The Spoiler Question

For many years it was a guilty secret: sometimes I peeked at the ending of a book first.

And I like spoilers.

The only “talent” I have is super-powered, fuel-injecting, fifty-megaton anxiety. As soon as story tension begins shading over into anxiety, my reading pleasure drops proportionately. I have to work extremely hard to gain that midpoint between being aware of myself sitting in a chair reading a story that never happened, and being inside the story experiencing it, to keep the anxiety at bearable levels. I don’t want to have to work hard to withdraw, I like sinking into the story world. That’s what made me a reader in the first place. But for many, this is unforgivable, unregenerate weenie-reading.

The first time I peeked at an ending was when I turned seven and was given Black Beauty. I couldn’t bear the thought that Beauty would die (I’d already been burned by how many Dead Dog movies?) and so I made sure I was alone and peeked at the ending, half-expecting some adult to come roaring down like Zeus from the ceiling, tossing thunderbolts at me for my evil act. When I saw that Beauty was still alive, I relaxed and settled back to enjoy the remainder of the book. (Thought I hit a major rift during the Ginger episode.)

In junior high school I unwarily admitted to a teacher that I had read the ending first, and of course unloosed the long lecture on why I shouldn’t, which I tuned out. I already knew that the way I read and the way they wanted me to read in school was incompatible. But I also caught earnest finger-shaking from friends. “You’re ruining the story!” Um, no, not for me.

“You’ve destroyed the piece of art, because if the author wanted you to know the end, they would have put it up front.” That one did cause a pang of guilt, but not enough to cause me to refrain, because another reason I read endings is to see the structure unfold. I can take great pleasure in seeing how the story reaches an ending I am anticipating.

I haven’t been consistent about peeking ahead. If I began losing interest in a story early on, I didn’t care how it ended, though sometimes I would peek to see if I’d predicted it right. I rarely looked ahead in Wodehouse’s books because they re safe books; while there might be a few surprises, there are never shocks. I hate shock. There’s enough of it in real life.

Now I think there are as many ways to read a book as there are perceptions: some read a chapter a night, some gulp a book down in a sitting. Some skim and skip over description, or over content they don’t like, others read every word. Some don’t consider a book properly read until it’s been gone through at least twice or more. Then there are those like me who might read the beginning, the ending, and then go back to the middle.

I do think that the etiquette of spoiler warnings is a great idea. Some people find the story ruined if they know what happens ahead of time. But those who liked spoilers can either anticipate with pleasure, or if something bad is coming but they are enjoying the book anyway, brace against the impact of the event they know is coming. (I remember a rather sharp exchange on this subject on a panel at a science fiction con: a panelist scolded a reader for just that, saying Then you’ve ruined the effect the author worked so hard to achieve. Haven’t you considered that the shock of [Character’s] death is an important statement that the author wished to make? To which the person in the audience replied, Hah! The author knew that death was coming, too.)  I have never yet felt that a book was spoiled for me by my knowing the ending: hearing about other aspects can make me think “This isn’t for me.” But I am also a dedicated rereader, making me wonder if the No Spoilers! is mostly for one-time readers?

My daughter grew up to be pretty much like me in that regard: when she was as young as three or four, she would say “Are there jumps in it? I don’t want any jumps.” ‘Jumps’ being her word for the way that I recoiled at sudden, sharp noises, which in turn unpleasantly startled her, when she was very small. She equated that recoil with unpleasant shocks or surprises in films or books. My spouse gave up in disgust as she got older and we developed a shorthand, “Jumps?” “One, near the end, when . . .”  And finally, “Will I like it?” “No.” or “Yes, if you know about the . . .”  My favorite answer of all, I have to admit, is “Oh, yes. I’m not going to tell you the surprise at the end, but I know you’ll like it.” That is the mildest form of spoiler, and the most fun, for us weenies.

Sherwood Smith



The Spoiler Question — 59 Comments

  1. Pingback: SF Signal: SF Tidbits for 3/28/11

  2. I too often read the ending long before getting there — particularly if something very bad is happening, and also if the work is not engaging me. The latter is to see if it might get more engaging as it goes along. (Generally, that doesn’t happen, sad to say.)

    There is no such thing as a spoiler where I’m concerned. If there is something that will arrive as a surprise, if I know about it I am appreciating all the more along the way how it is being set up. But mostly, by now having read more thousands of novels than I could begin to count — and not even counting the many novels I have re-read multiple of multiple times — there isn’t much that surprises me. It’s the ride, not the destination that generally I read (or watch!) for now.

    Love, C.

  3. Sherwood: My wife (S. T. Gaffney) likes to be reassured sometimes as well. Sometimes I can just tell her to trust the story, like the narrator in The Princess Bride. Of course she says, “Sometimes you have to die to get the happy ending,” so if the story teller did it right, it’s not bad. It’s the unwarranted, manipulative endings that get her, where she throws the book down in disgust.

    Of course if you try that strategy with her book, you might not have a clue what happened by just reading the ending without reading what led up to it.

  4. Two things (well, three):

    First, I have to take a little exception to characterizing yourself as a “weenie.” Without speculating about you personally, I know that many people who protect themselves from what you are calling “jumps” (great word) are actually dealing with PTSD and/or similar traumatic experiences, and trivializing your reaction minimizes the importance of their experience. (I’ve had to train myself out of the same language around my dislike of violence in movies, which is not trauma-history-related.)

    Second, we had a great panel on spoilers at FOGcon, and I got at least two important things out of it. One was the inestimable Claire Light’s comment from the audience that spoilers can be divided into revealing surprises that are purely plot and revealing the experience of the journey the writer is taking us on (she said it better than that), which rang true to me.

    The other is that the fanfic practice of “trigger warnings” (see PTSD comment above) is related to the concept of “spoilers” in a complex and nuanced way which deserves a lot more observation and analysis. One question we looked at was whether or not it is possible to respect both the people who want to know nothing about a story before they encounter it and the people who want/need to be protected from certain twists and turns, or (as you talk about) can face those twists and turns with warning.

  5. Oh I’m TOTALLY a weenie! I agree, it’s how you get from here to there in a story that matters to me. I’m also a re-reader, so I wonder if you’re right about those traits being connected. One thing I don’t do is skim. I don’t feel like I’ve read a book if I skim any of it, so while I might peak ahead, I always get there the long way eventually. Assuming I finish the book.

  6. Debbie: thank you for the correction. It’s been a coping mechanism to make light of my own PTSD but the risk then is that I am seeming to trivialize others’ experience, and so I do need to watch my language. Thanks for the reminder.

    I do think that there is a lot of interesting and forward looking things that fanfic writers and their readers (vociferous readers) do that seems to be to be way ahead of the rest of the literary establishment, awards and exclusivity notwithstanding.

  7. There are only two books which had huge events which upset me so much that I put each of them down for about a month or so, until I could come to terms with what had happened in the narrative – ‘Pet Semetary’ by Stephen King and ‘Pasage’ by Connie Willis.

    I, too, tend to read the end – when I don’t trust the teller of the tale – sad, but true.