Some Thoughts on Spoilers

by Milton Lawson


I recently saw a tweet in favor of spoilers that said the following:

I’m extremely pro-spoilers, personally. If my enjoyment of a thing hinges on a twist, I generally doubt I’ll like it much afterward. If I know what’s coming but getting there is the best part, that’s the good stuff. Tell me how it ends.

…and I, respectfully, dissent.

I hate spoilers and avoid them like the plague, but I have a more expansive view of what constitutes a “spoiler” than the author of this tweet.

Pay close attention to the part that says ,“If my enjoyment of a thing hinges on a twist,” which comes close to equating the concept of a spoiler with the concept of a “twist.” For me, a “twist,” in and of itself, is a risky storytelling move, and should be deployed only with assurance and mastery. I agree with the view that any story that hinges on a “twist” is generally something I doubt I’ll enjoy. Most twists fail to surprise.

Take, for example, the contemporary storyteller most associated with “twist endings,” M. Night Shyamalan. As he’s demonstrated time and again, if the only virtue of a film is to attempt to surprise you with a twist then most of the time, that experience is going to be hollow. Structuring an entire work around one big surprise is a huge risk; one often doomed to failure.

But “twists” aren’t the only thing that can be spoiled.

Everything in a story is a potential spoiler

Storytelling itself is the anti-spoiler art form. Storytelling, essentially, is the selective and purposeful conveying of information in a specific sequence. Those pieces of information were designed to be conveyed at a precise moment for a reason. Once those choices are taken from the storyteller and instead conveyed by Joe Marketer or Random Audience Guy, the heart of the work itself is placed in peril, sometimes mortally so.

That’s why storytellers should be as involved with advertising campaigns as possible. There’s a fundamental tension between the need to attract a potential audience member but the artist’s need to control the level of knowledge going in – and far too often, the storytelling is sacrificed on the altar of marketing.

When I enter the world of a story, I want as little information as possible. “Twists” aren’t the only storytelling choices that can diminish an experience. Does a work play into genre tropes or intentionally subvert them? How is it structured? Does this work include a cameo? If there is a twist, is it merely a spin on an audience expectation, or is it something that radically alters ones’ viewing experience?

Spoiler Type 1: Fundamental alterations of perception

There’ve been a handful of modern stories that have accomplished shocking surprises toward the end of the story that would’ve fundamentally altered an audience’s perception of the entirety of the events leading up to that moment of revelation, had they been known in advance. Take examples of films like Fight Club; Sixth Sense; Being There; or in comics, Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese.

Whether or not a given audience member or reader claims they are above such manipulations , it is clear that they are intentionally structured to present one conception of reality and then radically alter that concept, forcing audiences to revisit everything they’ve seen before and experience it from a new perspective. The film Fight Club re-caps many of the key moments of the film prior to its big revelation and re-presents them in a new context. The experience of someone who knows the surprise in these kinds of narrative choices beforehand is fundamentally different from an audience member who was in the dark, and it’s clear that the creators of those works invested great pains to conceal those revelations until a specific moment for maximum impact. Anyone who unfortunately had those films spoiled for them did not see the film that the creators intended. They saw something else.

These are the hardest to pull off and are the most easily ruined. Many modern attempts at these kinds of shock-endings are spoiled by the trailers advertising the movies. Heck, even knowing that there is a twist in the first place often telegraphs the surprise in advance. To tell someone there’s a big twist, without revealing said twist, is in itself a potential experience-ruiner.

Spoiler Type 1A : a major surprise that you’re invited to solve as a reader or audience member

The previous type is entirely distinct from a well-constructed cumulative surprise revelation that the author has intentionally crafted in ways that could be discovered at several different points with one’s engagement with the material. When interviewing candidates to be producers of the Game of Thrones TV series, George R.R. Martin tested their understanding of the source material by asking for their theory as to the identity of Jon Snow’s mother. They got it right, demonstrating that the closest readers of the material had enough clues to solve that mystery.

For that story, it’s not as important to have this fundamental information revealed simultaneous to the character who discovers it. For that specific moment, one key aspect of the revelation is the drama inherent in witnessing that revelation for that character. Whether you figured it out after book one, book two, season one, season five, or right at the moment the majority of the world found out isn’t important, but the fact that you discovered it yourself, through experiencing the story itself, and not some marketer, reviewer, or 4chan digital douchebag is the crucial difference. There’s a great distance between figuring something out and having it confirmed by the text and having a theory confirmed by an Internet leak, or worse, a hive-mind deduction pretending to be a leak.

Spoiler Type 2: Genre adherence or subversion

I once read an authoritative analysis of the gangster genre as research for a project, and one of the core principles of the genre, according to this study, is that you cannot encounter the protagonist before he or she has turned against the law. The gangster should always be introduced after choosing the criminal life. This was written before Breaking Bad, obviously, which subverted this trope with excellent results. Knowing in advance that the protagonist is going to become a bad guy is not going to spoil the experience: it’s in the title. But many of the brilliant surprises in the show — what Walter White does to his partner’s girlfriend, what happens when he visits Tuco’s base of operations, the closing note of the episode “Half Measures” — had they been known prior to viewing, would have diminished and likely ruined these pivotal moments in the series.

Even though it’s in the title, I was among one of the lucky few who saw Breaking Bad from the beginning, and going in, I had no idea that this trope was being subverted. For those of us in the dark, the title could’ve just referred to the protagonist’s streak of bad luck. All I knew was that Breaking Bad was a drama with a pilot with good reviews and an amazing comedic actor in the lead role. That Mr. Chips would become Scarface was a heck of a genre subversion and having seen it fresh, without expectations, is part of what gave the experience such a heavy impact.

But, well-crafted surprise endings for episodes or characters aren’t the only things that can be ruined by foreknowledge.

Spoiler Type 3: Deep structural spoilers

Take a popular show that’s in the middle of a season right now. This show is technically part of a “franchise,” so there are many known characters, and it takes place in a timeline before other known events. The fates of most of its main characters are already known or implied. But this show has been chosen to be structured in very surprising ways. It’s almost four different shows in one.

First, there’s the obvious angle that 99% of audiences would expect. But then there’s another, deeper backstory which is explored at length and has a shocking conclusion. It’s not a “twist” but a natural progression of the story’s escalating stakes. Witnessing the longer arc of that backstory’s conclusion was one of the most jaw-dropping, hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-your-neck pieces of cinematic entertainment I’ve ever experienced, in film or television. And yet, this event occurs midway through the lifespan of this show. So, what happens next?

It evolves and essentially becomes an entirely different show. Then, a few seasons later, another naturally-progressing, seismic shift in the world’s status quo occurs. And so on. Audiences who get to experience these shifts and surprises have a much richer experience. And then, very recently, that show transmitted an episode that was audacious and bold and which made a specific creative choice in chronology and format. It easily could have been spoiled in the first half of a sentence of a review. Would the entire episode have been ruined as a result? Of course not. But a significant element of its enjoyment, the level of commitment to that bold choice, would have been destroyed. I am glad I saw it unspoiled.

Another show — one that’s criminally underrated and doesn’t have the audience it deserves — is run by a head writer who has a lot of experience in the genre of this current show. But here, the surprises come in major structural changes. In the middle of seasons, between episodes or even within episodes, the status quo undergoes a massive change and the show skips ahead years. Actors are aged, sets changed, dynamics changed, power structures inverted or crushed, all within the blink of an eye. Each time the show has done it has been a brave artistic act. Just when they’re firing on all cylinders and everything is building up to a brilliant moment, instead of lingering, the show just moves on. It has a broader story to tell, and the usual expectations of time, space, sets, actors, and relationships are masterfully set aside in favor of the greater narrative.

Spoiler Type 4: Cameos

Cameo-spoilers are the clearest kind of spoiler to me, because, even though they’re low-impact, the only value of a cameo is as a surprise. Once that’s gone, the entire point of having it is negated. They don’t ruin the overall film or TV show, but they do ruin the cameo itself. Reporting a cameo in advance, or listing it in a review, is a destructive act, providing no value to the landscape of cultural criticism, and robs the only tiny bit of entertainment that choice would bring.

In defense of avoiding spoilers and praising those creators who craft “un-spoilable” stories

The author of the original tweet that inspired this response is correct in one sense: the susceptibility of a given narrative to being diminished by a spoiler is often the sign of a weak narrative. Taking the modern media ecosystem and the pernicious influence of social media on the experiences of collective cultural entertainment into account when constructing narratives is a useful skill for creators to bring into their storytelling toolkit.

That’s perhaps a major factor in the joy I’ve had in watching films constructed in ways to be spoiler-proof. The films Burning and Drive My Car, both adapted from works by Haruki Murakami, take organic, meandering paths, filled with the unpredictability of life itself. What they choose to focus on and when is refreshing and thrilling. Every moment of those films had me on the edge of my seat, unable to predict where they were going next. (Some audiences apparently weren’t ready for this, and when the credits started rolling at my screening of Burning, a woman seated next to me turned and asked, “what was that?”)

Leos Carax’s films Holy Motors and Annette defy any notion of predictability in their narrative structures. They deliberately zig and zag in ways designed to ensure maximum originality and surprise. Julia Ducournau’s, Titane was an unspooling of surprises and shocks; a genuine “what the fuck was that” masterpiece. And my favorite film of the year thus far, Everything Everywhere All At Once, also has that quality of unpredictability: watching it was the cinemagoing equivalent of soaring like an eagle, weightless and free.

But these films, as well-crafted and original as they are, are not inherently immune to being spoiled. Many stories that are easier to spoil, especially those that rely heavily on genre tropes and classic elements, are that way because audiences are well versed in those archetypes. However, these highly original films could have been spoiled too: I strongly suspect that had I been given Cliffs Notes capsule summaries of them, my experience might have been robbed of the joy of discovery; less engaging, less immersive, and less effective.

The detachment of pro-spoiler audiences

Fundamentally, it comes down to a choice as to how one approaches a narrative. There are those of us who are willing to surrender to a given work and allow our emotions to be played with. In return, we ask that storytellers use that power wisely and with care and that marketers and our fellow audience members let us come to the material on our own terms.

The pro-spoiler pose adopts a stance that suggests: I’m above those emotional tides. I’m perceiving these works from afar, high upon my Olympian perch with my spreadsheet to score this work on a series of objective criteria, so, of course, spoilers aren’t going to affect me. I’m just here to observe and calculate.

Fuck that. Let me immerse myself in places I’ve never been, with people I’ve never met, experiencing situations I’ve never encountered. Leave my heart and mind open to the element of surprise. And most of all, allow me that sense of wonder when those surprises hit.

Based in Houston Texas, Milton writes comics, loves cinema, and roots for sports teams that cause distress. His comics are usually sci-fi or slice-of-life stories, including “Thompson Heller: Detective Interstellar” and “Roger Ebert and Me.”


5 responses to “Some Thoughts on Spoilers”

  1. Preach it brother!

    I can remember when you could watch trailers and rely on their not spoiling the movie. This definitely has gotten worse in the last 10 years or so. It’s at its absolute worst on the streaming platforms. Virtually *all* of the trailers on Prime, Netflix, etc., spoil the crap out of the movies they’re for.

  2. Allow me to completely ruin some world culture for you:

    Odysseus makes it back to Ithaca, kills his wife’s suitors, reconciles with her and his family.
    The principle members of the royal family of Denmark all end up dead.
    After having a one night stand she’s been pressured into by her husband, Molly Bloom remembers the day she agreed to marry him.
    Having traveled across Spain under the delusion he’s a knight errant, Quixote recovers his sanity, renounces his delusions, and receives absolution.
    Both Ahab and the whale die. Ishmael floats away on Queequeg’s coffin.
    George kills Gatsby.
    The hound is trained by a distant relative of the heir of Baskerville Hall in order to frighten him to death.
    Only three of the Seven Samurai survive the final battle but acknowledge it is the peasant farmers who’ve won (they always do).
    Six members of the French Bourgeoisie, who never seem to be able to finish a meal, continue their walk along a country road.
    The 39 Steps is a German spy ring stealing British military secrets, until foiled by Richard Hannay.
    The child murderer is sentenced to death, but the mothers bemoan that this won’t bring their children back.
    Mortally wounded by aircraft machine guns. the giant ape falls from the Empire State Building.
    Rosebud is a snow-sled Kane received as a gift when a child.
    Ringo shoots the Plummers, then rides off with Dallas.
    The treasure of Sierra Madre blows away as gold dust in the wind.
    Rosie and Charlie marry and survive blowing up the German ship.
    Spats gets killed, but Joe and Jerry escape with Sugar aboard Osgood’s yacht. Jerry admits that he’s in drag, but his/her fiance, Osgood, insists “nobody’s perfect.”
    Leonardo painted a portrait of Lisa Gherardini; she may or may not have been smiling.
    If the copy of Michelangelo’s David nearest you has a fig-leaf over it’s groin, the answer is, yes, there are male genitals depicted under it.
    Beethoven composed a symphony that ends with a chorus singing the “Ode to Joy.”
    KoKo marries Katisha, Nanki Poo marries Yum Yum, and the entire cast sings reprise of “The threatened cloud has passed away”
    Darth Vader is Luke’s father; and “Mistah Kurtz—he dead.”

    Any entertainment that absolutely depends on the audience or potential audience avoiding “spoilers” is worthless to me. And it isn’t a matter of “high art” vs. “mass culture” – By the time I was old enough to read them, everyone knew “who killed Roger Akroyd,” and what Mike Hammer found so “easy” at the end of I, The Jury; I knew what would happen to Vesper Lynd before picking up Casino Royale for the first time. The entertainment of the play, film, music, painting, etc., is simply not dependent on the final outcome or “result” of the drama, the comedy, the action; this “result” is, or certainly ought to be, woven into the very fabric of the theme and is a predictable component of the narrative or dramatic structure. The supposed “surprising twists” that occasionally occur are actually predictable within a range of possibilities and probabilities, even the most seemingly absurd. I don’t experience art the way I experience a newly designed roller-coaster. You do? well, fine; but it is a kind of inverted snobbishness to expect this of everyone, even more snobbish to accuse us with little patience with “no spoiler” fetishism of being ourselves snobbish.

    informed repetition often produces the greatest enjoyment in an entertainment. I mentioned Beethoven’s 9th because its introduction of a vocal chorus was a major innovation in 1824. It was a “surprise twist” that undoubtedly either shocked or delighted its audience. It was within the range of possible alternative compositional strategies, and thus predictable, perhaps not in the unique piece, but certainly generally in the historic context taken as a whole – that is, if it hadn’t been Beethoven, it would have been someone in the same or similar context, sooner or later. (A symphony either has or has not a vocal chorus; a composer aware of this, thus has a choice.) But this is not 1824; no one listens to the 9th to be shocked or surprised to hear the vocal chorus anymore. Instead, we listen to it – and again and again – because the music moves us and we find something in its theme – both, literally, its musical theme, but also the poetic and dramatic theme of the “Ode” – that delights us and challenges us, and does so repeatedly.

    I suggest the need for repetition and redundancy in the arts and entertainments is greater than the desire for surprise than the “no spoiler” demand expresses. Innovation for the sake of innovation, surprise for the sake of surprise, shock for the sake of shock – all grow tiresome in the long run, and demanding such from entertainers (or critics and reviewers) may well stultify their creativity and potential for insight.

    There is one narrative “twist” that occurs repeatedly, not only in the arts, but in life – “Mistah Kurtz – he dead.” One of the important function of our entertainments is the performative re-enactment and ritualizations of the many ways humans pass from this world into oblivion. Because it is the “twist” in the narrative of life that awaits us all – and it is no spoiler to recognize that. On the contrary, finding entertainments that perform that, inform that, ritualize it, realize it vicariously, is what reassures us that whatever repetitions or innovations we suffer through today, we will get through them, until that final result of living that we can’t escape. “Such is life; a series of lessons with the greatest for the last.” – Sherlock Holmes (Matt Frewer), The Case of the Whitechapel Vampire, 2002.

    I did see Everything Everywhere All At Once, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. But it did not surprise me in the least, and one of its weaknesses was that, in the current cultural climate, its finale was not only predictable, but rather hackneyed. (However, I can forgive a lot from a film starring Michelle Yeoh, one of my favorite actors.)

  3. Very well-written piece. Ironically, I hit a potential personal spoiler in the middle of it (the author is right, even knowing *that* there is a twist gives away a lot) and almost stopped reading. And I averted my eyes from ejwinner’s list of plot giveaways (just in case).

    As a personal matter, I prefer to know *as little as possible* (apart from authorship) of a play/novel/film before I see or read it for the first time.

    The lights dim, the curtain goes up, the slate of expectation etc. is wiped clean. Eyes of the child.

    Winner is right, however, that redundancy and familiarity play extremely important roles in storytelling. A loved work lives and grows in the mind. This applies to children and their simple, oft-repeated bedtime stories and also to sophisticated literature.

    Proust’s magic lantern was both familiar and strange-and-mysterious to the child.

  4. Richard

    > If my enjoyment of a thing hinges on a twist, I generally doubt I’ll like it much afterward.

    I find these kinds of comments extremely annoying because they so obviously miss the point. The issue with spoilers isn’t that they make a story unenjoyable, or that the quality of a story “hinges” on being surprised by a twist. The issue is that they block a person from having a certain kind of experience.

    For example, I knew Darth Vader was Luke’s father before I saw The Empire Strikes Back, but that did not stop me from enjoying the movie. In fact, I still enjoy rewatching it every couple of years. But I will never have the experience of people who were surprised by that twist. I’ve heard stories from people who watched the movie when it premiered in 1980 and were completely blown away by the reveal. I can never know what that was like.

    Similarly, a friend of mine spoiled The Sixth Sense before I saw it, but I still enjoyed the movie quite a bit (and even watched it multiple times.) Nevertheless, I will never get to experience the movie the same way as people who watched it unspoiled. I remember so many people talking about what it was like to watch the movie a second time with a completely different point of view. I can never know what that was like.

    Now I’m not saying this is the biggest tragedy in the world. It’s not like I cry myself to sleep at night because the experiences of being surprised by *The Empire Strikes Back* or *The Sixth Sense* were forever robbed from me. But I do think it’s a little profound when you think about it – I’m not exaggerating when I say that a specific experience was “forever robbed from me.” With the simple utterance of a sentence (“he was dead the whole time”), my friend made it impossible for me to ever have the same experience that he (and many other people) had the night before.

  5. Animal Symbolicum

    This is a wonderful analysis, Mr. Lawson!