often don't. There are probably fewer than a hundred books (other than picture books) that I've read more than once, and fewer than ten that I've read more than three times (actually, The Phantom Tollbooth is the only one that comes to mind, but there are probably a few others), whereas I know people who find comfort in reading their favorite books dozens of times. Similarly with movies: I can't think of any movies offhand other than Repo Man and The Wizard of Oz that I've seen more than three times, and there are probably fewer than fifty that I've (intentionally) seen more than once. After I know what happens, I'm usually not as interested in experiencing the work again, no matter how much I enjoyed it the first time, and no matter how many other worthwhile things there are to enjoy about it. (Um, I'm sidestepping things like remakes, and adaptations from one medium to another, and retellings, and so on. I can talk about those another time; my reaction to them is more complicated than my reaction to experiencing the same work multiple times.)

Interestingly, there is one medium/genre in which knowing what happens ahead of time regularly enhances my enjoyment: musicals. I'm not sure why that is; perhaps I tend to find the plot harder to follow in musicals than in other kinds of drama, so if I know in general terms what's going on, it frees me to pay attention to other stuff? Don't know. Or maybe it's just that my expectations are more easily led astray in musicals, so knowing the plot outline lets me set expectations more appropriately. But even there, I don't tend to actively seek out spoilers ahead of time (I usually don't even read the story-summary notes in the program if I'm seeing a new-to-me play live), even though sometimes afterward I wish I had.

I mentioned expectations. That's a key issue for me: I want to know just enough about a work to let me set my expectations appropriately, because I know from long experience that I enjoy things (almost everything) a lot more if I have the right expectations going in. For me, regarding movies in particular, setting expectations often requires that I know the tone or mood of the work ahead of time; relatedly, it helps a lot if I know what kind of mood I should be in to best enjoy it. If I'm in a cynical frame of mind, for example, then seeing a movie that's full of childlike wonder is a bad idea--I won't enjoy it, even though I might like it a lot if I saw it in a different frame of mind. So when I do read reviews before seeing a movie that I know I'm interested in, one of the things I'm usually looking for is hints about what mood I should see it in for best results.

And yet, even in terms of managing expectations, I privilege plot. There have been at least two movies for which my enjoyment was partly spoiled simply by knowing ahead of time that they had twist endings, not even knowing what those twists were--much like Debbie N's friend who spent the first half of a particular movie looking for clues about the twist (though in that case the friend knew what the twist was ahead of time). If I'm focused on trying to figure out the surprise in advance, I've got less attention for all the other non-plot good stuff. This may be part of why I don't generally like mysteries much; they make me feel like I have to focus on figuring out what's really going on before the author reveals it. (And I'm not so good at that, which makes me feel dumb, and I hate feeling dumb.)

A specific example of how even a small spoiler can affect my reading: I recently read Adam Roberts's novel On. I got a little impatient with the first 80 pages or so, because there's a big plot development that in some sense starts the story moving, and it's one of the first things mentioned in the back-cover blurb. So I was expecting it to happen right at the start, but it didn't happen 'til about 80 pages into the book. This is one reason I usually don't read back-cover blurbs. (Somewhere around 40 pages in, I got sick of waiting for it to happen, so I glanced ahead to figure out where it was going to happen so I could set my pacing expectations appropriately.)

Three more examples:

  • When I was in high school, a friend took me to see the movie Birdy. She had just seen it, and loved it. I was dubious, so I asked her what it was about. She said, "It's about a guy who likes birds." I was still dubious, but I went along to see it, and I loved the movie. And although in that instance my friend could have told me quite a bit more without spoiling the plot for me, I think I enjoyed it more for not knowing any more than that going into it. In fact, I adopted her description; whenever I tell people to see that movie and they ask me what it's about, that's what I tell them.
  • Tigana was published over 15 years ago, and is a widely known and widely loved masterpiece of the genre. And there's a certain piece of backstory--related to the title--that I think is totally brilliant, and is part of why I'm loving the book so much. But I'm extremely glad that I didn't know that piece of backstory going into the book, because it's revealed about a hundred pages into the book, and I would have liked that backstory item a whole lot less if it had been revealed at the beginning. I would still have liked the book, but not as much.
  • The pilot episode of Alias is one of my favorite pieces of TV ever. But if, going into watching it, I had known the one-sentence high-concept description of the series--the first sentence of the back-cover blurb on the DVD box--I would have enjoyed it significantly less. The premise of the series is a big surprise in that pilot if you don't already know what's coming. Again, I would still have enjoyed it, but not nearly as much.

So, with all of that as background, the reason that I employ spoiler warnings so readily (and go to such lengths to avoid even minor plot spoilers in contexts where I don't want to supply such warnings) is that if there are any readers out there who are like me, I know they'll appreciate it. Because although I don't demand or even expect it, I do appreciate it when others put such labels on things. And for people like me, knowing about the plot ahead of time really honestly does significantly reduce my enjoyment (even though it rarely completely spoils my enjoyment).

As for older works: there are certain works that are so well-known, so widely discussed, that I generally don't bother with spoiler warnings. I wouldn't generally hesitate to talk about the ending of Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet, for example, at least if I'm writing for an educated Western audience. But there are other works, even great works of the Western canon, whose plots are not so widely known. I might hesitate a little bit before talking in detail (without warnings) about the ending of King Lear (though I suppose knowing whether a Shakespearean non-history is a comedy or a tragedy gives you pretty big hints about how it'll end), and I would hesitate a lot before giving away the ending of, say, Coriolanus. (Actually, I have no memory of the ending of that play; I really just picked it at random from the list of lesser-known Shakespeare plays. My point is that a lot of people haven't read or seen it, and most of those probably don't already know how it ends; so for those people, being told the plot really may be an enjoyment-spoiler even though the play is hundreds of years old).

And that's why I gave a spoiler warning for Equus back in my Takei entry. It's one of my favorite plays, but I suspect that less than a third of the readers of my journal have seen or read it; I would guess that less than half have even heard of it in more than a casual sort of way, and I'm pretty sure most of those who haven't seen or read it don't know much about the plot. I strongly recommend seeing or reading it; and those of you who privilege plot the way I do probably don't want to know how it ends going into it, even though plot isn't really the point of the play.

I would go even further to avoid providing non-labeled spoilers of certain extremely plot-heavy movies that I love, even though they're relatively widely known and have been out for years. (There's one movie that has so many twists that I eventually settled on telling people "At no point during the movie is it the movie you expect it to be," and I only say that much because I would worry that the beginning would make them give up on it.)

And I haven't yet figured out a good way to talk about a few movies in the small category of works for which even knowing that there's a twist ending is giving away too much of the plot for my tastes. A couple of those, as noted above, I liked a lot less than I probably would have if I hadn't known about the twist; another, I disliked more and more as it went on, but was completely surprised (mostly in a good way) by the ending, and I still haven't figured out whether I like that movie or not. About that last one, if I'm telling someone about it and I even say "It doesn't end the way you expect it to" or "It doesn't have a standard Hollywood ending," they'll probably see the twist coming a mile away.

I was originally going to segue from the above discussion into a discussion of my personal distinctions between criticism and reviews, and how spoilers work in each, but although it's pretty relevant to the above discussion, I think going there might double the length of this already-overlengthy entry. And also might raise the ire of y'all reviewers and critics even more than I've already done with this entry. So I'll leave that for another time.

11 Responses to “About spoiler warnings”

  1. Chaos

    If I’m focused on trying to figure out the surprise in advance, I’ve got less attention for all the other non-plot good stuff.

    Yes, exactly! The other thing is that you only get one introduction to a plot. (Technically, this is untrue for me, since i have no recollection of anything i read more than five years ago, e.g. i’ve read Tigana but have no idea what you’re talking about. So, in theory, if something got spoiled for me, i could just wait a decade and try again.) Given that, i’d much rather have my introduction be the one the author wrote than musings on the likely plot development induced by my friends’ reviews. I am very, very easily distracted by trying to puzzle together what X was talking about when he said Y about this movie/book (this actually applies whether Y is plot-related or not), and it almost always makes me enjoy the movie/book less than i otherwise would.

    That’s introduction — i actually do like seeing things multiple times, particularly if they have twist endings or other weirdness. The first time is for the author’s impression, and the second time is for seeing what the beginning looks like in light of my own knowledge of how it turns out, and of comments made by others about things to look for, etc.

    Honestly, i’d be inclined to be sloppier about plot spoilers for plays. I think they fall into the same “write once, perform many times (differently)” category as musicals. Maybe this is the same thing you’re getting into with your omitted comments about adaptations? In particular, in the particular case in which a performance of a play or musical, or an adaptation, is going to omit something which i think it’s critical to include, i’ll hate it less if i know in advance.

  2. Wayman

    I too make the exception for musicals (and operas, which I find nearly impossible to enjoy without knowing the full plot going in). And musicals and plays, theatre in general, stand up far better to multiple viewings than books and movies in most cases, for me. Especially if the actors are amazing and to some extent improvising, and also especially if the show is at least partly about the audience’s collective experience (eg, Rent). In many cases, I’ll memorize most of the soundtrack to a musical before seeing it for the first time.

    Books and movies I prefer unspoiled and minimally reviewed. Sometimes I’ll happily read detailed analyses and discussion, eg, about Lost on That Mailing List, when I know I won’t be watching the show (at least for a while). But in that instance, where there’s so much to talk about, the main thing I remember is “wow, they talked about a lot of complicated things that I had absolutely no context for, and hence don’t remember at all”. And the main thing I came away with is “I think I’ll enjoy it, if I ever get around to renting the DVDs”. Whereas when there’s a single Big Twist or Surprise Ending, I’m much more likely to remember that, and to enjoy the work far, far less than I would have otherwise. I too prefer not even to know there is a surprise associated with a given work, though that one is generally unavoidable. But such works also are the sort which stand up better to repeated readings or watchings for me, because on the second time through I’m looking for clues and foreshadowing, which often leads me to pay a lot more attention to details of characterization.

    Style and tone is its own thing … either a work really appeals to me on such grounds or it doesn’t, but that rarely affects re-readability. And I find knowing the style or tone in advance has no effect on my enjoyment of a work (but is instead of tremendous benefit in helping me decide if I’ll like it in advance). So it’s quite the opposite of plot for me.

    Why does no one read Coriolanus? It’s no Henry V, but it’s still a good read. It’s a classic enough work that I wouldn’t consider the ending a spoiler; but then, I’m pretty sure I’d previously encountered the story Shakespeare based it on in a Latin class somewhere.

  3. Wayman

    Whenever I tell people to see that movie and they ask me what it’s about, that’s what I tell them (“It’s about a guy who likes birds.”).

    At first I read this as “a movie” (as in “any movie”) instead of “that movie”. I think you should tell people this about any movie they ask about! 🙂

  4. JessieSS

    I don’t think spoiler warnings have to privilege plot; they privilege the idea that there’s a first-time experience that can’t be replicated. Which I believe. And that first experience colors subsequent readings, because if the surprise or the suspense creates an emotional response, most people will remember and to a degree re-experience that response.

    That’s very different, of course, from the idea that one should be able to exist without knowledge of basic facts about popular culture. Seems to me that “some information can lessen my enjoyment of a reading/viewing experience” is very different from “therefore you must hide that information from me even in your own conversation.”

  5. Hannah

    I don’t think spoiler warnings have to privilege plot; they privilege the idea that there’s a first-time experience that can’t be replicated. Which I believe.

    Me, too. Which is why the rereading argument doesn’t wash with me: I’m not necessarily rereading a book for the same reasons that I read it in the first place. Or even for the reasons that I reread it the last seventeen times.

    Personally? I’m a spoilerwhore. I flip ahead to the ends of books. I reading spoiler threads at TWOP (with the exception, now, of Veronica Mars). I read reviews of and responses to books that I fully intend to read but haven’t yet. Because most of the time, I’m not reading to find out what happens next, and because what happens is less interesting to me than how it works.

    But honsetly, it strikes me as just good manners to give people a heads-up.

  6. heather w

    Ha – this entry reminded me how much I love the last line of “Birdy” (which is about is spoilerific as the description your friend gave): “What?”

  7. Shmuel

    I don’t think spoiler warnings have to privilege plot; they privilege the idea that there’s a first-time experience that can’t be replicated. Which I believe.

    Me three.

    The oft-heard statement that one envies those who haven’t yet read a given book because they’re going to have the pleasure of experiencing it for the first time would seem to be incompatible with the claim that spoilers don’t matter one little bit.

  8. Joanne

    For me, it depends on the venue: formal reviewers have an awful lot of leeway, because if you are reading a review, you have already given the reviewer a sort of limited permission* to alter your first-time experience – whereas asking a friend, “hey, did you like it?” and having them say, “yeah, my favorite part was where Luke found out Darth Vader was his father!” is a whole different thing (i.e. your friend is being a jerk).

    *How limited depends on the context too – the one-paragraph blurb with the star rating in the newspaper had better not spoil me, but a ten-page essay on the use of lighting in the movies of Steven Spielberg doesn’t have to worry about it at all, and there’s a whole spectrum in between.

    When one is in doubt, one should probably provide the warning, simply as a matter of courtesy. I don’t see what it hurts.

  9. Joanna

    I’m happy to provide spoiler warnings, and I do, because I know many of my friends prefer to avoid spoilers for one reason or another. And I admit, there are some huge plot twists to movies or tv shows that it may be interesting to experience for one’s self.

    That said, I have a small complaint from the other side of things. Suspense has never been important to me. In fact, oftentimes suspense (or worry that a movie will have a sad ending, which I prefer to avoid when I’m watching a movie for entertainment) will actually prevent me from enjoying a book or movie; any vague expectations that the plot of a book or movie might be sad or depressing will even prevent me from watching or reading it. In addition, partly because I do not privilege plot (I just enjoy watching characters interact) and partly because, with limited time for movie/tv entertainment right now, I don’t have the energy to avoid spoilers, I don’t much care.

    ‘Remaining non-spoiled’, however, seems to have become such a Platonic ideal that friends will occasionally REFUSE to answer my questions about the general plot outline, which infuriates me. They think that I won’t enjoy the book/movie as much if I know the plot, which seems to insult my own self-knowledge that I will.

  10. Allogenes

    Similarly with movies: I can’t think of any movies offhand other than Repo Man and The Wizard of Oz that I’ve seen more than three times, and there are probably fewer than fifty that I’ve (intentionally) seen more than once.

    What is it about Repo Man that rewards repeated viewing? Though I have issues, I’ve seen it over 100 times. 🙂

  11. Vardibidian

    I privilege plot myself, although usually I describe it as being a plot freak. Privilege has a nice ring to it, though.

    One of the questions, and I think one worth thinking about, is what constitutes a spoiler and what constitutes cultural literacy. I found out the spoiler for Citizen Kane in a Peanuts cartoon long before I had a chance to see the movie, and then before I got around to seeing the movie (which took me longer, of course, because I already knew what “Rosebud” was) I had already had the logical fallacy pointed out to me. So, yes, my experience of the movie was kinda blown, but then, it would have taken a fairly massive conspiracy of silence to keep me in the dark about it for twenty years or so. What ruined Sixth Sense for me was (as alluded to above) just knowing that there was a Plot Twist. Well, not ruined, but I guessed the twist before the movie began, and spent my time in the movie attempting to confirm that guess, rather than having my emotions properly manipulated.

    On the other hand, when I talk about books in my own Tohu Bohu, I like to talk about the plots, which means spoilers, and sometimes I specifically like to talk about how a particular piece of information spoils everything. And I don’t want to put some boilerplate bit of language in all my book reports about spoilers, etc, etc. What I do was mention every few months that I include spoilers, which keeps people like you from reading any reports on books you haven’t read. At least I hope so. Which isn’t really perfect, since now and then I go from the book to a question I think you would find interesting, but then perfection will always be outside my grasp.

    Oh, and you are quite right not to read back-cover text. It’ll spoil everything, and besides, it’ll be lousy text.



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