Yet more on spoilers

Bear with me: I’m still fascinated by this thing about spoilers and whether readers generally like or loathe them. Nikki of Breathes Books disputed my notion on whether most of the world can be divided up into one camp or other: “I think,” she suggests, “often people think they’re in one camp or t’other, but in reality, everyone has exceptions.” And she’s probably right. Would a straw poll based on blog comments give a clearer picture?
After sifting through comments on both our blogs here’s where I found responders to both blogs roughly stood on a continuum between hating and liking spoilers:

calmgrove 7 2 1
breathes books 6 2 2
total 13 (65%) 4 (20%) 3 (15%)
You do the math(s)! It would be interesting to see if my impressions are borne out by reality (I’ve tried to further refine the options):
But there’s more. My further thoughts on spoilers is about plots. All that stuff about the seven ‘basic’ plotsOvercoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy and Rebirth — means that we mostly have expectations about how things will end in most fictions. The more plots the story contains the more chances there are of us not guessing where things will end. Even biographies and autobiographies often buy into these plotlines, which is why we can feel unsatisfied by a straightforward account of the ups and downs of somebody’s life — we just don’t know where things are heading.
I wonder when we encounter more uncomfortable fictions, where we can’t second-guess which plot is paramount, whether it’s very tempting to check ahead. If on the other hand it’s an Enid Blyton Famous Five story, well, we’re not going to bother, are we! And it’s very hard to imagine anybody who has no idea how the New Testament ends:
Films however, as many people have declared, are a different matter: maybe you’re one of those who need to know the story arc before committing yourself to watching that movie in a theatre or selecting that DVD. Myself, I hate film trailers where choice bits give away most of what’s going on, as this meme makes absolutely clear:



18 thoughts on “Yet more on spoilers

  1. Part of what makes me think that people are not as divided as they would state they are is the experimental results showing that actually, there’s a pretty clear effect across types of literature where people enjoy things more when they know what’s coming. Judging from the responses I got about spoilers, everyone expects themselves to be an exception (except the few like me who embrace our wussiness!). That simply can’t be the case, so it must be that people don’t actually know their own minds (which happens a lot, in psychology).

    Mind you, I haven’t looked at the statistical significance of the study, or where they drew participants from. It’s of course possible they designed their experiment badly and only included one sort of person, though I’m finding it a little difficult to imagine how they could manage that without specifically asking for participants who like to know a story beforehand.

    1. As you say, Nikki, hard to gauge the significance from a short article (probably based on a press release in the first place).

      I think we all have expectations of the fiction we read — genre, style, author — all of which are spoilers under another name. We may not all have the same degrees of anxiety about outcomes but if an author without warning changes style or genre halfway through a novel I’d be anxious enough about where it was going to glance at the end, however much I claim I don’t!

  2. Book jackets and descriptions from the publisher often contain spoilers, which I suppose is partly why I don’t get upset about them.

    I think that also “being surprised by the plot” is not the main reason I read books. If there is a book in which your experience is completely ruined by lack of surprise, and there’s nothing else of interest going on, I’m unlikely to read it at all.

    Your point about there only being seven main plots in the world is a good one. Those of us who read a lot have encountered these plots over and over and have a certain instinctive familiarity with them, and perhaps are less willing to wait till the end to find out how less-familiar plots turn out. For less-prolific readers there might be more surprises in store, and more of a wish to preserve them. Or maybe it’s the other way around!

    So perhaps it might be instructive to also ask in your survey questions about “How much do you read?” and “Why do you read?”

    1. This was a bit of a quick survey rather than proper research, Lori, but a well-constructed study with the kind of supplementary questions you suggest would be very desirable.

      As for book jacket descriptions there’s often a huge range in terms of quality, some frankly poorly constructed, others doing their contents a disservice by revealing too much too soon or misjudging the author’s intentions — it’s always a pleasant surprise when the description gauges the contents exactly.

  3. This post gave me a chuckle as it’s an ongoing “discussion” I have with my father. He loves to tell the endings of books and movies and then imply that if you get upset about it, you’re not much of a reader or serious film watcher, if you’re only reading/watching for plot! 😉 I usually block my ears and shut my eyes at the movie previews if they’re movies I think I might want to see, so I love that graphic you’ve shared here. I’m definitely on the hate end of the spectrum when it comes to spoilers!

    1. I hope that most readers are the best judge of what they want to know about a book before they start reading, not others however well-meaning they may think they are. Sorry if that’s judgemental about your father, Laurie — I suppose it is! — but it’s like blurting out what a surprise present is before you’ve even unwrapped it! That’s just mean, I think, or at least a little selfish, especially if deliberately done …

  4. Great discussion and I love the link to the 7 basic plots. I absolutely hate spoilers and feel like publishers reveal far too much information about plot in their marketing blurbs. I try to read the blurbs far in advance when I’m requesting ARCs or selecting books to watch out for…and then to not look at the blurbs again until after I’ve read the books. By that time, I’ve forgotten the details of the plot.

    I also feel like comparisons like “the next Gone Girl” immediately give away that there’s a huge plot twist in the book. I like to not even know there is a twist!

    But, I realize I’m probably on the more extreme end of things…

    1. What, there’s a huge plot twist in Gone Girl?! Seriously, it’s disrespectful to the author if not towards the reader if too much is given away before you’ve even opened the book — and that applies to films as well. But, as I said in my previous post on spoilers, there’s a whole ‘cheat’ culture developed inrecent times, as much abiut power play as it is about instant gratification. Fiction, to me at least, shouldn’t be about power politics and stands in contradiction to instant gratification as the literary equivalent of ‘slow food’.

  5. Perhaps more evidence that people don’t actually mind spoilers comes from how often people reread favorite books (or rewatch favorite films). This strange pleasure starts at childhood — parents know well the phenomenon of the very young wanting to hear stories again and again and again. So, there’s more going on in enjoyment of literature than any plot twist can account for.

    Also, because I’m really good at nit-picking, that Jesus-Spoiler-Alert isn’t actually the case. He dies in the equivalent of Chapter 1 (and again in Chs 2-4, just in case we weren’t paying attention).

    1. ‘Spoiler’ is a bit of a misnomer if one has already read a book or seen the film or watched the TV adaptation. Maybe the only times it applies are if one read the book very young — when what one looked for in fiction may have been very different from one’s older self — or when voracious readers get to near the end of a novel only to realise that this was the third time of consuming it without remembering a single detail (we all know someone like that, I suspect!).

      The Jesus-Spoiler-Alert: I knew when I included it that it was factually incorrect but, hey, why spoil a joke when its function is to bend the truth anyway? It’s only when it’s absolutely false that I worry, though the pedant in me does shudder a bit, as it does for you!

  6. Of course I want to know the basic plot; is it a mystery, a love story, quest etc, that that I can determine if I want to read it. I also like knowing a little about the characters. I love reviews that are able to examine the idiosyncrasies of the characters without giving anything away. There is a fine line between being given information that will entice me to read a certain book and being told information that will spoil the fun of reading certain plot points for myself.

    I laughed at your movie graphic. Just a few weeks ago while watching the Batman vs. Superman movie preview I turned to my son and remarked, “well, I think we just saw the entire movie”. He sighed and agreed. The preview spoiled the movie for him and now he doesn’t want to go see it.

    1. Indeed, Sari: there are spoilers (‘The butler did it!’) and there are overly detailed synopses that claim to be reviews but are usually poorly written substitutes precluding and therefore ‘spoiling’ the real pleasure of reading the book oneself. I don’t count genre categories or intelligent reviews where one is given a flavour of the original (this is what I aspire to myself) as spoilers per se.

      I agree too about the Batman versus Superman trailers, but then I hated the Man of Steel reboot with its ridiculous slugfest at the end and complete lack of gentle humour, so I’m already prejudiced.

  7. Although I don’t like to know the details of big plot twists, don’t you think the anticipation of knowing that there’s something coming can still knock your feet from under you when it comes? I’m not particularly bothered about spoilers – only in crime and thrillers where plot is everything.

    1. I think I’ve not defined ‘spoilers’ in enough detail, Annabel — if it’s ever possible to do it to everyone’s satisfaction — and so I’m probably guilty of precipitating a lot of unnecessary discussion (unnecessary in the sense that I agree with pretty much everything that being said, not that it shouldn’t be said at all!).

      For me spoilers are crucial plot denouements prematurely delivered or twist-in-the-tail revelations. Unless one is a completely innocent reader it’s almost impossible to avoid those in classic fiction (we all know who Lizzie Bennet marries, don’t we, or what happens to Oliver Twist) but, as you say, it’s unforgiveable to reveal who done it in a mystery thriller (though most of us know by now who did it in Murder on the Orient Express). It’s the manner of delivery that I particularly savour now — the language, the emotions evoked, the pacing, the empathy or sympathy one accords a protagonist — that I look for now in people-centred novels.

  8. I find that there are times when I know what is going to happen in the story, and even then I am still hoping while reading that maybe it won’t happen or that it will, whatever the event is. So while I don’t generally go for spoilers, I’m not sure that they make any difference to me.

    1. That’s certainly what a good film adaptation does I think, Alastair — as for example in The Talented Mr Ripley, which we recently watched only for the second time — if done well you live in the moment, hoping almost against hope that something will or won’t happen. Some books are about people you can believe in and almost care about, while others are colour-in-by-numbers, ideas-based essentially, the equivalent of sudoku or crossword puzzles where only certain outcomes fit. As with pictures there are certain images I emotionally connect with where analysis is almost superfluous, while others satisfy on the basis that they’re technically efficient and work like a well-built machine.

      Having said which, there are machines like the Flying Scotsman or Concorde which evoke emotions as strong as any given to humans …

  9. Alyssa

    It’s very silly, but when someone else spoils something for me, I get pretty upset about and am often frustrated. But, there are times when I seek out spoilers and in that case, I (obviously) don’t mind them.

    Sometimes I accidentally watch an episode of a show that comes later in the season than where I am and like to fill myself in about the in-between stuff with plot summaries. Sometimes, I want to see if a series is worth continuing. Overall, I’ll usually keep reading even if I get spoiled, but I generally like to keep spoiler-free, to the point where I very rarely even read the description on the cover, so I can go in “clean.”

    1. The more I read bloggers’ responses, Alyssa, the more I realise we’re more complicated than a simple yes/no answer can supply. So much enters the mix — time constraints, mood, who we’re watching with or emotional engagement for example — that no one size fits all. But it’s fascinating to see how people’s responses vary between and within themselves, and how much individual tolerance will stand in any given circumstance. On balance I certainly prefer to ‘go in clean’ as you put it, but my enjoyment isn’t necessarily spoiled by revelations: it just comes out as a different kind of experience.

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