Losing the Plot

I’m very close to finishing War and Peace and my favourite character has just died. I shouldn’t *spoil* it and tell you who my favourite character is. But I don’t suppose mentioning a character dies in a novel with “war” in the title should be a surprise to anyone. I would like to write about how I felt when the character died, as it almost made me tear up. But as I’m not all the way through, I should best leave these my thoughts for another post if I’m so inspired.

What I’d instead like to write about is the very idea of being able to spoil a novel, film or video game by revealing any major detail of the plot. Now, I generally prefer people refrain from sharing specific details about things I haven’t read, seen or played but it has never been a huge deal if they do. Indeed, a person’s excitement when revealing such details generally gets me more interested than I would have been otherwise.

Just think about classic stories whether it be Cinderella, Romeo and Juliet or Treasure Island. Many people are familiar with the major details of these stories whether or not they’ve read or seen them. I was certainly familiar with Romeo and Juliet long before I ever came to study the play in high school. And taking that as an example, I had the entire play *spoiled* before I ever read or watched it through for myself. I even had each scene of the Baz Luhrmann film paused and analysed between scenes. None of this hurt my appreciation for the play when I finally came to read it and see it through for myself. If anything, it gave me more appreciation for it than I could have possibly have had otherwise.

I have experienced this over and over again. Off the top of my head, I had The Odyssey, Hamlet, Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Anna Karenina spoiled long before I came to read them. If I stopped to think further, I’m sure I could list many more including a lot more of Shakespeare’s plays. Not one of these was ruined because I knew major and often shocking points of the plot.

Now, someone might stop me to say that major plot details aren’t as important for these examples. I might agree to this but I can also offer an example that would make my point clearer. I had The Sixth Sense *spoiled* before I saw it. This is a film included in joke memes about spoiling films. I knew about the twist ending before I went to the cinema to see the film and I still sat down excited to see it. I don’t know whether I would enjoy the film on a re-viewing, but I remember quite enjoying the film at the time despite knowing the twist.

For the last few weeks I’ve been playing the new Zelda, subtitled Breath of the Wild and most people I know who are interested, have already played it. I’m not bothered at all by what they tell me of the game. Whether they be secret items, surprise plot twists or just funny experiences.

The point I want to make is nothing that is actually good is ruined by having aspects revealed before you experience them for the first time. If a game, movie or book is actually good than know amount of familiarity with it, prior to your own experience, can do anything to diminish it.  In stating this, I am not suggesting that you go out of your way to reveal plot details of books you’ve enjoyed to people who might be interested, but I am suggesting that people tend to overreact when this happens to them.  Nothing that is genuinely good can be spoiled with knowledge of it.

There are a couple of reasons I can think of for why concern for spoilers has become so prevalent. The first is that media seems to increasingly rely on shocking people. Think of Game of Thrones as a major example of this. I should add here that I don’t approve of or encourage people to watch this show. By the way, I knew what happened at the end of the first season and I still enjoyed watching it. I’ve not watched it but this also seems to be so for The Walking Dead series among others. The other reason is that people have shorter attention spans that demand constant excitement and modern media has adapted to, if not encouraged this. This has also seen an increase in the problem of “filler” as writers prepare the audience for their next shock.

It would be nice if people could try and take a step back and try to appreciate something as a whole for what it does rather than greedily consuming media for a brief high. As with all drug use, it can only numb your senses.

It really won’t ruin War and Peace if you know that Prince Andrei Bolkonsky dies.

Update 06/02/22: 

While reading Barchester Towers (a novel in which I have already previously had many details spoiled), it seems the author Anthony Trollope shares my views and states them much better than I have as I quote at length below:

But let the gentle-hearted reader be under no apprehension whatsoever. It is not destined that Eleanor shall marry Mr. Slope or Bertie Stanhope. And here perhaps it may be allowed to the novelist to explain his views on a very important point in the art of telling tales. He ventures to reprobate that system which goes so far to violate all proper confidence between the author and his readers by maintaining nearly to the end of the third volume a mystery as to the fate of their favourite personage. Nay, more, and worse than this, is too frequently done. Have not often the profoundest efforts of genius been used to baffle the aspirations of the reader, to raise false hopes and false fears, and to give rise to expectations which are never to be realized? Are not promises all but made of delightful horrors, in lieu of which the writer produces nothing but most commonplace realities in his final chapter? And is there not a species of deceit in this to which the honesty of the present age should lend no countenance?

And what can be the worth of that solicitude which a peep into the third volume can utterly dissipate? What the value of those literary charms which are absolutely destroyed by their enjoyment? When we have once learnt what was that picture before which was hung Mrs. Ratcliffe’s solemn curtain, we feel no further interest about either the frame or the veil. They are to us merely a receptacle for old bones, an inappropriate coffin, which we would wish to have decently buried out of our sight.

And then how grievous a thing it is to have the pleasure of your novel destroyed by the ill-considered triumph of a previous reader. “Oh, you needn’t be alarmed for Augusta; of course she accepts Gustavus in the end.” “How very ill-natured you are, Susan,” says Kitty with tears in her eyes: “I don’t care a bit about it now.” Dear Kitty, if you will read my book, you may defy the ill-nature of your sister. There shall be no secret that she can tell you. Nay, take the third volume if you please—learn from the last pages all the results of our troubled story, and the story shall have lost none of its interest, if indeed there be any interest in it to lose.

Our doctrine is that the author and the reader should move along together in full confidence with each other. Let the personages of the drama undergo ever so complete a comedy of errors among themselves, but let the spectator never mistake the Syracusan for the Ephesian; otherwise he is one of the dupes, and the part of a dupe is never dignified.

I would not for the value of this chapter have it believed by a single reader that my Eleanor could bring herself to marry Mr. Slope, or that she should be sacrificed to a Bertie Stanhope. But among the good folk of Barchester many believed both the one and the other. 

Barchester Towers, Chapter XV The Widow’s Suitors

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