Once, I answered the phone to hear a familiar voice tell me the end of a nine-book series. The caller knew I had finished the third book, with six to go.
Once, I suggested to a group I was staying with that we all go to see the latest Pixar film. They said no, but when I was in my room reading a book, they all left together for the theater without me. They returned in time for dinner, and while I asked that they not spoil the movie they’d gone to see without me, they spent the meal rehashing the story and retelling all the jokes.
Once, I got a message with an attached image of collected major spoilers for movies, shows, books. The message text was about how upset I’d be to get this.
Some people just get a sick enjoyment in ruining other people’s experiences. It’s the lingering inner kindergartner kicking over another kid’s block tower just to make him cry.
I hate spoilers, and that’s no secret. And while I try not to make a habit of hating people, I do hate the behavior of spoiling a story for someone.
Several people have told me that they don’t mind spoilers and don’t understand why I do. A few people have told me they can’t understand why someone deliberately spoiling a story would be unwarranted or unwelcome. One person even told me recently, “There is no shortage of stories. If one gets spoiled, there are plenty of others.”
So obviously this isn’t a value we all share, and I thought about how I could explain it to people who truly don’t care about spoilers. (Which is weird to me, but hey, it’s a big world, and maybe some people just don’t experience story in that intense way. Which is sad for them.)
Dinner is Served
So let’s say someone has prepared a special meal, maybe a holiday feast. We’re going to sit down to beef Wellington, Brussels sprouts with bacon and hazelnuts, Parmesan-crusted potatoes, roasted butternut squash risotto, scones and cream, fill in with all your favorite dishes. We’ve been waiting for days or weeks for this event, maybe even months, and we’re going to spend the next several hours eating our way through multiple courses while sharing conversation, jokes, struggles, dreams, and all the best of human interaction.
Now let’s say a member of the party — let’s call him Rich, for easy reference — opts out of the meal and just asks for a plate to go. I might invite him to stay and participate in the conversation, but Rich points out that he’ll have all the same calories whether he eats at the table or on the road, and anyway he’s got places to be. Okay. I still feel that he’s missing the real point of the meal, but Rich is an adult and can make his own decisions.
Obviously in this thinly-veiled allegory, the creator is the host, and the consumers are the diners consuming the meal. Sharing food is an honored tradition in every culture, like storytelling.
I would be deeply disappointed if I invited friends for a meal and they asked to just get a box to take home instead. Sure, it’s the same food, but it’s not the same experience. In the same way, as a creator, I don’t want people to just skip to the end or ask for the spoilers. The point of a story is not merely the conclusion — otherwise we wouldn’t need the story at all. We could just say “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” and save a thousand pages of Gone With The Wind. But we’d miss an awful lot if we did that, like why that line really matters. Story is not about a landing, but a process.
Just this week a reader emailed me mid-book with, “Don’t tell me if I’m right, but I think this is going to happen….” We engage with story, and that engagement is not just the passive receipt of information. Immersive story is the heartfelt conversation around the dinner table, the interplay between author and reader, actor and viewer, host and diner.
Dinner is Spoiled
But Rich has opted out of the meal and gotten his to-go box. Now, let’s say that on the way out the door, he accidentally stumbles into the table, spilling drinks and maybe knocking a platter to the floor. People would be justly upset that their meal experience had been disrupted. Most of us would forgive him, if we understood that it was an accident, but the tablecloth is still stained and half the beef Wellington is on the floor being scavenged by the dog. He didn’t mean to do it, but it’s not possible for the diners to have the identical experience now.
Now let’s say Rich, on his way out the door, deliberately flips the table. He’s not going to stay for dinner, but he is going to control the diners’ experience, not them, and he’s going to make sure they can’t enjoy the meal in the immersive manner they planned. Now most will agree that Rich is a jerk. Maybe Rich doesn’t care about the meal, but he has little right to deny others their enjoyment of it.
Accidental spoilers may happen, and while no one likes them, at least they were accidental. Deliberate spoilers, however, indicate a bullying delight in controlling and upsetting others, a seeking of status (“Look what I know and you don’t! I can affect your life and you can’t stop me!”) while taking something desirable from the reader or viewer. And worse, that stolen something can’t even be kept to enjoy for oneself; it can only be removed from someone else. It’s not a greedy act, but a malicious one.
So here’s the shorthand: If you truly don’t care about spoilers, please recognize that others still do. Ask yourself why you’d want to spoil someone else’s experience, especially against their will.
Jump back a couple of decades, and remember Be Kind, Rewind? Maybe we could update that with, Don’t be a drag, use the #spoiler tag.
No? Then try, #Spoiler tags save lives.
Not gonna make a t-shirt for that, either?
It doesn’t matter what catchy phrase we use, just please avoid spoiling for those who avoid spoilers. Thank you!