May 14 2014
*This whole article is a spoiler. Don’t read it if that bothers you*
We’ve all been there. You overhear or happen to see something about a movie/show/book/game that you haven’t completed yet, and suddenly all you can think is, “Man, that would have been a really cool surprise.”
The bottom line, however, is that a good yarn is not limited by how many unexpected moments occur, but rather how those moments relate to the characters’ outlook on life and their relationship to their environment and peers. This fact was actually confirmed by a research study conducted at the University of San Diego. Reading a “spoiled” story didn’t make subjects enjoy it any less. In fact, many audience members/readers enjoyed a spoiled story more because they had a clearer idea of where it was going to begin with. The enjoyment came from anticipating the surprise, not being blindsided by it. Also, the more the subject knew about the story, the more invested they felt going in because they had an idea of what frame of mind they should be in.
The first time I felt strongly about an instance like this was when I was reading my friend’s Ocarina of Time Prima strategy guide to try and figure out how to get through the dang blasted water temple. I got curious and flipped ahead to see more about the game, and happened upon a page that described a cutscene towards the end. That’s when I found out that the Sheik character that had been following me around the whole time was actually Zelda.
I was devastated. How badly I wished I could have forgotten that information, but to no avail. I spent the rest of the game anticipating that moment and guiltily watching the reveal without any sort of shock. Basically, I was determined to have a bad time because of my remorse at seeking more information than I needed. I felt as if I had lost something I never had to begin with.
Fast forward many many years and I was always reminded of the dreadful process of having something ruined for me. I would read Wikipedia entries or message posts about shows and movies I had never even heard of and felt the inevitable “Man! I wish I had finished it before reading this!”
But eventually, I got over it. I decided that if a story was truly good, knowing a little bit about it couldn’t possibly destroy it’s allure. Films like Fight Club were still watchable multiple times, even after the “twist” was revealed. In fact, watching that film over and over again offers little treats to those who do know about the Tyler Durden reveal. The film rewards you with Easter eggs for being in the know, and leaves those who haven’t been initiated yet in the dark.
Similarly, Prince Joffrey’s decision to behead Ned Stark shocked everyone in King’s Landing, not just me the first time I read it. Yes, I was convinced Ned was the protagonist, but the surprise at his execution had more to do with the consequences within the setting than my own foiled expectations. Thinking about that moment still gives me chills, as does the Red Wedding. George R.R. Martin’s skill as a writer lies not in cheap gimmicks, but in allowing his characters to control the historical events of his universe rather than plot convenience.
Some unexpected moments are also so iconic that they were spoiled before you were even born. The shower scene in Psycho is actually a pivotal moment where, like Game of Thrones, the principle character was suddenly taken away and the audience felt a void as to who to identify with. Yet, because the scene was so iconic, it’s one of the most recognizable in all of cinema. Likewise, Vader’s line to Luke, “No. I am your father,” is (mis)quoted so often that a child in his formidable years has no chance to have this come as a shock when watching The Empire Strikes Back.
What’s important is that the character is still surprised, so each time it comes fresh when Luke screams, “That’s impossible!” Should film textbooks not reference the shower scene, because it ruins something? Should Nintendo not make Zelda transform into Sheik in Smash Bros because some dingbat might be supposedly putting off an Ocarina playthrough?
By worrying about moments like these, you actually empower people. I can’t tell you how many times the aggressiveness of my social media cohorts has tempted me to reveal one of the most disgustingly tragic moments from A Dance with Dragons, the latest Game of Thrones book. But even that particular morsel was horrifying in its inevitability more so than its elimination of a fan favorite. I’m not advocating being a jerk as in the linked video above, but I’m just pointing out that the temptation is there when people are being rude.
Being a bully to your friends does little to accomplish your goals. It just stresses people out and makes them wonder why you suddenly think you can control them. Instead, change your own behavior. If the integrity of a story is so important, then prioritize avoiding vocal communities like Facebook or message boards, or watch it as soon as possible.
As an example, according to many websites, the Game of Thrones episode from a few weeks ago “spoiled” something not revealed in the books. I was extremely confused when all this turned out to be was the existence of a rumored leader of the Others/White Walkers. It wouldn’t take a stretch of the imagination to assume that, yet I went out of my way to watch the show just to be privy to that information.
So instead of trying (in vain) to control other people’s behavior by being extremely hostile, adjust your own actions first. And even if you accidentally have something ruined, be confident that if it was a good enough story, knowing the ending shouldn’t matter. Movies like The Sixth Sense that are only really worth seeing once aren’t good stories, just a good “ride” to experience once and then be done with. Similarly, jump scares in horror movies don’t lead to as many sleepless nights as do classic scenes like from The Exorcist.
Good tales are worth coming back to, and are about seeing more clearly how one decision led to another, even if it was the wrong one. Ahab will inevitably be undone by his Moby Dick, Walter White is going to get busted eventually, and at some point we’ll get to see some goddamn dragons finally torch shit up in Westeros. But how these events unfold is more interesting than knowing about them in isolation.
Therefore, I suggest people stop being a jerk and making their problem everyone else’s problem by posting belligerent comments. Spoiling is not an offense that’s punishable by law, and though I pity the American West Coast for lagging behind in premiers, I also feel like they can avoid Facebook for five hours if a show is really that important to them. No one is obligated to avoid discussing something they enjoyed except out of common courtesy, and by being discourteous you’re far from setting a good example.
So just chill out, people, and remember: It’s only a story, and the fact that you care about it at all means that knowing one little tidbit probably won’t be enough destroy the whole thing. After all, it’s not like people stand up in church when the preacher talks about the crucifixion and scream “C’MOOOON! SPOILERS! I’M ONLY ON LEVITICUS! WHAT THE HELL, PADRE?!”
Jarrod Lipshy is a BA English Graduate who is still scared as hell about finding a real job. He collects old video games, and hates it when people get bossy on Facebook.
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