It's Okay to Know the Story Beforehand
Spoilers matter much less to our enjoyment than we commonly think
SPOILER ALERT: this newsletter contains some revelations from Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang. But, you know, read it anyway.
Today is March 10th and issue #17 of Light Gray Matters. The weather is incredibly sunny and warm (for Montreal anyway) and so of course I’m sitting inside writing about spoilers.
My view on spoilers might be an “unpopular opinion.” I bring it up every now and then in conversation, but I’ve never really written about it. So here we are. My thesis is as follows: we freak out way too much about spoilers.
Spoiler alerts are everywhere. When some new popular TV show or movie comes out, you have to be very careful not to divulge anything important if you’ve watched it without prefacing your words with “spoiler alert.” Inadvertently revealing a crucial plot point is a major social faux pas. Any online discussion of a famous book or show has to be plastered with warnings or even redacted parts so that in no case would the eyes of a naïve reader fall involuntarily upon anything that would spoil their future enjoyment of the piece of media under discussion.
I’m not against spoiler alerts in general. Stories are a great joy and all the better if we care enough to maximize our own and other people’s enjoyment. But I do think there’s a bit of a collective overreaction about spoilers in the current culture.1
I mean, look at the word itself.2 Spoiled food is not fit for consumption. Once you know the conclusion of a story, is it unfit for consumption forever?
No. Of course it isn’t.
Knowing the contents of a story beforehand isn’t a barrier to enjoyment. In fact, it sometimes enhances it! Here are some lines of evidence to support my point.
First, there’s the fact that people commonly reread book and rewatch movies. There’s pleasure in rereading a story you know you will love because you loved it in the past; and the plot having already been discovered on a first reading, you have more energy to focus on the smaller details. You’ll notice previously unseen links between ideas. You’ll pay attention to some beautiful phrasing or cinematography. Some people never rewatch or reread, but they’re missing out. It’s actually quite rewarding to do.
My second piece of evidence comes from opera. If you’ve ever been to the opera, you know that they typically give you a little booklet that contains a summary of the whole story. Not a short teaser; in my experience, it’s a detailed description of the entire plot. The reason is that the story while part of the enjoyment of an opera, isn’t the main point. The music is. In fact, opera plot lines are often quite simple and formulaic. You might as well read the summary to begin with (especially if the opera is sung in German or Italian or whatever language you don’t understand).
Third, myths, folktales, and religious stories. These stories are repeated time and time again. They embody important life lessons as well as precious cultural memory. We often know them by heart. It is assumed that most people know them, or at least know of them, and they’re referenced to all the time as shared cultural baggage. It would be absurd to write “SPOILER ALERT” at the top of an article discussing the Little Red Riding Hood, the Book of Genesis, or the myth of Oedipus.
In all those cases, the process of discovering the plot isn’t the main reason to read/watch a story.
That doesn’t mean that plot discovery and the associated feelings of surprise aren’t fun or desirable. They definitely are, which is why I wouldn’t recommend actively seeking spoilers. Depending on the genre, they may even be the main point! Mystery novels come to mind. Revealing the ending of an Agatha Christie book can be seen as ruining the fun.
But most stories don’t work like that. There are so many other emotions we get from stories besides surprise — cathartic fear, anger, and sadness; laughter and mirth; beauty and awe. You won’t lose any of those if you unintentionally hear some spoilers. Maybe you’ll even grow more interested!
One of my favorite illustrations of why knowing the story doesn’t matter comes from Ted Chiang’s best-known short story, Story of Your Life, which I’m rereading in preparation for a book club (details below!). This is the place where I’ll spoil everything forever about that story, by the way. So if you agree with what I said above, just keep reading.
Story of your Life involves aliens, called heptapods, who have a different conception of time. For them, time is like a picture that you see all at once. They know everything that will happen already, everything that will be said. Yet the words have to be said and the events have to happen. Knowing they will happen is not sufficient.
Writes Ted Chiang:
For the heptapods, all language was performative. Instead of using language to inform, they used language to actualize. Sure, heptapods already knew what would be said in any conversation; but in order for their knowledge to be true, the conversation would have to take place.
And right after that, what may be my favorite passage in the whole story. The narrator reads a well-known tale to her young daughter:
“First Goldilocks tried the papa bear’s bowl of porridge, but it was full of brussels sprouts, which she hated.”
You’ll laugh. “No, that’s wrong!” We’ll be sitting side by side on the sofa, the skinny, overpriced hardcover spread open on our laps.
I’ll keep reading. “Then Goldilocks tried the mama bear’s bowl of porridge, but it was full of spinach, which she also hated.”
You’ll put your hand on the page of the book to stop me. “You have to read it the right way!”
“I’m reading just what it says here,” I’ll say, all innocence.
“No you’re not. That’s not how the story goes.”
“Well if you already know how the story goes, why do you need me to read it to you?”
“Cause I wanna hear it!”
“Cause I wanna hear it.” Indeed. Stories are primarily a performance. The information contained within matters very little.
And in any case, if there’s something surprising in a TV show, you’re going to learn it anyway — whether from the show itself or from a friend who forgot to warn you of spoilers. It matters a bit that the surprise is embedded in the performance, but not that much.
So just thank your friend for getting the surprise out of the way and go watch that TV show. Spoiler alert: you were going to anyway.
Until next week, I remain
Interintellect Salon: Ted Chiang Part 3
This is the Ted Chiang book club Salon I’m hosting on March 28th! It’s part three of my ongoing series and is themed around nonhuman lifeforms.
Another Interintellect Salon: The Evolution of Beauty
But before that, I’m hosting another Salon this coming Monday! It grew out the newsletter issue from last month about beauty. I found myself thinking over evolutionary aesthetics quite a lot in the past few weeks, and I’d love to discuss it with some of you guys!
On Twitter: The Cathedral of Learning
I tweeted about that cool building in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, inadvertently putting that city on my list of desired tourist destinations in the process:
I don’t know if that’s an actual contemporary thing. I have a feeling that the social norms around spoilers have evolved fast during my lifetime, but it may just as well be my own consciousness of them.
Fun fact: the over-creative Office québécois de la langue française, one of whose tasks is to coin French words to express new concepts from English, has suggested the following term to translate spoiler: divulgâcheur. It’s a portmanteau of divulguer (to divulge, to disclose) and gâcheur (person who spoils or ruins).
Most people here in Quebec think the word looks ridiculous, but I kinda like it and it has been adopted by a minority of speakers.