Storytelling Beyond Spoilers

My husband loves giving surprise gifts. He’ll scheme for days, or even weeks, recruiting co-conspirators as needed, sometimes creating elaborate props or clues leading up to the big reveal. When I open the gift, he watches me with close and painful care, trying to gauge my reaction, hoping to see the spark of joy and wonder and shock he’s been angling for through his long preparation.

Unsurprisingly, spoilers — whether about the outcome of the baseball game on his DVR he hasn’t watched or that big movie Thanos has demanded we keep our yaps closed about — irritate him deeply.

He’s far from alone. It’s difficult to run into anyone these days who isn’t at least aware of the high social price for letting the narrative cat out of the bag. Spoilers can get you roasted by your own fans, or even physically assaulted (if you’re rude enough to shout spoilers of a film to people buying tickets for it, anyway). Our ability to “spoil” things has increased dramatically compared to the good ol’ days where you couldn’t spoil Clue if you wanted to because of its alternate endings. Armed with the internet and the 24 hour media cycle, we transact directly with creators of stories. Even the creators themselves get trapped in a spoilerpocalypse no publicist, however ambitious and over-caffeinated, can divert.

But it’s far too facile to claim this change is driven solely by media transparency. What’s changed is ourselves as authors and audiences.

In Ars Poetica, Horace famously asserts that the purpose of literature is to delight and instruct. Spoiler-avoidance is a credo driven by the desire to preserve the delight of surprise and shock — the kind of delight my husband aims to provoke with every “you didn’t know this was coming, did you?” gift. But a story can (and should) offer multiple layers of delight, just as a well-chosen gift does. Beyond the initial, emotive reaction (“oh, you shouldn’t have!”) should come an appreciation of “fit” — how well this moment suits the narrative, the tone, the characters participating in the moment. We should love the gift of a story not just because it is shiny and new, but because it is well-crafted, a work of art that invites and survives careful consideration. When a story truly rewards us, both delighting and “instructing” (at least in the sense of teaching the audience its purposes), its rewards persist well beyond its newness.  

Think about re-reading or re-watching stories you love. The initial narrative surprises, the twists of character, the vagaries of fate: these are all gone, spent on the first encounter. You know what to expect. You go back to well-told, well-loved stories because you want to look at their mechanical workings (however imperfect they might be) and appreciate how they move and connect. We go back to stories because their familiarity is part of their appeal. We wear them like comfortable shirts and weave them into our language as debates, references, allusions, and (of course) memes.

In that sense, any story that can be truly spoiled through advance knowledge isn’t much of a story at all.

This is the point where some readers want to come at me with knives. “Would you want someone shouting the outcome of a movie at you as you walked in?” Well, no. “How about somebody telling major events from your books in their reviews?” Not a fan of that, either, really, but when the story is out in the world, so be it.

Yet while we call these things “spoilers” in common parlance, the truth is, there’s still a lot left to a story after we learn how [redacted] gets the [redacted] stone by sacrificing [redacted] (for example). You can’t consume something that’s truly spoiled with any pleasure; that’s what spoilage means. It’s rot. Decay. The loss of use. What we mean by “I got spoiled” is “I lost my chance to experience the story on my own terms.” (Not a very snappy label, so of course “spoiled” wins out.) It translates most precisely to, “You’ve changed my relationship to this story before I even had a chance to build it.” That’s a worthy complaint, one whose roots are dug deep in the fundamental nature of stories.

Stories are currency, things we pass between and among ourselves. They’re as well-worn as dollar bills. At some point, however much we want to protect the sanctity of having our first moment with a story on our own terms, we need to be able to discuss them and trade them among ourselves. If we can’t, a story can’t fulfill its intended purpose. It festers where it was meant to flourish. We have to be able to circulate stories openly, discussing them freely, balancing that desire for a fresh experience with a story’s fundamental, transactional nature.

At what point did we become able to talk about John Wick’s puppy in open forums? It’s been a few years since the film’s 2014 release — five, at the time of this article’s writing. When did that currency of story reach the open market, becoming as taken-for-granted as “Soylent Green is people”? When we turned it into a meme? When we reached our third film in the franchise? At some point, this happened, and when it did, it was a blessing. It made it easier to think about John Wick, the character, and understand that his story was never about the puppy — or at least, it was never just about the puppy. It’s about all the damage he endured before then, in another life. All the hurt of the past that had finally begun to heal, only to be torn open by the cruelty of happenstance. Once you know about the puppy, you start knowing a lot more about the story surrounding John Wick.

So when do we admit that the story doesn’t cease to have power because of what we know? It can even help us to know — to trade out our lenses and refocus.

Like many people, I avoid spoilers because I want to experience stories fresh. But I do so knowing it’s an imperfect state, driven by an imperfect set of assumptions. It doesn’t help story creators or consumers to focus on spoilers, or to live in fear of them, even if it helps preserve that first, sizzling moment of narrative surprise. What spoiler-aversion culture can teach us, instead, is how to move beyond stories driven by a twist or a shock to narratives that invite us to come back and appreciate all the fine details that support the whole.