Spoilers and Stories

I remember the first time I saw The Usual Suspects. The film had been recommended to my parents and they allowed me to watch it with them, despite it being a school night.

I had no context for the film whatsoever, so that the ending completely floored me. I had to tell everyone I knew to watch it, and still now feel excited when I know somebody is about to watch it for the first time. It is a story that relies so much on not knowing about it in advance, relies so completely on ignorance to the twist, that having seen it once means you can never actually experience the story that way again.

So we preserve the innocent, and try as hard as possible not to let twists out. The importance is on that first watch, or that first read, so that the integrity of the story (and its reliance on a twist) is maintained. Alfred Hitchcock knew this, famously having cutouts of himself positioned near the exits of cinemas, imploring audiences not to ruin the ending of Psycho for the incoming crowd.

But are we so concerned at not revealing twists, that we have become oversensitive to any information about the plot of a story?

Everywhere you look, people are either declaring spoiler alerts, or calling out others for revealing spoilers. The problem is, most of the time what’s labelled a spoiler isn’t actually a spoiler.

If we’re being honest, there are two types of spoilers: those that are about the journey, and those that are about the ending. The journey spoilers reveal some unexpected plot point that takes place between where the story begins and where it ends. It challenges our expectations over how we get from A to B. The ending spoilers are more to do with how things turn out. Some crucial piece of information that again challenges our expectations over where we thought this story was going.

The nature of a spoiler is that it is a piece of information revealing an element of central importance to a story. To reveal the twist in The Usual Suspects would uncover the central element of its entire narrative. To do so would, quite clearly, be spoiling the story. Even to mention that there is a twist is to prepare the audience for the moment when the twist occurs.

But, it is not a spoiler to reveal that on Lost, John Locke was in a wheelchair before crashing on the island, and that the island miraculously restored his ability to walk. While it is a twist, in the course of one episode, it has little to do with the overall arc of Locke’s character, and even less to do with the plot of the show. It is not a central element to the story.

Revealing that information did not ruin the story. Not even a little bit. But how do we determine what’s important and what isn’t? In this time of recaps and commentaries, of unprecedented open dialogue about stories across mediums, it has become an increasingly fraught thing. Whose concern are we protecting, by withholding plot elements from public discussion?

By witholding, we are highlighting something: this thing that is not mentioned is the most important thing about the story.

The fear over revealing information about Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad and other such shows isn’t really to do with twists. The Red Wedding is not a twist, it’s just a shock. There are surprisingly few twisting turns in Walt’s story of Breaking Bad, given that it’s largely a study of a character in decline.

When people implore others not to give away spoilers on these shows, it’s out of some misguided notion that discussing endings or major plot points will ruin the story. Those who have read A Storm of Swords knew that Oberyn died at the hands of the Mountain, so that they were prepared for the shock viewers felt when it occurred in Game of Thrones. Yet to have revealed this in advance would not really have spoiled much. It was signposted from the beginning – particularly in the adaptation – and while shocking, doesn’t really affect any major change on the story. In fact, it really just reconfirms the plot’s already established direction.

To discuss the ending of Lost or The Sopranos or Breaking Bad isn’t to spoil the experience for anybody who hasn’t seen the shows. And yet it seems to be all everybody wants to discuss, so we end up doing so in this bizarrely veiled and hesitant fashions, under the illusion that discussing what happens in the end to Tony Soprano or Walter White will then render the story meaningless.

To mention that Dumbledore dies or that Darth Vader is Luke’s father or that Tyler Durden doesn’t actually exist isn’t going to ruin anything. But to siphon off these points, and countless others, from our open discussion of a story is to limit our ability to engage with how that story works.

A consideration about spoilers ends up being a consideration about our role as consumers of stories. Whether Walter White dies at the end of Breaking Bad is important only if we see that as the defining aspect of his story, as the answer to the question the story was asking. And if we do, then we’re merely passive recipients of plots and see the story as merely a vehicle.

This is a nonsense way to engage with stories, and yet treating spoilers, shocks and twists as precious elements that must be protected from public discourse shows how our priorities are out of whack: we are focused on what happens, rather than how it happens. We become the students who sit at the back and demand the answer because we can’t be bothered working out how to get there ourselves.

And the how is everything. The how is immeasurable. It often can’t be contained to one moment, or one scene, rather it’s the accumulation of elements that include plot, character, setting and tone. It’s the reason why Hitchcock’s Psycho works and Gus Van Sant’s Psycho doesn’t. It’s the reason why Quentin Tarantino decided not to abandon The Hateful Eight despite the leaking of the script to the public. It’s the reason why audiences were outraged at The Sopranos not giving us an ending to Tony Soprano, as if the ending would define the character and the story, rather than all the parts of the story that came before. It’s also the reason why audiences were far more prepared for True Detective’s ending, which revealed the journey to be of far greater consequence.

In his foreword to the revised edition of The Stand, Stephen King says that ‘in really good stories, the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts.’ And so it is with spoilers. I’m not saying we need to just get over spoilers and talk about everything openly. Not at all. But I think we need to consider why we’re so outraged when we find out one small part of a story in advance. We need to question why that’s important to us, what it is we’ve been robbed of, if anything.

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