On Spoiling the Plot

By Debbie Notkin

As the publication of the latest Harry Potter approached, my Internet neighborhoods (a corner of the blogosphere, a segment of LiveJournal and a couple of fragments of Usenet, mostly) were wallpapered with requests, warnings, and demands that people be protected from "spoilers." What struck me was:

this very professionally done piece of HTML art.

My own concern about spoilers, such as it ever was, evaporated over many years of co-owning and working behind the counter in a bookstore: it's just plain rude (not to mention economically counterproductive) to ask customers not to talk about the books and movies that interest them. Oh, I still prefer not to know too much about a shocking plot twist. I can understand wanting to see Romeo and Juliet for the first time without already knowing that Romeo stabs himself because he believes that Juliet is dead, when in fact she has taken a medicine that allows her to feign death so they can run away together.

So I start out with some basic sympathy toward the spoiler-averse person. In addition, the Internet has changed the "ordinary" person's exposure to commentary on books and movies. Pre-Internet, if you didn't want to know much about a book or movie before you read or saw it, you a) didn't read reviews, and b) shut your friends and family up if they were going too far. Now, those who care about such things can happen upon spoilers on any weblog, online journal, or randomly-clicked page. So I do make some effort to keep any major plot surprises to myself.

I have some questions about spoilers: first, how did it come to happen that any tiny bit of information about a story is a spoiler? I can certainly see why, "Romeo stabs himself because he believes Juliet is already dead," is a spoiler, but when did "Romeo drops Rosaline because he is smitten by Juliet" become a spoiler? Second, why is it so important that people who don't care about spoilers protect those who do? And third, when does the warranty on being protected against spoilers expire?

Surprise plot twists are, by their nature, intended to sneak up on readers or viewers. Some authors plant hints and subtle pointers to their Big Surprises; others spring them on the audience completely unaware. In either case, the author's plan is to catch most of her audience in an unsuspecting frame of mind, to throw the story into a new dimension or an unexpected framework. This can be a perfectly reasonable method of story construction . . . and it is different for readers/viewers who have been warned ahead of time than it is for the truly uninformed audience member. Perhaps it is even actually "spoiled." When I was talking about writing this essay, a friend told me that she had been apprised of the twist in Neil Jordan's film The Crying Game before she saw it, and she spent the whole first half of the movie looking for clues and indicators, rather than taking the story on its own terms. That in and of itself seems to me to be a good reason to leave the author, not the gossip network, in charge of unfolding the story.

This particular argument applies only to major and unexpected plot twists, and is almost always about situations where the author wants the reader/viewer to be fooled. For example, the true nature of the killer in Robert Bloch's (and Alfred Hitchcock's) Psycho is not only a secret closely held by the author, but a fact about which the author is actively trying to mislead the audience, without ever lying outright. Telling someone who hasn't read the book or seen the movie undermines the author's control of the story.

The term "spoilers," however, now seems to cover almost anything that happens in a story. The very fact that Harry Potter, that most predictable of fantasy epics, is such a whirling center of spoiler protection tells me that this is not about permitting the author to build up a tissue of misdirection and false cues which can then be taken away with a magician's flourish. Does it really interfere with so many people's enjoyment of the story to be told that Harry's performance (and/or the sabotage of Harry's performance) is essential to another game of quidditch? Or that the machinations of Slytherin interfere with the good intentions of Gryffindor? Or that Hermione's focus on academic learning gets her into trouble? (No, I don't know what happens in the newest book; I've only read the first three.)

Plot does many things other than surprise: in the case of virtually all formula fiction, one of the things plot does is comfort by familiarity. The two older princes make obvious errors on their quests, but the third brother is smarter and more careful, and gets the prize. Buffy slays vampires and other foes all season long, and then is defeated by something in herself at the end of the season. The Heinlein hero uses a combination of physical courage, previously acquired practical knowledge, and moral conviction to get out of his predicament.

Another thing plot does is simply develop. When Hamlet falters, the ghost is there to remind him of his purpose. When Rick hears "As Time Goes By," he knows that Sam must have a reason to disobey the standing rule "never to play that song." When Genly Ai is imprisoned by the Orgoreyn government, Therem Harth rem ir Estraven feels morally obligated to rescue him and take him back to safety across the Gobrin Ice.

When a plot is comforting, or developing, or doing something other than surprising, is it "spoiled" for you to learn something about it before you get it straight from the author? Obviously, the answer is at least to some extent personal: if I tell you that Genly and Therem will be traveling across the ice together and you didn't know, and you feel that spoils the book for you, who am I to argue? Your book, your spoilage.

And this leads to the second question about spoilers. Again, I think I'm fortunate here: if I see that something being written about something I plan to read or see gives something away that I don't want to know, I shrug it off. Even the most dramatic surprises aren't truly important to me: if I know they're coming, I can find some other way to interest myself in the story if the story works on its own terms. And if the story doesn't work on its own terms, the surprise very likely won't interest me either.

So I guess I simply don't understand the importance of being protected from spoilers. As a preference, it makes as much sense as any other preference. As a mandated rule of netiquette, it confuses me. If you don't like spinach, don't eat it, and don't confuse your dislike with a life-threatening allergy. Out there on the net, avoidance of spoilers seems to be treated as at least on a par with avoidance of racial slurs, and as way more important than avoidance of gender-orientation slurs. At least where I hang out, spoiler protection also seems to merit way more attention and be backed with more power than guidelines about avoidance of upsetting violent or sexual content. The person who fails to cut-tag a graphically violent or sexual episode gets polite requests for more care in the future from people who are often worried about being overly demanding; the person who posts a spoiler frequently gets more comments on the "rudeness" than on the content of their post. So why does it matter so much? Can you tell me?

And what about older stories? If you haven't seen Citizen Kane by now do I still, some 50+ years later, have an obligation not to tell you that Rosebud is a sled? If you haven't read (or seen) The Lord of the Rings, also several decades old, is there still a good reason not to reveal that Gollum eventually destroys both the Ring and himself? And those are the big plot twists: should you also be protected from learning how Saruman turns to the dark side? Or what brings Jane Eyre to Mr. Rochester's home in the first place? Some people would certainly say yes: that they have, effectively, an inalienable right to be protected from every spoiler or potential spoiler forever. The examples above stand as evidence that I disagree.

Underlying the whole question of spoilers is another issue: the role of plot in story. If knowing what happens literally spoils (or ruins) your experience, are you not saying that the plot is the story? Most novel proposals sent to publishers include a 3-5 page synopsis of the story. Many writers find these very difficult to write: "If I could say it in 3-5 pages, why would I need 200 pages?"

As anyone who has ever tried to write, edit, or deconstruct a novel will tell you, creating one requires a surprisingly wide range of skills: plotting is among them, certainly, but so are character development, sense of place, writing style, information flow, and pacing. An author who loses track of any one of these will end up with a stack of 200 or so manuscript pages that do not, in fact, add up to a novel. Even a key scene in the plot is more than just the plot: "Hannibal Lecter kills two guards, disguising himself using the clothes and blood of one of them, and then kills the ambulance driver on the way to the hospital," may be a reasonably powerful synopsis. It pales, however, next to Thomas Harris's brilliant style, pacing, and characterization. That sequence is far more memorable and creepy than can possibly be conveyed with a single sentence.

When a novel or a movie is well done, when all the writerly skills come together, all the pieces are integral to one another. The plot without the characters is bland; the information flow is determined by the pacing; the writing style (and camera work) illuminates the kind of story being told; the sense of place and location flavor the entire mix. It's hard to imagine someone saying, "Please don't tell me what kind of person Mrs. Dalloway is; that would ruin the book for me," or "I don't want to know that we're going to an action movie; I prefer to walk in without knowing the genre," or "I was so looking forward to reading Dune until someone told me it was about a desert planet."

For me, all of those things bear more-or-less equal weight. I get pleasure out of going into a story completely cold; I get different pleasure out of reading something that a friend or a valued critic has told me something about; I get different pleasure out of rereading or re-viewing something I liked the first time. If I know something about the characters, I can derive something about the plot. If I know something about the setting, that should help me understand the pacing. And if someone has managed to give away the big secret before I walk in, I might regret the chance to discover it on my own, but I will also appreciate the chance to watch how the author planted the seeds of that surprise (or didn't).

What matters is the story—in all of its rich and strange aspects.

CORRECTION TO PREVIOUS COLUMN: When Terry Carr and his friends invented the young black fan Carl Brandon, Carr had not yet begun his editorial career. At the time, Carr was a very active science fiction fanzine publisher and fan writer.

By day, Debbie Notkin works for a major publishing company, acting as a watchdog to make sure that publishers' rights are unfailingly protected. By night, she engages in a wide variety of nonprofit and social change activities, including working with photographer Laurie Toby Edison on issues of body image and stereotyping, and being on the boards of the Tiptree Award and Broad Universe. She is also a consulting editor for Tor Books.