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Why You Can Never Fully Spoil a Story

Warning: this post contains spoilers about spoilers

I can come to you while you are sitting on the living room couch, book or popcorn in hand, in the midst of a dramatic sequence of a piece of romantic media, and I can tell you that the two main characters hook up in the end. And you can turn to me, contempt and disgust on your face paired with a ‘how could you’ expression, maybe throw the popcorn at me that you were absentmindedly munching on a moment before while being immersed in the story, and you could tell me that I spoiled it for you.

And to that I would say, but have I really?

When I was young, I would read many tales of fiction and fantasy in my spare time. While I would be only part-way through the book, I would flip to the final page. I could never seem to help myself. I would read the entire last page of the book. Many of my friends would stare in horror and shock at the story sacrilege I was committing. ‘You’re spoiling the story!’ They would shout. ‘You can’t read the ending first. That’s like eating dessert before dinner. You’re ruining all the parts in between. They’re not going to taste good once you go back to them.’ I would shrug and continue reading, happy to inform them that I was not, in fact, bothered by spoilers.

Friends would be recounting tales and summaries, plot twists and dips with excited glee. Then they would stop mid-sentence before pushing out the line we all know too well:

‘But I don’t want to spoil it for you’.

‘I won’t say any more’, they say. ‘You’ll have to go see/read it for yourself.’ Although you see the twinkle of mischief in their eye, that burning desire to burst forth an entire stream of thought-to-words they are barely holding in. They want to tell you so badly.

So they resort to asking ‘what part are you on now?’ and ‘have you reached that point yet?’, not simply out of curiosity but as a bookmark for how much they are allowed to speak.

I’ve copied this template of words myself, many times, when I talk to people. We all have.

But throughout my life, when people got to this point, I have always encouraged them to keep going.

I tell them, ‘it’s okay. Tell me everything you want me to hear. You won’t spoil it for me. I promise.’ And it’s true. It doesn’t.

If a movie intrigues me, and I gain some kind of interest in watching it, I sometimes explore my way over to our good friend Wikipedia. I read — or sometimes skim — through all the information provided there (maybe by those same people who never got the chance to voice thoughts on their beloved stories aloud). I read not only the summary, but also the entire plot.

Wikipedia post about Wikipedia (Photo by Luke Chesser on Unsplash)

Now you might be thinking why I would do such a thing as to read the entire plot of a book I had not yet read, a movie I had not yet seen, or a game I had not yet played. Maybe you don’t want to know anything about a movie before you step into the theatre and take a seat to view it on the big screen, or stream it on Netflix at home. Maybe you don’t want to even view the trailer before you watch it. I can understand that.

But let me tell you this. Good storytelling doesn’t care whether you know the gist of the story beforehand or not. It doesn’t care if you know the ending, the beginning, or the middle, what’s going to happen, what’s not going to happen, what hasn’t happened. Good storytelling doesn’t need the outcome. Good storytelling is more than just revealing to you loose bits of information in the form of a summary. It’s so much more than that. The tiny nuances, the emotions they bring up — the experience of the whole thing, finished and put together — those cannot be taken from the stripped lines of a Wikipedia post. When you are reading the summary of a story, you are reading the skeleton, bare-boned and skinless. But the muscle of the story is in how it’s told, not what happens.

Good storytelling doesn’t need the outcome

There is a common saying you’ve probably heard mentioned by now, that goes something like this: “A good writer can write about anything.” A good writer can write about an insanely tedious task and bring it to life, make it compelling, interesting, make the reader want to read on. This statement is based on the premise that it’s not about what you write, it’s about how you write it, how you lay the words on the paper, what words you choose and in what order. Even if you know the summary of a story, you will never know exactly how the writer will take the limited words that are contained within the language, and how he or she will spin them into coherent songs of prose. The same goes for movies. There are so many ways a director can portray a script, so many different angles, shots, and viewpoints. He or she can create an entirely different experience from the one you might have thought up when you read those few lines of Wiki text or heard that one-sentence ending summary from your friend who ‘ruined the movie for you’.

Maybe a certain movie would have been more shocking if you had not known about the crazy twist toward the end (I’m not going to name any movies in case you are not about those spoilers). But I don’t believe any movie can be completely spoiled if the outcome is known. There will always be something you can take away from a story, even if you know how it’s going to play out.

Here is a beautiful excerpt from ‘What We Once Feared’, a short story written by Carrie Ryan, author of the Forest of Hands and Teeth series.

“I’d known from the beginning what Nicky had understood only at the very end. But just because I’d seen the truth from day one didn’t mean I needed to force her and the others to see it too. Because there’s something I learned in that sliver of pink sunrise: we all come into the world knowing we’re going to die. And maybe I’d figured out that our death would come sooner and it would come harder, but that didn’t make it any more or less inevitable. And it didn’t mean there wasn’t something worthwhile about those days in between-the good and the bad of them. The kisses and the fights and the fears and the laughter. I was done with fearing death and I was done with fearing regret. I’d made my choices. Maybe they’d been the wrong ones, but I intended to love them to the end.”

~Carrie Ryan (What Once We Feared)

There are two ways to look at a piece of work — whether it’s a game, movie, or book:

The how or the what.
The process or the outcome.
The means or the end.

And it’s not always about the end. It’s also about how you reach it.

And even if the what is revealed to you in some way, whether on day one or page one, the how still remains a mystery until you go see it or read it or live it for yourself.

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3 thoughts on “Why You Can Never Fully Spoil a Story”

  1. You’re so awesome! I don’t believe I have read a single thing like that before. So great to find someone with some original thoughts on this topic. Really.. thank you for starting this up. This website is something that is needed on the internet, someone with a little originality!

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