A long response to a short post about spoilers

Apparently I’m in the mood to respond to other people’s thoughts these days. It’s a bit of a post-Fringe thing – I spend August completely wrapped up in the Fringe, unable to conceive of a world outside of Edinburgh, then it ends and  I realise that there’s a month of non-Fringe content out there on the interwebs. September starts with a massive catch-up on what else has been happening out there.

Mark at Only the Sangfroid has written a really interesting post on spoilers. Can’t be bothered clicking links? Here’s my recap: People moan about reading/seeing spoilers for their favourite films and TV shows because apparently the plot twists are the things that keep them interested. Mark suggests that if the plot twists are all that’s keeping you engaged, there’s a problem – it should be possible to be gripped by a well-known story as long as the storytelling is sufficiently skilful. If we’re so caught up in plot twists and the etiquette of not spoiling them, discussion of the themes, issues and execution is curtailed.

The short response: I agree. I’ve never really understood people who believe that spoilers ruin everything. If you are someone who feels that way I’d be very happy to hear from you, because I’m always up for reading someone else’s insights – but be warned, there may be spoilers further on in this post. I don’t know what for, because I haven’t written the rest yet – check the tags if you’re bothered. What I do know is that they won’t be behind a cut.

Personally, I love spoilers. They let me know what I’ve got to look forward to. I’m perfectly happy to know what the plot twists will be, because what I don’t know is how they will be realised.

For example, I love watching Dexter. I watched the first three seasons, then while I was waiting for season 4 to come out on DVD I read a few spoilers so I knew that Rita gets killed by Trinity. (I did say there would be spoilers. If your life is now ruined, my sympathy is limited.) Later on I introduced my husband to the show. When we were halfway through season 4, season 5 came out on DVD… with the announcement of Rita’s death right there in the blurb on the back. So it’s a good thing that neither of us is that concerned about knowing the facts in advance.

However, as much as I love Dexter, it’s one of those programmes that I love for what it could be more than for what it is. When it’s good it’s bloody awesome. And when is it good? For my money, it’s good when it’s exploring the boundaries between right and wrong, testing the limits of the characters’ personal codes, challenging the viewer to think about how far they identify with different characters’ behaviour and what that says about them.

When it’s bad? Well, it’s not so much that it’s horrid. The production values are still high. It’s ok. But it deserves to be so much better than ok, because the potential is there. Dexter being ‘ok’ is like your highly intelligent child getting a C. Yet it frequently happens, because plot twists are prized higher than character development. Seriously, are LaGuerta and Angel married or not this week? Is anything actually going to happen with the trophy-collecting intern girl or are we done with that? Was it actually a storyline that I just don’t remember because I was too busy not giving a damn about peripheral characters that haven’t been developed in any way? Which personality will Deb be wearing today, now that the writers no longer seem to be concerned with her original character?

Venerating all things plot-driven also leads to failure to appreciate character studies. What’s wrong with exploring a character in depth, learning what drives them, letting ourselves be affected and maybe unsettled by our commonalities with and differences from them? Really good writing creates layered, fascinating characters. There’s no reason why this can’t be coupled with excellent production values to create something compelling.

To me, this is one of the major differences between the flash-bang-wallop of entertainment and the complexity of art. I like to be entertained. I like art. I like things that do both. I don’t think I’m unique or even slightly unusual in this. Perhaps I’m just insanely optimistic, but I actually believe that audiences are capable of appreciating intelligent entertainment. Excellent ideas, insight and writing coupled with excellent performances – the ingredients for good art – combined with enough plot to make good entertainment.

It’s an obvious point to make, but it’s true – this is why we’re still doing Shakespeare all these centuries later. Macbeth? Plot-tastic. There’s plenty going on – chance (or maybe not) meetings with witches, more murders than you can shake a stick at, sticks being shaken at Dunsinane, climactic battles. It is the stuff of blockbusters.

It’s also a gorgeous study of the desire for power and its effects, of the destruction of a couple by a terrible secret, of a man who was one of the good guys and ends up a tyrant. It’s packed with subtle, psychologically layered characters, and they make it interesting. Without them, or at least without their depth and development, the story is just a sequence of events, many of which happen off stage.

Perhaps character development was originally necessary because locations shoots and CGI were beyond the budget of the King’s Men, but we shouldn’t consider them any less important now that we’re able to set Macbeth’s final battle against a backdrop of Dunsinane in flames and collapsing into a volcano while the earth gets sucked into a black hole. Isn’t there some room for car chases between soliloquies, or vice versa?

But I digress. The thing about Macbeth is that we all know how it ends (or at least we should). I don’t count it as a spoiler if I tell you that Lady Macbeth goes mad and dies or that Macduff eventually kills Macbeth himself. Does this make it any less compelling? It shouldn’t, if it’s being done well. If we trust the material to stand on its own two feet, trust the actors to do their job and explore the complexity of their character, trust the audience to follow lines that are more than three sentences long, it can still have you on the edge of your seat. You should still find yourself wanting to call out to Macbeth not to trust the witches or listen to his wife, just as much as you should want to yell at Ned Stark not to try the reasonable approach on Cersei Lannister. If the work has been done to get you to invest in the character, there doesn’t have to be a whole lot of action going on to make you care about what happens to them.

The reason I use Macbeth as an example is because he’s the protagonist in a tragedy, which means audiences went in knowing that things weren’t going to end well for him. I’m going to steer clear of calling him a tragic hero because I know it’s debatable whether he actually has a tragic flaw or not, but he’s definitely the protagonist and it’s definitely a tragedy. Original audiences, seeing Macbeth’s hands covered in Duncan’s blood, would not have supposed that the play would end with him and his wife gazing contentedly at their first grandchild. Macbeth is fucked. They knew it, we know it. The only questions are how it happens and what we learn along the way.

Nowadays it’s difficult to use dramatic inevitability without being accused of being formulaic. I think that’s often a mistake. Formulaic plots can provide an excellent structure within which to explore and/or subvert our expectations of characters. They allow developing writers to build up an understanding of how plot twists and moments of epiphany can be earned rather than shoehorned in as Deus ex Machina. Recognisable structures give audiences a familiar base which can be a stepping-off point for exploring the unfamiliar, which is why we continue to tell fairy tales and reinvent them as we get older.

“You have to learn the rules before you can break them” is a cliche that everyone who has ever been a young artist will have hated at some point. It’s all the more annoying for being true. That’s why I’m particularly curious about creative people who hate spoilers and won’t discuss films, books and TV shows for fear of them. I find myself wondering whether that’s reflected in their own work – do they then understand the structures they’re working within or against? Do they want to understand them, or is a refusal to embrace the spoilers indicative of a wider unwillingness to learn the rules? Or at least to identify them – I’ve never been a fan of ‘learning the rules’ but when it comes to narrative structure and storytelling it didn’t feel like that, it just felt like learning the names for things I’ve always understood intuitively.

I honestly don’t know. But I do agree with Mark that there are certain dangers in allowing other people’s wish to remain unspoiled to dominate discussions of arts and entertainment, and I know that I’d like to hear other people’s views on this. Do spoilers ruin things for you? Do you tune out if the plot twists aren’t coming thick and fast? Do character studies leave you cold? And if you’re an artist yourself, how does your attitude towards these things tie in with the work you create?

 

About jenbitespeople

Edinburgh-based writer, dramaturg and director. Here you'll find posts about my work, mental health, arts politics and whatever else happens to catch my attention. View all posts by jenbitespeople

3 responses to “A long response to a short post about spoilers

  • Jaimi

    I also wrote something on the original post here: http://notoriouspiebandit.tumblr.com/post/31193597466/spoilers-and-one-persons-opinion-of-them
    Thought you might be interested.

    • jenmcgregor

      Thanks for the link! I’m curious, though – you mention that an episode of Dr Who was “ruined” for you by spoilers posted online, which prompts me to ask two questions.

      First, why “ruined”? Are the plot twists really all-important to you? For me, what matters is how that point is reached (which is where skilful writing comes in, because that’s what makes the difference between a really clever twist and a cheap, Rowling-esque moment of deus ex machina) and what effect it has on the characters I’ve grown to care about.

      Second, if you’re really perturbed by spoilers why go to places on the internet where you are likely to find them? Why not avoid those places until you’re caught up?

      Actually, two questions plus a bonus round – do you watch/read things more than once? How do you find your engagement with the story second time round?

      • Jaimi

        What was ruined was a moving GIF posted by someone I follow on Tumblr who lives in the UK and put the GIF’s up before it was even possible to see the episode here in Australia. It showed Amy and Rory breaking up and getting back together. It didn’t ‘ruin’ the whole episode but tv shows, books and movies are designed for you to view it from the start with no knowledge other than a base idea of story to guide you through. It’s supposed to be a surprise. I want to learn things with the characters, it’s more interactive that way and less ‘I am sitting watching a tv show’ – I like to become submerged in a book or movie to the point where I forget I’m watching/reading it. Harder to do if you know what’s going to happen. It’s not just twists that can be ruined by spoilers but also character development, setting and everything else.

        And these spoilers (for me anyway) came from someone who had previously promised not to post spoilers and I have since unfollowed them, which they understand, so it won’t happen again.

        Yes I watch/read things more than once all the time, because (as I said in my post) knowing what happens changes the way you interpret things. I like to experience it once with the characters and then go back a few weeks/months later and re-read/watch it while looking and discovering different things. And then there are things that are so brilliant that I will continuously read/watch again no matter what.

        Just as an example, I was 11 or 12 when I read LoTR for the first time, when I got to the point where Frodo was stabbed by Shelob and Sam thought he was dead, I burst into tears and threw the book down and ran off because I was so horrified. (My mum calmed me down and convinced me to go back because she knew what happened) but I like having those reactions. Or in A Song of Ice and Fire, the characters dropping like flies (and sometimes coming back) happens for a reason. This is war and it’s cruel and when the narrative characters get betrayed by people they trust it should be a surprise to the reader as well. You’re supposed to be upset when the main character potentially dies, it is written to have an impact upon your emotions, to show you how you actually feel about things… It’s something I keep in mind constantly when I’m writing my own stories. The writer takes the reader on a journey and skipping ahead to find out if the ending is happy is like cheating to me.

        Long answer, I know I’m sorry, but it’s something I’m passionate about.

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