Feature Editorial: On Spoilers

(Note: I am going to try my best to avoid specific spoilers in the post, but I will have to refer to the existence of things which could be spoiled. And I totally spoil The Empire Strikes Back and Final Fantasy 7, because I consider those to fall under It Was His Sled at this point. Fair Warning.)

“Isn’t is crazy that Bruce Wayne is The Batman?” “Somebody get this hothead out of here!”

Thinking about how I want to go about blogging about To The Moon has me thinking about spoilers and the way people react to them. Now I don’t stress out much about spoilers personally–I was an English Major, we’re not allowed to believe in spoilers–but I recognize that a lot of people do feel that spoilers ruin their experience of a given text, and so I try my best to avoid them. It’s just really difficult to do so and still give a good analysis.

Some psychologists at UCSD did a study that showed that spoilers may not have the detrimental impact that many people assign to them, and that knowing spoilers may in fact increase one’s enjoyment of stories. Now this is a single study, and we’d need a lot more confirmation from repeated studies before we could confidently call this a general trend. Reading the articles talking about the study and the comments attached to them, many of them saying “No really, don’t spoil things for us, it really does make things worse,” but some saying “YES! This has validated my habit of reading the end first!”, got me thinking about how not only does everyone have different preferred reading styles, but that this sort of thing also depends on the kind of spoiler we’re talking about.

For one, not every story is vulnerable to being spoiled. Take your average romantic comedy; you know from the moment you look at the movie poster how it’s going to end: the man and woman leaning up against each other are going to be together. That guaranteed happy ending, while important, is not the reason you watch the rest of the movie, you watch it to find out how they get to that point. Likewise, sometimes you are expected to know the plot twist for a story going in, and the dramatic irony that generates is where the enjoyment of the story comes from (Oedipus Rex being the usual example of this).

When there is a danger of spoilage, though, the impact depends on how the plot twist/shocking event occurs. Many plot twists are carefully foreshadowed and suggested during the story, leading to the reader being able to fit the pieces together after the Big Reveal and appreciate the craft that the author used to make the twist plausible without being obvious. Most of the stories that were used in the UCSD study seemed to fall into this type, which explains why an increase in enjoyment was found for those who had the twists spoiled. These kinds of stories are often better the second time they are read because of that ability to see how the story fits together while knowing where it ends up. Sometimes the story can be somewhat disappointing until you know the twist: My lukewarm initial response to The Dark Knight Rises had a lot to do with my impression of a lot of the plot points as being very contrived until I had the chance to reconsider them in light of the plot twist. While I think that this type of plot twist is relatively safe from spoilage, there is something to be said for the rush you get from figuring it out on your own. While it doesn’t happen very often, that sort of epiphany leaves me feeling very clever indeed.

Other stories do not foreshadow the big events; instead, they blindside the reader with sudden reversals or reveals in order to shock them into a specific response. In this case a spoiler does stand to do a lot of harm to a reader’s enjoyment because usually it is the unexpected nature of the event that gives it its impact. To use an example that (hopefully) everyone knows by now, Darth Vader being Luke’s father really only seems to have an impact if you didn’t know going into Empire Strikes Back that it was the case. It’s an interesting plot point, but because the movies hardly do anything to suggest that it might be the case beforehand (vague symbolism on Dagobah notwithstanding), you can’t really appreciate the lead up to it. Likewise, much of the emotional impact from Aeris’s death in Final Fantasy 7 comes from its sudden, meaningless nature combined with the fact that JRPGs do not, generally speaking, kill off main party members like that, making it doubly unexpected. Usually if they’re going to kill someone off like that, it will be as part of some sort of heroic sacrifice (that happens about every half hour in Final Fantasy 4) and not some random shanking.

Not that all this musing actually helps me much when it comes to To The Moon, because while its plot twist is of the foreshadowed variety and the story does get even better once you know it, I also had great epiphanies connected to it; ones which provoked a stronger emotional response in me and which I probably would not have experienced had I known the full story going in. Not to mention the enjoyment that I got out of Tim and I comparing notes on when we realized the purpose of such-and-such a plot point and how we responded to that.

Anybody have any great spoiler moments they want to share? Do you impose media blackouts when an anticipated text comes out to avoid spoilers? What’s your opinion on foreshadowed plot twists vs. sudden shocking events?

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