Friday, September 09, 2011

Warning - Spoilers? Do Spoilers Really Spoil Anything?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Commenter Eric left a very interesting question and link on the blog a few weeks ago.
“Do spoilers really spoil anything? We all know people who read the end first, and then go back and read from the start. They like to know what happens. It allows them to enjoy the story more.

I find that I enjoy reading good books more the second time I read them. It's possibly the same effect. I know the outcome and can see so many more important aspects of the story because of that knowledge.

It's an interesting topic and wondered what your thoughts were.”
He also linked to this article from Wired. It’s worth reading when you’re done here.

The article mentions a study done that showed folks actually enjoy a story more when they know the ending. Some interesting conclusions are drawn (I won’t “spoil” it for you here).

For me, my enjoyment of a story is lessened if I know the twist. Spoilers do spoil it. In fact, I recently watched a movie where I figured out the twist right away and it took all the fun out of the movie. (another post on this later pertaining to plotting) Part of my entertainment is trying to figure out the secret or how things are going to unfold. I like to be surprised by a story, because I seldom am.

I think a lot of it also depends on the kind of spoiler.

A twist the entire plot hinges on (like The Sixth Sense) is ruined for me if I know it beforehand. I enjoyed seeing the movie a second time knowing the catch, (so I could see all the clues I missed) but that OMG! shock was so much better. If the point of the story is the surprise, knowing the surprise kills the story.

A major shocker like Dumbledore doesn’t ruin things for me as much. I’m disappointed, but there is also that sense of “when will it happen?” that can be a strong hook as well. The one thing I’ve noticed when I watch/read a story like this, is that I tend to be so focused on when that spoiler will occur that I skim a little of the story leading up to it. I get impatient for it to be “over.” So in a way, it does indeed mess with my enjoyment.

A spoiler that robs the tension from a story is a killer for me. If that “will they or won’t they X?” question is driving me through the story, knowing the answer makes me stop caring. If the story drive is more about the how they do X, then it doesn’t matter so much, but if the outcome is in doubt, I don’t want to know it before hand.

A general knowing how something ends doesn’t bother me much since it’s usually a given. Heroes typically win. It’s how they win there that’s interesting. Series TV shows are a good example here. I pretty much know how every episode of NCIS is going to go, but I love watching the characters and how they interact. I don’t care about the ending. I care about the characters.

I’ve never been one to read the ending first, but I know a lot of folks do. It’s not for me, but I do understand it. And it’s probably a good idea for writers to think about that when they plan their stories. How is the book different if a reader knows the ending/twist/surprise going in? Is there enough to hold attention and still surprise if readers know the big surprise?

What about you? Do you like to know the ending or keep it secret? How do you feel about spoilers?


  1. I agree that knowing the ending spoils part of the enjoyment in certain stories. I had the same experience with The Sixth Sense. If I had known the ending, I would have missed the delight of the surprise. And the surprise required a second viewing to appreciate all the clues.

    I admit, however, that I often read the ending. This usually happens when I am part way through a book I can't put down and it's late at night. If I don't skip ahead and read the ending, I'll be up all night reading the book! I can't say that knowing the ending ruins the book for me. Maybe that's because I'm a writer. If the book is well-written, I enjoy the characters and have an additional appreciation of the author's skill crafting the story.

  2. I don't like knowing the shocking twists or the ending. I want to be surprised! So I'm definitely anti-spoilers.

    I rarely watch movie trailers for this reason. Teaser trailers are great, but the all-out 3-minute trailers spoil EVERYTHING. So annoying. I don't get why they have to show the funniest jokes and most dramatic scenes and sometimes part of the end. It ruins it.

  3. I think a story can be enjoyed from both perspectives, but I definitely want to be in the dark the first time I read it. You can always have another read where you know what's coming, but you only get one chance to have that first journey of discovery.

    Unless, you know, you get amnesia or something.

  4. I definitely don't like being told the ending of a book that I am reading for the first time. And I certainly never skip to the last chapter before reading what's in the middle. I know the author wouldn't appreciate that very much. ;)

    I do, however, read books multiple times, so knowing the ending doesn't necessarily make me stop reading it, it just makes me disappointed and miffed at the person who spoiled it for me.

  5. I also like being surprised. Once, I flicked to the back of a book I was reading with an interview with the author. After accidentally setting the spoiler there, I lost motivation to read the book. Rereading is kind of different, but for say Harry Potter I would love to be able to read it without knowing the ending again.

  6. Oops, that was supposed to be accidentally /seeing/ the spoiler there, sorry.

  7. I have, in the past, read final pages to make sure character X was going to make it. Sometimes you just don't know whether they will, and for them to have an afterlife (after the book is finished, that is) seemed very important.

    Nowadays I try to avoid it, though. I like the surprise more than being comfortable in the knowledge the characters survive :)

  8. I agree with Laura about trailers. I hate it when they put most of the laughs or important actions in there.

    Talking about the Harry Potter series, I accidentally read something about the end of Deathly Hallows, but I didn't know he was going to make it. I still loved reading it anyway.

    When I’m that far into a series, its hard to stop reading. You want to know what happened to all of the characters.

  9. I find that I can relate to most other people on almost every level - whether they share my opinion/belief or not. But in this case, if they are turn-to-the-last-page-first people, I just can't relate. That would completely ruin my enjoyment of the story -- but maybe that's because I like mysteries?

    On the other hand, it's good to know, as an author, that people are apt to do this. I'll make sure I inject some of DiNozzo's humor, Sciuto's quirkiness, and McGee's more adorable qualities into my characters, so even those who've skipped to the end will be compelled to read for the characters alone.

    Great post, thanks!

  10. Ditto Matthew. The books I love are the kinds that can be reread, but I wouldn't want anyone to rob me of the suspense of the first reading. It's also a reason I've enjoyed reading old favorites aloud -- watching someone else experience a book for the first time reminds me of all those moments I worried about this or that, or jumped with shock.

  11. We seem to be very much on the same page as far as spoilers go! Interesting thoughts.

    In those situations when knowing what'll happen makes the work better is, I think, the enjoyment of trying to figure out how they get from A to B, and -- if the book is particularly good -- seeing how the author pulls it off. There might also be added tension. When you know character X turns out to be evil, you might be squeaking every time the main character is in a room with that person. Plus, if you've already read the entire book as opposed to just knowing about the ending, you're likely to notice details, interesting prose, world-building, foreshadowing, etc.

  12. I'm another one who sometimes flips to the end if I can't finish the book in one sitting. I have enough self-control not to do that if I'm reading a mystery, though, which is odd.

    The one thing that I would rather know ahead of time is the outcome of love triangles. I'm not crazy about love triangles anyway, since someone always ends up getting hurt, but I have a tough time relating to the characters if I know I might be shipping the wrong couple.

  13. I like to read a book from start to finish and be surprised in the climax for any book. However, when I read the book again; I always discover something new or "get" the inside joke or historical reference. Some books are worth re-reading.

  14. Like Chicory, I do sometimes flip to the end just to know who "wins" in the love triangle. I'm not fond of love triangles, but I do tend to get attached to one character over the other and would rather not root for the wrong one.

    But plot-wise, I'd rather find out as I read along.

  15. Hi Janice,
    Thanks for answering the question. Although my quote makes it sound otherwise, I do agree with you. The first time through a story, I don't want to know what happens. And, I only enjoy a story the second time through if I really love the characters and the world. It's like that for me with the Wheel of Time series.

    On the other hand, I'm having difficulty rereading The Song of Ice and Fire because I do know just how brutal it is. I don't want to grow attached to the characters again.

  16. It all depends on the suspense. If the spoiler creates a retrospective situation of dramatic irony, a retrospective tragedy, or the reader gets worked up about waiting for the character to reveal his true colors, spoilers could enhance the experience.

    But if the spoiler the whole point of the book/movie, it can ruin it.

  17. I actually do get 'amnesia' sometimes. I can reread a book or enjoy a movie again years later because I forget the ending!
    This post also reminded me of two co-workwers who were pregnant at the same time. One of the women found out she was having a boy and the other did not want to know the sex of her baby. When the woman who didn't know what she was having gave birth, everyone was like, "It's a boy!". When the other woman had her baby everyone was like "He's here (yawn)".

  18. Not only do I hate knowing the ending, I hate knowing anything more than the page I'm reading. I absolutely can't stand to read series out of order. I read a 'book 2' first once, and so much of book 1 was in there that I had no desire to go back and read it.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  19. I enjoy spoilers, whether the "spoiler" is because I was told (or read about) a major plot element before I had the chance to read the book or see the movie, or because it's not my first time.

    Reading pages out of order or reading the end first doesn't spoil the book at all for me. I often browse a book extensively, reading a few paragraphs at random from various parts of the book, to see if it's going to interest me or not. It has never hurt my enjoyment.

    My favorite books are books I've read so many times I can recite large chunks from memory. If the big reveal was the "whole point of the book", like someone said, then how could we possibly still enjoy the book/movie a second time? Clearly, major plot elements are NOT the "whole point" of any book. If there are people out there who really can't enjoy a book a second time, I not only feel sorry for them (since they are deprived of the joy of lifelong favorites), but I feel they're doing themselves a big disservice. Stories are multi-layered, and the human brain is rarely capable of processing everything in one go. Almost any (good) story will reveal new depths and details on a second, third, or even fourth read. If you never read anything more than once, you're usually only getting the surface meaning. There are so many books and movies that have more to give than what you can get from your first experience with them.

    I will say that knowing a major plot element does change the way I read. If you KNOW that someone will die, but not exactly when it will happen or how it will happen, it's hard not to look for clues while reading. I don't think this has much to do with enjoyment, though.

  20. Your last point about NCIS and knowing the ending made me think about romantic comedies. Many people read romantic comedies for the guaranteed HEA (Happily Ever After). That's not a bad thing...except for when you get a mind-f/ck like Romeo and Juliet, when what *should* be a romantic comedy turns into a tragedy. If it's something like that where there's an unexpected twist on a familiar genre, then for the love of God, don't tell me the ending! :) Great post.

  21. I'm with you; I watch NCIS for the characters. The plot is simply the mode for setting up character interaction.

    For the most part I don't like spoilers that ruin a key moment. Like the trailer that showed Dark Maul's double-ended lightsaber. That should NEVER have gone into the preview because it was such an important moment for the characters to discover. Imagine if "Luke, I am your father." had gone into a preview. That was such a critical reveal, that knowing it ahead of time would have taken away from its impact.

    Otherwise, if I don't particularly care about a story, then having some spoilers doesn't bother me and might make me read it/watch it anyway.

    But in any case, I love rereading favorite books just for the closer read I give it once I'm not wound into what happens next. Then I can sit back and enjoy the ride.

  22. One thing I do find myself doing (and I hate it) is when I get to the end of the chapter, I often glance at the last line because it stands out. I try not to because if I read something I shouldn't, it makes me crazy.