In arguably the most famous episode of the 1970s sitcom Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads, the two titular lads, Terry and Bob, are trying to make it home to watch the highlights of the FA Cup Final on Match of the Day. However, they must run the gauntlet of Newcastle city centre, where the result of the match is on everyone’s lips. Cue, er, hilarity as Terry and Bob run around with their hands over their ears shouting, “La la la la, can’t hear you!” for half an hour.
On my writing forum of choice, SFF Chrons, not so long, somebody got themselves into an awful state in the past month or so because somebody had posted a plot point about Star Wars: The Last Jedi in a thread clearly labelled “Contains Spoilers” (Quick point: I’ve not seen TLJ yet, and reading the spoiler hasn’t spoiled it for me, but that’s because to me reading a list of Star Wars plot points frequently feels like trying to read the Upanishads in the original Sanskrit). Similarly, my brother used to close his eyes and stick his fingers in his ears when the “Next time, on 24…” trailer would come on at the end of each episode (this was back in the days when the Beeb had the rights).
To be honest I’m more sympathetic towards Terry and Bob than my brother or the frothing Star Wars uberfan. At least in sport it really is all about the result; that final statistic imprint in the record books is the absolute. Second is nowhere, and all that. But there’s no second place in literature. In literature there are resolutions, there are changes, there are stubborn rebuttals and there are movements, but there’s not often an ending that can be as clinically reported as a 1-0 result. At least, I feel there shouldn’t be (again, with the exception of mysteries where there surely can or must be a result to avoid hornswoggling the reader).
The sacrilegious status afforded the spoiler, or spoiled plot point, in contemporary culture. As a writer, I’d be pretty miffed if knowing the “result” prevented them from enjoying the story. In literature, the outcome is not the whole story, otherwise what’s the point of reading the preceding 400 pages at all? On some level even spoilerphobes are aware of this, as they operate on the logic that the knowing the destination spoils the journey. But I’m not so sure.
I’ve just finished Stephen King’s magnificent IT which, taking place over two converging timelines, reveals many crucial plot points which another author may wish to have kept secret; one prime example is the revelation that the Losers’ Club badly beat the bully-boy Bowers Gang in the apocalyptic rock fight. And even though that’s a clear “result” it’s flagged in the text as a memory way before the reader happens upon it, and even though we know the result, it in no way takes away the horrid drama of that episode (and hence I’ve not flagged it as a spoiler here). Similarly, I just watched the film Blood Diamond for the first time the other day. From the outset, it’s pretty clear that Leo DiCaprio’s questionably-accented, world-weary Rhodesian mercenary is going to undergo a Hollywood transformation by the end of the film and Do The Right Thing (or Do De Roit Theng, as Leo might say). Sure enough, the ending, telegraphed by a thousand similar character arcs from Hollywood blockbusters gone by, came to pass. Didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the film; in fact I thought it was a cracking little thriller.
So a slight plea: if one does happen upon a spoiler, don’t let it spoil things for you. You never know, you might find that the first 400 pages of that novel are still worth reading!