Who Cares About Spoilers?

This article was written by Andrew Blackman.

If you read book reviews online, you’re probably aware that many people really hate spoilers, and that many reviewers, in response, avoid discussing key plot points, particularly the ending.  But do spoilers really spoil your enjoyment of a book?  They don’t for me, and I hope by the end of this post to have convinced you to liberate yourself from spoiler-fear too.

Why spoiler fear matters

This is not just a pet peeve of mine.  It has a serious effect on the quality of book reviews and literary discussions.  Fear of spoilers inhibits discussion of the most interesting part of a book: the ending.  This is the part where a novelist usually comes closest to revealing to us what he or she is really trying to say, but it’s often the part that gets missed out.  We’re so afraid of spoiling someone’s enjoyment of the book, in other words, that we end up spoiling our book reviews instead.  Some people take refuge behind a “spoiler alert”, losing readers along the way, but many people just avoid the discussion altogether.

Why spoilers don’t really spoil

Fear of spoilers is unnecessary.  In reality, most people read a book review for one of two reasons: either they are considering reading the book and want to know whether it’s worth it, or they’ve already read the book and want to know what other people think about it.  In the second case, spoilers are clearly no problem, and in fact a discussion of the ending may be exactly what the reader is looking for.  It’s the first case that usually bothers people.  If I reveal a key plot point, won’t it spoil that person’s enjoyment of the book when they come to read it?

In short, no it won’t.  It’s usually at least several days, and sometimes weeks or months, before a reader of a book review actually buys or borrows the book and gets around to reading it. With eBooks that time could be shorter, but it’s still unlikely to be immediate.  The memory of the alleged “spoiler” will have started to fade.

The significance of context

More importantly, the details of plot revealed in a book review often mean little or nothing out of context.  Here’s an example.  In Julian Barnes’s Booker-winning novel The Sense of an Ending, there’s a twist right at the end, and it is revealed that Adrian had an affair with Veronica’s mother, and so the young Adrian is Veronica’s brother, not her son, as Tony had assumed.

My bet is that if you haven’t read the book, that sentence meant nothing to you.  I just revealed the main plot twist in one of the biggest books in recent years, and yet you’ve probably forgotten it already.  You could read the book right after reading this post, and your enjoyment would not be spoiled in the least.  The reason, of course, is that you don’t have any context.  The names Adrian, Tony and Veronica mean nothing to you, and so you have no interest in what they’ve done.  This is why novelists spend several hundred pages showering us with apparently unnecessary details.  They are giving us the context in which to create meaning and hence to care.

In any case, even if the spoiler is somehow memorable, I think it only truly spoils a small number of books.  A very simple murder mystery in which the only interest is in finding out the name of the killer would indeed be marred by knowing in advance that it was Bob.  But most books are not like that.  Most books are about far more than a simple plot twist.  I’m sure that, like me, you re-read books all the time and, far from considering them “spoiled”, you often get more out of them with each new reading.

Why spoiler-laced reviews are better

So what would happen if we all stopped worrying about spoilers?  In my opinion, literary discussions would get a lot more interesting.

Here’s some evidence for that, again involving The Sense of an Ending.  Usually when I review books on my blog, I am careful not to give away the ending.  But last year, in response to reader questions, I deliberately wrote about the ending of The Sense of an Ending (with a spoiler alert, of course!).  The response was overwhelming.  Most of my book reviews get 5 or 10 comments, maybe 20 for a popular book.  This post got more than 250 comments.  Many of them were mini-essays in themselves, and spawned long discussions in which further details were teased out.  While that post is not my best piece of writing, it does (when combined with the comments) provide a much richer analysis of the book than any of my more traditional, spoiler-inhibited efforts.

I’ve also noticed the liberating effect of spoiler-free discussions with my own novel, On the Holloway Road.  One of the best conversations I’ve had about it was with a reading group at a north London library, all of whom had read the book and so were free to talk without fear of spoilers.  They went straight for the ending: Why was it so bleak? Why did none of the characters seem to have moved forward? Couldn’t I have given them a little more redemption, a little more hope?  The same questions often come up when readers email me or talk to me individually.  Yet in all the printed and online book reviews, I don’t remember the ending being mentioned once, and a lot of interesting discussions are stillborn as a result.

So consider this post as my pro-spoiler manifesto.  On my blog this year, unless anyone can convince me otherwise, I plan to include in my book reviews whatever details I want, including twists, surprise endings, red herrings and dei ex machina.  I won’t reveal surprises just for the sake of it, but I will make sure I’m not inhibited from discussing the more interesting parts of a book simply by fear of spoilers.

Do you care about spoilers?  Let me know if you can think of a good reason why we should worry about them.  Otherwise, please join me in my spoiling revolution!

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Andrew Blackman is the author of the novel On the Holloway Road (Legend Press, 2009), in which Neil dies in the end. His next novel, A Virtual Love, is out in April.

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Photo:  Some rights reserved by deepobserveron.

29 Replies to “Who Cares About Spoilers?”

  1. This has given me a lot to think about! I’m forever trying to word things in a way that won’t give key plot points away. A lot of times it detracts from my reviews because I’m restricted. Hmmm…very very interesting take here…great article!

    1. Hi Jennifer

      I’m the same – have spent lots of time and restricted myself in my reviews for years now. I’m glad I gave you something to think about! Thanks for commenting. Let me know if you decide to write a spoiler-filled review, and how your readers respond if you do!

  2. I don’t worry about spoilers either. I think you’re totally right about the context factor. And we read for many more reasons than simply to find out what happens at the end.

  3. Maybe it’s just me, but I would totally remember the names and the gist of the spoiler you gave if I read the book any time in the next month. That said, I have an extremely high tolerance for spoilers. I routinely find myself spoiling almost everything I read and all the shows I watch. I do this by reading the last couple pages of a book or reading episode synopses of shows on wikipedia. Why do I do this? I don’t even really know. But even knowing big chunks of pivotal plot still never dampens my enjoyment if the reading/watching experience is good. It’s the whole experience that makes or breaks something, not an unexpected plot point.

    1. Hi Crystal

      You know, I was worried about that – I have a terrible memory, and was thinking maybe other people would remember things better than I do 🙂

      Thanks for the comment. I’m glad that spoilers don’t bother you in any case. It’s really interesting that you read the last couple of pages of books. The ending is certainly an important part of the book, as I said, so it makes sense to look at it and judge a book initially based on that, rather than on the cover blurb or anything else. A book is a big investment of time – do you think part of your motivation is to see if it’s worth making that investment? Just curious.

      1. Actually, sometimes yes, I’ll read the last few pages before deciding if I’ll buy a book or not. But often it’s a book I’m already in the middle of that I’ll just find myself automatically reading the end of. Usually during a pause in my normal reading when I’m sitting around thinking. People who’ve seen me do this get really upset by it. I suppose I could stop myself, but it’s never been something that’s bothered me. Interestingly though, I don’t do this with a book on my Kindle. If I’m not able to casually flip to the last pages, I apparently don’t bother.

        Now with shows, reading future plot points has a definite impact on whether I’ll watch any more episodes. There can be so many seasons and episodes. If the future episodes have a dumb, unsatisfying spiral of crap coming I’ll just quit watching. Saves time.

        1. Hah, that’s funny that people get upset by it, Crystal! Even though it has no impact on them at all, since it only affects your personal experience of the book, they’re still bothered by it. Very interesting. It’s as if it’s spoiling it for them, even though they’re not reading the spoiler or even the book!

          I’ve found the lack of flippability annoying in the Kindle as well. Jumping around is possible, but clunky. I can see why you wouldn’t bother.

  4. A watched plot never spoils.

    I often dodge the issue by reducing plots to their structure. A mystery has an investigation, red herrings, a Confrontation Scene, a False Suspect, etc. A romance has a Temporary Misunderstanding Scene. I am not sure that all stories can be reduced to a handful of plots, but a lot of them sure can.

    It also helps that I could hardly care less about plot and thus rarely write about it, but that will not work for everyone, nor should it.

    I have seen people use spoilers distinguish between “reviews” and “criticism.” Reviews are for people who have not read a book but might; criticism is for people who have either read the book or never will. True up to a point.

    1. Hi Tom

      Hey, that should have been my headline! Nice one.

      Talking about structure is a good way of avoiding specifics. In many cases it’s not necessary to go into the specifics anyway. I find it’s useful mostly when there’s some ambiguity in the plot, and you can only really talk about it by being direct: so did X really kill Y or not?

      Really interesting distinction between reviews and criticism. I can certainly see the point, and it would mean that with criticism there’s no need to worry about spoilers. As I argued in the post, though, I’m not sure it matters too much for people who might read the book either. Thanks for the comment!

  5. The ending of a book is such furtile ground for discussion. I have held back more than once in a review because of my fear of spoiling something for others. Particularly parts that have me scratching my head–end or not.

    You are right about spoilers not really mattering. Knowing something ahead of time has never ruined a book for me–and like you said, by the time i get to the book, i have usually forgotten the spoiler anyway.

    You have given me a lot to think about.

    1. You’re right, it’s those head-scratching parts that are often the most interesting, both for you and your readers, but discussing them in detail almost always involves spoilers. Glad my post gave you food for thought!

      By the way, your screen-name combines two of my favourite things – books and cats! I even kept clicking on the photo to try to enlarge it, but no luck…

    1. I’m not a writer, but I imagine that a writer would put much thought and craftmanship into constructing a plot which was intended to make the reader believe something other than the eventual outcome. I don’t like spoilers because I would rather go along wiith the writer, letting them hoodwink me. That gives me extra satisfaction if I anticipate the twist before it’s revealed and if I don’t, the delicious shock at realising I have been misled. There are a number of books where I still remember the shock and surprise at an amazing revelation, the most memorable one being Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey. I would hate to have missed the sensation of surprise when I got to the end of the book. Having said that, if I enjoyed such a book that much, I get even more pleasure from re-reading and tracing the hints that were invariably offered throughout the book to point towards the twist at the end.

      1. Hi Cath
        Thanks for commenting. I agree that writers do try to construct plots that keep details hidden, but my main point was that reading a review in which such details are revealed is not a disaster. Usually it will be a long time before you read the book, and without understanding the context, it’s very unlikely that you’ll remember the details. Still, perhaps I just have a bad memory 😉

  6. Great commentary as always Andrew.

    As someone who often tries to get to the basic ideas behind a book I find it necessary to often include spoilers in my posts. I know that this really upsets some people so I always include a warning.

    With that said I do find myself, holding back when summarizing a books when I feel that doing so would not impact my commentary.

    1. Hi Brian

      Thanks very much! Good to hear that you’re not afraid to put in a few spoilers. Yes, a warning is a good way of handling it. The only trouble is, a lot of people then avoid reading most of your post. But I agree, it’s polite to give people the option.

  7. There are reviews and there are critiques. Obviously for the latter you will need to discuss details of the plot right up to the ending. Reviews, which typically appear at the same time as the book is published and primarily serve to help readers glean whether it will appeal to them, surely ought not to contain spoilers. Unless the argument is that readers of literary fiction should not care about anything so crude as plot?

    1. Hi Jay

      Thanks for the comment. No, I wasn’t arguing that readers of literary fiction shouldn’t care about plot – I don’t think plot is crude at all, and it’s very important in most fiction, including literary. My argument was that having plot details revealed does not spoil most people’s enjoyment of a book nearly as much as we tend to think. Whether it’s a review or critique, I think discussing crucial plot points is useful – it would certainly help me decide whether to read a book, as well as help me understand it better when I have read it.

  8. I absolutely loathe spoilers. I actually wrote a piece about how I don’t watch movie trailers or read reviews of anything before going to see it. I actually did not know the ending of the Harry Potter series until the day the final movie came out. I hadn’t finished reading the series (sad, I know), so I didn’t want to know what happened.

    That probably makes me old fashioned, but I do care about spoilers a *LOT*. Once I know, I never ever forget.

    1. Hi Willi

      I don’t think it makes you old-fashioned 🙂 I know that spoilers do bother a lot of people, and in fact was expecting to get a lot more comments like yours! It’s been interesting in this discussion to see the diversity of responses. Thanks for adding your perspective!

  9. I completely agree with the observation about context. If you haven’t read a book and are exposed to spoilers in the review, the names and the revelations won’t mean anything to you and, thus, won’t diminish your overall enjoyment of the writing. If you have read it, you don’t really care that there’s a spoiler because you already knew how it was resolved. I’m much more inclined to read spoilers for movies than books because of the escalating expense of tickets; I want to make sure I’m getting my money’s worth! For a book, it’s the quality of the wordsmithing and my captivation with the characters and plots that usually have more meaning to me than the actual outcome of events. If I happen to read a spoiler for a book that I’ve just started, it often gives me a deeper appreciation of the author’s intent, not unlike reading a mystery for the second time after you’ve realized what clues and set-ups to be watching for.

    1. Hi Christina,

      It’s true, cinema prices can be pretty eye-watering, especially in the city centre, especially if you’re having popcorn! Definitely worth finding out in advance if the dud ending is going to make you feel cheated. I like your point about the author’s intent – it is indeed a different reading when you already know the ending, and can often be richer. Thanks for stopping by!

  10. Loved this. I don’t mind spoilers, either! In fact, sometimes when a book or movie doesn’t seem like it’ll be worth my while, I sometimes search out so-called spoilers about what’s going to happen to decide if I’ll continue watching or reading. Loved this post, thanks.

  11. I have a very similar outlook on spoilers, in fact I took it a step further and constantly spoiled tv shows and films that my roommates were viewing. Threats to not watch never seemed to materialize and after initial anger subsided I noticed peculiar reactions in viewing wherein they all seemed more excited and anticipatory of the events in the plot that they were expecting to occur. It seemed that removing the element of surprise actually created a more engaged audience, they were not sitting back simply allowing the media to wash over them but were anticipatory instead. It was a cruel psychological experiment in consuming art but in my own way I enjoyed the show.

    1. Hi Beck,
      Thanks for commenting. Hey, I like cruel psychological experiments! Yours is very interesting. It’s in TV shows and films that people seem to be particularly scared of spoilers, because plot twists are seen as so essential. But your experiment shows that it really doesn’t matter as much as we think. You’re right – you read/watch/consume in a different way when you know the ending, and perhaps are more engaged. I’ve read a couple of good books recently in which the author has started with the ending, and the reason they gave was that they wanted readers to focus not on what happened but on why it happened, which is a much more interesting question. Thanks for stopping by!

  12. I do care about spoilers because, if I knew in advance what happened in the end of a work, there would be no novelty, no surprise, no interest. In 2011, I got heavily spoiled by trolls who were talking about the final parts of a video game I was heavily anticipating. Thankfully not everything was spoiled, but my enjoyment was still affected by knowing how the final boss was like, or what happened to one of the major supporting characters.

    Those who don’t mind the spoiler support the (really weak, IMO) “it’s the HOW IT HAPPENS that counts” excuse. But what if the “how it happens” WAS the twist? What else would remain to discover in the work? Exactly, nothing. If I knew in advance how, in X series or movie or book or game, a love triangle ended, then I would find pointless to look forward to a potential resolution for it. After all, in a love triangle there are five possible solutions (A+B, A+C, B+C, global dump, or threesome), and for most people it’s fun to speculate on which of those solutions will triumph. Knowing in advance the outcome will negate that no matter what.

    So yeah, I disagree with your article. And I can easily tell you’re a cynicist for the mere act of supporting the idea of ruining the surprise factor to any unaware reader.

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