Spoiler alerts!

Re-shelving in progress

Once upon a time, a long time ago, I used to glance at the end of any novel I was reading to get an inkling of how it would turn out. It may have been a quirk of youth, the same way that modern youngsters playing platform video games research what ‘cheats’ are available to help get them onto the next level.

(Of course non-fiction usually plays by different rules, especially those titles on the scholarly end of the spectrum: the old advice on writing essays — “Say what you’re going to say, say it, and then say what you’ve just said” — generally applies, with the work’s conclusions revealed on the back cover or dust jacket (or, as in the case of papers, in the Abstract). The principle here is less what you conclude and more how you get to your conclusion.)

So. Spoilers. You either hate ’em or love ’em.

From the identity of the perpetrator in a whodunit to the denouement of the latest Star Wars film half the world, in a sticks-fingers-in-ears-and-sings-loudly kind of fashion, doesn’t want to know and the other half — these aren’t accurate statistics, incidentally — are beside themselves with anxiety not to know the outcome. (For the sake of completeness I ignore the third half who don’t give a damn either way.)

Back in August 2011 a BBC News item informed us that, in the case of short stories at least, Spoilers ‘do not ruin stories’, study says; in fact they “can actually enhance enjoyment”. The theory, detailed in the journal of the Association for Psychological Science, is that spoilers help the reader to process and understand the plot, allowing them to “enjoy the journey as much as the destination.”

I can understand that these days we are so bombarded with information that some of us feel time is too limited to waste on trying to fathom out what’s going on, that like baby birds we need our nourishment pre-digested so as to process it more quickly. As the man said, “So many books, so little time.” There’s so much to get through and we seemingly don’t have the leisure to indulge in re-reads when the logjam of new material is blocking our journey downriver. I do understand that.

Commitment, then, seems to be the problem with many of us — commitment in terms of time, energy, emotions. Another answer to the question “Why would someone read the end of a story before reading the book?” has been identified as risk-aversion. For those of us who don’t like suspense, knowing the outcome of a story is definitely a way of managing the anxiety that can be raised by the plot. Is it because we don’t want fiction to mimic real life? Because everyday living, even when seen as humdrum or predictable — in which we get up, go to work, have our meals, watch television, go to the pub — is still full of unknown hazards. We could get knocked down crossing the road, contract that seasonal virus, have our homes flooded or hear of a loved one’s death. Why would be want to increase our quotidian stresses by not knowing how the made-up storyline pans out?

One online commentator justifies such cheating in three ways:

The first reason is similar to my motive for peeking ahead at movies: conserving emotional energy.

The second reason is that the beginning of the book hasn’t caught my attention enough and I’m starting to evaluate whether it’s worthwhile for me to invest in reading the rest of the book.

The third reason is simple curiosity. I want to know who’s standing at the end and where these people may show up during the story.

The first two reasons are already familiar to us: they’re about commitment, essentially. The third is down to human nature. In this we are like most of Nature generally: to explore is to survive, I suppose, and doing it efficiently increases the chances of survival. Like Pandora or Bluebeard’s wife — and it’s not just a female trait, whatever the fairytales imply — if there’s a secret we want to weasel it out, the purpose of Life, the Universe and Everything. What do we want? All the answers! When do we want it? Now!

Now, I see reading a book as analogous to going on holiday. Sometimes if a lot of money is involved — is committed — then I’d want to know almost day by day, hour by hour, where I’m going, what I’m doing, who I’ll be with, what resources I’ll need. The research involved — looking at travel guides, planning outward and return journeys, pre-arranging itineraries to tourist spots — are all equivalents of spoilers. But at other times, especially with casual breaks, I just want to chill out and take what comes, see where my steps lead me, let happenstance rule.

Applying this line of thought to fiction means that a five-hundred-page novel, for example, represents a real personal investment. A doorstopper of a book can, like a sojourn abroad — indeed like life itself — provide multiple plot-lines and a cast of thousands, with no guaranteed happy ending. On the other hand, when I re-read a book it’s like taking a vacation in a familiar destination: I’ll spend the time examining my surroundings more, soaking up the atmosphere, taking the time to engage with the locals, all having already known what to expect.

That’s the best kind of spoiler, to my way of thinking: one gained after a first visit, so that a re-visit allows you to appreciate that experience more intensely despite already knowing the outcome. After all that’s something we’re unlikely to duplicate when, at the end of our lives, we face the ultimate spoiler, Death.

“To die would be an awfully big adventure.”
— J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan


27 thoughts on “Spoiler alerts!

  1. For me, I have never read the end of a book first and if I spent a lot of money on a holiday the last thing I would want is to know what was going to happen from day to day, hour to hour. I can’t say the same for my wife, not as far as books are concerned anyway 😄

    1. I suppose it depends on the kind of holiday one takes. When going on a ‘culture vulture’ holiday to, say, Italy, I’d want to plan visits to churches, museums, galleries, historical sites bearing in mind time and money constraints, opening times, transport etc — there’s nothing more frustrating than travelling miles to a destination only to find that they’re shut for the day. This is the equivalent I suppose of a well-written piece of non-fiction.

      An activity holiday — skiing, for example — could be like a genre novel: I know roughly what to expect but take it day by day, as it comes.

      Light fiction to me would be the equivalent of a beach holiday — undemanding, relaxing, only slight suspense if I’ve forgotten the factor 50.

      Would I want to know in advance that there are travel delays, natural disasters or a broken leg coming? Probably not! (Nor, I suspect, would your wife. 🙂 )

      1. I guess your right. I think of a holiday, whether here or abroad, as a time of no pressure to do anything and we have sometimes missed out on things by not planning whilst at the same time gaining by no pressure to plan.
        Having said that, one of the best holidays we have had was a tour of museums and art galleries in the south of France. It was brilliant and one of the best things was that I had nothing to do with the planning, it was all done for us. All we had to do was turn up on time each day – perfect 😄

        1. Some only ever go on guided tours or cruises, then they have nothing to plan except what to wear! Happy endings are virtually guaranteed … but there are likely to be no real surprises, like those old Mills & Boon romances or those pulp Westerns I remember from working in libraries in the 70s. 😦

  2. I must confess I’ve looked at the end of a book 1) when the suspense has got to the point where I have to know if certain characters survive or not, and 2) if I’ve decided I can’t be bothered reading it and just want to know how it ended up. It’s an interesting thought that there are certain books you can read again and again although you know how they end up (Pride & Prejudice for me), and for me that’s a real compliment to the writer, that there’s so much more than just a story. “Spoiler” points to such a limited view of what we get from books, so much more than wanting to know how things turned out.

    1. I suppose your two reactions are ‘conserving emotional energy’ and ‘evaluating whether it’s worthwhile’ to continue after a so-so start.

      ‘War and Peace’ could be the kind of novel where the spoiler is implicit (in the title in this case!) but it’s in the detail where the pleasure lies; I’m looking forward to a first read at some time not too long in the future!

  3. I have looked at the end of books, but not for years. With most conventional fiction, you know roughy what’s going to happen anyway – if it’s a crime novel you’ll find out who the killer is, if an adventure story, your hero will most likely make it home safely even if his companions don’t. I know this isn’t always the case, but with most fiction – especially genre – comes an unwritten contract- a list of expectations which the author has to fulfill or risk the ire of their readers.
    But part of the satisfaction of reading a book is seeing how the author does this – how they fulfill their side of the contract – and to entirely enjoy that, each step of the unveiling has to be done the right order for me. No spoilers.
    As for people enjoying spoilers, you’re probably right. That’s why you see so many soap trailers telling people almost exactly what’s going to happen in upcoming epsiodes – people like to know what’s going to happen and then seeing how.

    1. Do you think our culture is hooked on spoilers? Not just trailers for soaps but also gossip mags and cheapo TV listings? I suppose it’s part of a desire for certainty and control, a desire almost akin to that engendered by religion.

      I agree about the unwritten contract when it comes to genre novels. That’s when works that spread outside the accepted parameters prove innovative. I remember The Name of the Rose many years ago, which didn’t fit into any pigeonhole — neither historical fiction, detective, philosophical novel, suspense nor thriller but a mix of all. (Must read it again …)

      1. Maybe you’re right. In a dangerous and uncertain world, knowing the outcome of certain stories or TV shows gives us a feeling of comfort and control we don’t have in wider society.
        I loved The Name of the Rose – that mixture of murder mystery, a medieval monastery, books and a dizzying library. A literary, historical crime novel, I suppose. Didn’t get ons so well with some of Eco’s other books I’ve sampled, though.

          1. Ah, yes, tried Foucault’s Pendulum and confess, I couldn’t finish it.Baudolio sounds more my kind of book – I’ll keep an eye out for a copy. Thanks for the recommendation. 🙂

    1. You seem to confirm my suspicion that searching for spoilers is primarily a youthful concern — though heaven knows there are enough older folk also happy to do that. Films based on books — sometimes it’s interesting to see how a novel translates, even when they take liberties with the plot or with characters, but it isn’t always a happy exercise.

  4. It would be rare for me to read the ending of a book. I’ve done it a few times though when I realize I no longer want to invest anymore time in a book due to boring characters or a unrealistic plot but am curious to know who the killer is, or how the mystery panned out. I guess I can chalk this down to wanting some kind of closure.
    If I am invested in a book then any need to know just spurs me to read on and on.

    1. It’s rare for me to give up on a book; and yes, I have also been known to glance at the end to confirm my belief it wouldn’t be worthwhile investing any further. But then, when we pick up a physical book in a bookshop or library don’t we often flick through and sample odd pages to savour their style? I guess those are sort of spoilers, even if they’re out of context or forgettable!

      Like you, if I’ve invested in a story or its characters I’m more than happy for the current to take me downriver to the conclusion, to go with the flow.

  5. When I read classic literature I am as much interested in the descriptive passages of the time period–dress, manners and social group interactions, interior descriptions and architecture, lifestyle events–as I am the plot and story lines. I read them like historical documents, I guess, so to use your vacation metaphor it is the ‘chill out’ journey and not necessarily the destination for me.

    However, there are times (and this just happened yesterday) when something really big is supposed to happen to a character that I just have to know if it is true. Like that BBC news item above, knowing that adds, not subtracts to my enjoyment of continuing on with the novel. In the case yesterday, the heroine got news she was going to die and organized her whole life around that and I couldn’t believe that was going to happen and that worry affected my ability to concentrate on the novel….so yes, I flipped to the back of the book, which made me relax back into the book.

    Now that I think about it, that behavior of mine is kind of like wanting dessert first, instead of enjoying each course as they come!

    1. Ah, Laurie, a whole new metaphor — very tasty! Thank goodness, the holiday metaphor was getting a bit long in the tooth. 🙂

      I find that the plots of classics are generally well known, with few twists that aren’t already out there. To add another metaphor in the mix, it’s a case of enjoying the ride rather than stressing about the destination. But sometimes an unexpected jolt along the way — like that worry about the heroine — causes one to check that arrival is a certainty!

  6. Still, dying to know the outcome of a novel, literally as well as literature-dly, would be a trifle extreme!
    I think many authors like myself carefully craft our shocks and surprises, and get justifiably miffed when too much information is given prematurely.
    When I am looking for a dose of escapism, in my own reading, I must admit I tend to check that sweetness and light prevail.
    Don’t you mean the half other than the sticky-fingery and couldn’t carey pair of three halves are the ones who ARE wanting to know the outcome by hook or crook?

    1. Last point first: you’re right, I’ll edit that to read what I meant to say rather than the opposite, thanks!

      I must say that I’m also mostly in the happy-ending camp, and even with tragedies I look for the positive, however dimly it shines. Always avoided the Tragic Life Stories bay in bookshops for this very reason!

  7. I think I’m the kind of reader who likes to know the general lay of the land so to say. (which is why I don’t really mind genre labelling). At the same time, irrespective of the ending, I also want the journey to that ending to be compelling! And yes, if the ending doesn’t flow as a logical next step to the journey then the readerly me can get pretty mad! I’m not sure in which camp that puts me!

    P.S. This made me chuckle: For the sake of completeness I ignore the third half who don’t give a damn either way.

    1. My father teased me with references to the ‘bigger half’ when the choice was between two portions of a cake or similar delicacy, and young kids can still sometimes find the concept of two equal halves difficult.

      I’m not sure either which camp has the monopoly on logical endings, Juhi, but I agree that endings often require the most attention from the writer so they’re neither rushed nor a disappointing non sequitur. It’s the mark of a good writer — or a good writer — when one closes the ladt page with a satisfied smile!

  8. Thanks for this provocative post, Chris. I have that “need to know how it ends” feeling more often with movies than with books. I don’t enjoy suspense movies, and after I became a parent I found it nearly impossible to watch any child-in-jeopardy tale. (Someone had to reassure me the daughter in The Piano was not in danger before I was willing to watch it.)

    I can think of only a few times when I’ve peeked at a book’s final page, and each time was to decide if I wanted to keep reading about a set of detestable characters. Suspense in a book is easier to deal with — just skip a few pages (my approach to Silence of the Lambs), or stop reading for a couple of days. I can’t do either of those when watching a film at the theater. As you point out, we’re all trapped in our own ever-reeling movie of a life whose end we can’t predict. For me, that’s enough suspense to last a lifetime.

    1. Our ability to tolerate fictional suspense varies so much, doesn’t it? Emily goes out of a room during frightening sequences (or when spiders are on nature programmes, but that’s a different matter!) whereas I find I can distance myself by thinking how the sequence might have been filmed from a technical angle, or reminding myself that the actor and director must have worked hard to convincingly convey danger and emotions.

      With written fiction though — as you imply, Lizzie — one has more control of what is coming up and therefore the occurrence or not of the suspenseful situation. I largely avoid any real unpleasantness in a book by choosing not to pick it up in the first place …

  9. I would never visit the last page early. I like surprises too much. So much so, in fact, when I’m reading a novel with a particularly well-crafted twist at the end of the tale, once I reach the end I even place my hand over the forthcoming paragraphs. To ensure I don’t accidentally catch sight of the final revelation, you understand.

    And yes, I share Lynn Love’s view of Umberto Eco’s ‘Name of the Rose’. It ticked so many boxes. But as a book-lover I considered the fate of the library to be tragic.

    1. The burning down of libraries, even fictional ones like Eco’s or that of Gormenghast Castle in Titus Groan let alone real ones like Timbuktu’s in recent years, is something to be mourned as well as regretted. But at least in fictional libraries the loss is only to the imagination, and if the author is still alive at least one may hope that they may at some stage reveal the details of the treasures they contained. In the case of Mervyn Peake and the recently deceased Umberto Eco we will never know …

      Luckily many novels have epilogues (even if unlabelled as such) following on after the climactic revelation, so that particular concealing hand action should surely be rarely required, Steve!

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