Tuesday, October 12, 2010

*SPOILERS!* Do They Really Spoil ANYthing?

I think movies have ruined us all for writing novels. Is the point of a novel really to surprise the reader with hidden twists and turns and gasps and shrieks at what was unexpected? Or are books - and stories in general, I might argue - really about the beauty of how they are written and told?

More than once I've talked with other writers about their stories where at one point they refuse to give something away. But I'll read it anyway, I tell them. I'm trying to to help you out here since you're asking for my advice. I can't help if you don't tell me what happens.

But it's a secret! You won't be surprised if I tell it to you now.

Really? Because as far as I understand it, millions of people keep reading Harry Potter over and over even though they know what happens. The last Harry Potter movie will be a huge box office seller - even though a huge percentage of people who go see it will already know what happens...

Imagine that.

When I read Lord of the Rings for the first time I had no idea how Gollum got the ring from Frodo in the end. Someone spoiled it for me a few chapters before I was finished by whispering the end into my ear. I was pretty upset, but looking back I realize that the end wasn't really spoiled for me at all. I still enjoyed reading the rest of the book just as much as I would have otherwise because the book wasn't all about that ending moment. It was about a myriad other things all layered together.

I think we storytellers often overlook one critical thing when it comes to telling a story: CRAFT. It isn't necessarily about keeping secrets. It's about telling the story. We all know how Cinderella ends, but we keep telling the story in a million different ways. We all know Hamlet dies at the end of the play...along with almost everyone else, but it is one of the most beloved tragedies of all time.

Especially keep this in mind when you write queries. I've written one query in my lifetime and I was so blasted scared to give away the end of the book that I think it ruined my entire query.


  1. Oh my goodness, THANK YOU for saying this, Michelle. Personally, I don't even mind spoilers in movies. If it's no good without my being surprised, then the odds are it's just no good.

    I'm not much of a re-readers, but that's just because I have a pretty strong verbal memory so a majority of the time as I'm re-reading, I'm pre-reading the next several sentences in my head from memory and that's just plain annoying. It has nothing to do with needing to be surprised.

    Writing the kind of suspense I write, there are obviously a ton of secrets and would-be surprises, and if I tried to avoid spoilers, I would never be able to talk to anybody about it at all. Again, I don't want my writing to depend on being shocking to be good.

    I loved the early years of the TV show Law & Order, because I have a keen interest in things philosophical and that includes jurisprudence. Early on, the show was very much about law and politics and those kinds of things. As the show went on, and got a reputation for twist endings they got so obsessed with that reputation, that every show was predicated on and advertised primarily as having, "a Law & Order twist you won't believe."

    If I just want to be surprised, I'll find a two year-old and play peak-a-dang-boo.

    All that said, I will probably end up having at least one beta reader for Sublimation who *has* been protected from spoilers because there are a few things that develop that I think are more powerful if the reader doesn't necessarily know them ahead of time and I want to make sure I have those crafted in the right way.

  2. I do go for the journey and will read books I love over and over, but, the first time I read something, I like for the story to unfold without interference from others. I love to discover the secrets for myself.

  3. Nevets: Yes! I feel the same way. Cinders has some pretty great twists and turn in it, but I don't think if a reader knew them going in that it would necessarily ruin the story for them unless they cherish surprises above all else. I do understand the importance of an untainted reader, though.

    Lois: I like to discover secrets for myself, too. I guess the point is that I think it's kind of silly when a writer is asking for help and they safeguard the secrets of their story like a dragon guarding her egg.

  4. You bring up a fresh perspective to this area I haven't put a lot of thought into. Thanks!

    To me, it's a matter of entertainment versus reflection. If I am looking for the great summer read, I don't need to be worried about spoilers, etc.

    However, it has been my experience that avoiding spoilers, and more importantly, meta discussions on the work ("why did the author write that, anyway?") provides a much varied and richer experience when talking to other people about the book in question. We're all human, and we can all be persuaded by a either a well-reasoned opinion and often times a merely passionate one.

    I belong to an informal reading group and we go way out of our way to not provide spoilers to each other just for this very reason. The discussion of the book afterward is usually rich and engaging.

  5. Anthony: I'm not against not spoiling stories. I agree with all you say - I just don't think it should be a huge terrible if thing if something slips or if a query needs it, etc. :)

  6. I can't say that the craft isn't important in what I write, it is, but the twists and turns are definitely what readers of thrillers want to see. They want to gasp when their favorite character is put in a tough situation, or snicker when the bad guy gets his just desert. But I think there has to be a balance.

    I also think that putting in a spoiler in a query letter is not an issue. Most agents that I talk to want to know how the book is going to end, probably just to make sure that the author isn't a loon, but it could be for other reasons :)

    I only tell my beta readers enough to tweak their interest. I try not to tell them the end or it will tend to diminish the work.

    So I think anything goes in the query, but for me at least, if you want to know what happens, you have to read the book.

  7. Douglas: Well, yes, sometimes the point of the story is definitely to surprise. I've heard that the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books are like that. :)


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