Reading the End First: A Discussion on Spoilers

Posted August 19, 2013 by Lynn E. O'Connacht in Miscellaneous / 0 Comments

Tags: ,

Thoughts. The text 'rambling thoughts' underneath a burning lantern. For rambles, thoughts, and not-essays.

I was talking about spoilers on other people’s blogs and got a bit tangled in all I wanted to say in a “Reply to a comment” format. Spoilers are interesting things because stories are weird. Sometimes, knowing how a story will turn out significantly increases my enjoyment of it. Sometimes it doesn’t.

A good example is one of the stories I Beyond Binary which I’ve tried to word a comment on (in relation to some of the other stories in the anthology) without giving a part of the central device away. It’s not an unexpected device — in fact, it’s incredibly obvious once you start reading — but the thing that gave the story the kick it had was the fact that I had no outside corroboration of that device. It’s slowly revealed throughout the story and a great deal of my pleasure came from collecting up clues to prove it right. It’s not a mystery story, though those are another good example of stories where I do often find spoilers… not necessarily detracting from the story but changing the way I read it. If I don’t know what the mystery is, I get to guess at it and piece the clues together. If I do know what the mystery is, I read for how the characters piece it together or how the author framed it or the world-building or the characterisation or whatever else I find intriguing about the story. It’s a very different experience and a lot more like rereading. (In the case of Beyond Binary, the knowledge would have ruined the story for me because it would have taken away the one thing I connected to.)

So, personally, I’m ambivalent about spoilers. Sometimes I try my best to avoid them and sometimes I actively seek them out. If I’m seeking them out, chances are that it’s a book that I’m having some misgivings about or need a little push to finish because I’m intrigued without being hooked and I’m not sure it’ll be worth my time. Knowing how it ends or how certain twists turn out helps me determine whether I want to keep reading. In my experience, this actually works out pretty well for me. Most every story where a spoiler made me excited to read on has been a read I went on to enjoy and most every story I read despite the spoilers suggesting I’d be put off have been one I’ve been disappointed by. There is, of course, a fallacy in this reasoning: I may well have given up on books I’d have turned out to love to bits and pieces and there is no way of telling whether I would have been as disappointed in a book if I hadn’t known something was going to happen. Both those things are true and I’ll likely never know for certain whether it actually, and more objectively, works the way it seems to. But I’m okay with that. It feels like it works and I enjoy my reading more for it. If I miss out on a few books I’d come to love… well, it’s a price I’m willing to pay to avoid reading a dozen more that I come to dislike.

But then we got to throwing series into the mix. Oh, series. Starting in the middle of a series can be a bit like reading the ending of a novel before the rest. There may be some dramatic and plot-relevant reveal somewhere in book 1, but if you start with book 2 (and let’s say that deals with the fall-out of the reveal) that’ll spoil you for the events in book 1. It’s why discussions of later books in a series often come with “Spoilers for previous books” warnings. Because they do that. It’s the nature of the beast. I’ve had a lot of good experiences starting in the middle or at the end of a series, just like I have a lot of good experiences from looking up spoilers.

For example, the first two Discworld books that I read (and, admittedly, didn’t want to throw against the wall in sheer frustration) were The Last Hero and Thud!. Those of you who are Discworld fans will be going “Ah”, but for those of you who aren’t. There are a lot of Discworld books, neatly divided into different subseries. At the time I read the books, these two were respectively the very last books in the Rincewind and City Watch/Vimes subseries. That’s right. I read the very last books first. They’re what finally broke my bad luck with Discworld books. Well, and possibly my growing older. But, mostly, they were books I finally clicked with. Of the two series, Rincewind’s is the one that’s most like a continuous adventure, with, as I recall, pretty much every book ending on a cliffhanger of some description launching Rincewind into his next adventure. They’re best read in order because you get the most out of it. The City Watch books are looser. They’re clearly connected and they have a strong overarching story line and character development. It’s perfectly possible to start at the end, but you’ll get far more out of it if you’ve started at the beginning. Thud! is actually a pretty good example of why series are best off started at the beginning, but chances are you won’t notice that until you actually start at the beginning and reread it with all the background events now known to you. You don’t need the information. It just makes the whole story far more powerful for knowing the details.

Thing is, and this is the point where I got tangled trying to explain myself in fewer words, I would never have learned that had I started the City Watch books with Guards! Guards! or the Rincewind books with The Colour of Magic. I know this because I tried both of those books first and I bounced off them hard. Yet, I liked those later books enough to give the earlier ones another try and I read them. (And I now quite like Guards! Guards!. I can’t say the same for The Colour of Magic, I’m afraid.) The point is: starting at the end gave me what I needed to persevere through the beginning.

Sometimes reading is like that. Writing can be like that too. FAQs may contain spoilers. Glossaries may contain spoilers. Product descriptions generally try to avoid them unless they’re sequels or are giving something closer to a plot-summary. Sometimes titles contain spoilers. Two of my titles could be said to be especially spoiler-laden: The Little Engine That Couldn’t and The Witch and the Changeling. The former title is (spoiler!) misleading, but still tells you a fair deal about the story. The latter title isn’t. It’s straight-forward and tells you everything you need to know. If it had a more obscure title (like, say, The Wildling Witch), the information contained in the title would generally be marked up as a spoiler.

Interestingly, and here we veer terribly far off the original topic, The Witch and the Changeling is the most popular story. I say ‘interestingly’ because of how much spoilers tend to get frowned upon and there it is, right in the title, and people don’t seem to mind. Of course, that’s kind of like comparing apples to pears. They’re both fruits and… that’s about it for comparisons. There are far more forces at work in any story than just the title. But the title contributes. Titles are important. The Little Engine That Couldn’t, which sounds like a spoiler and like a super-depressing story, is the least favourite of my stories. I was expecting that. Again, title is not the only factor at play, but I think it’s a very strong contributor. It just doesn’t sound like something you’d want to read unless you wanted to be made sad. Obviously I think the title is important enough to have kept it, but there you are. Writing can lead to spoilers too and those spoilers can be a contributing factor in people’s choices to get a book or not, just like any other kind of spoiler. (As a reader, I wouldn’t have taken a chance on The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater or Chime by Franny Billingsley without spoilers and in both cases I’m very glad I did.)

Anyway, and then there are the times where you have to spoil things in discussions too. If your betareaders (or your editors) point out an issue with, say, Jocelyn behaving out of character and the protagonists later discover that’s because Jocelyn’s being manipulated by the big bad, discussing what’s actually going on is going to be rather helpful in making sure the that change fits more seamlessly with the rest. Why doesn’t Jocelyn’s partner pick up on it? Well, maybe they’re too preoccupied trying to figure out how to keep the spaceship from crashing into an asteroid. Who knows.

Of course that’s a very different situation from interacting with (casual) readers or fans, but if you were asked to discuss Jocelyn’s strange behaviour in an interview that difference suddenly becomes a lot smaller because the question of whether to spoil and what to spoil suddenly matters. You’d either have to answer the question with spoilers intact, wrangle your response into being spoiler-free or find a way to bow out of answering altogether. (Or whatever else your creative mind can come up with at the time. I’m sure there are more options available.) If you want to discuss your work openly on your blog, you may find yourself having to answer the question of whether to spoil or not as well. If plot twist A is giving you problem and you want to unpack that problem, do you discuss it and give it away? You could schedule the post for way, way after the book was published, but you’d still risk spoiling readers who hadn’t read it before. Discussing what may be a strong selling point for one book may significantly spoil another. (Such as, reportedly, R.J. Anderson’s Quicksilver and Ultraviolet. Pretty much every reviewer I’ve seen who’s read both recommends reading Ultraviolet first because it’ll be ruined if you don’t.) They’re all choices you have to make and they’re all just that: choices. Options.

Unless I maintain super-strict control of my writing and the discussions thereof (and I’ve known people who do), spoilers will happen. I’m okay with that. People approach stories differently and they want (or need) different things from them. Sometimes reading the end first makes you finish a book or a series. Sometimes it makes you put it down. Sometimes a discussion leads you to decide a story isn’t for you or it leads you to a wholly different book. (That’s actually how I learned about Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman and now, perhaps, this discussion will lead someone else to that book or to any of the books I’ve mentioned so far.) And, anyway, I like spoilers because they usually intrigue me or help me find something I’ll enjoy reading more.

How about you? What are your thoughts on spoilers? Do you catch series in the middle the way you might with a tv show or do you always start at the beginning? (Oh, hey. TV shows and movies. There’s a comparison I forgot about until now. Discuss?) What are your thoughts on author interviews that include spoiler-answers? What’s your best/worst experience with a spoiler? (Mine is undoubtedly summed up with the words ‘Harry’ and ‘Potter’. I tried SO HARD to avoid that one, internets! And I could actually make that shorter, but shhhh. Spoilers. ^-~)