Monday, May 24, 2010

A Brief Guide to Responsible Spoiling (Draft)

Using the comments on a previous post, along with some idle-moment pondering, the Ape presents a working draft of our "Brief Guide to Responsible Spoiling."

The below scheme attempts to balance two “first principles”:

The Right to Surprise
     The inherent right of any viewer or reader to experience the pleasure of not knowing what’s
     going to happen next.

 The Right to Debate
      The inherent right of any viewer or reader to engage in public discourse about the content of
      a given work of narrative art.

Part I: When Spoiling is Fair Game
In the following circumstances, one can discuss crucial plot details and reveal endings with a clear conscience.

Group A: Canonical Works

Works that have, to borrow from Jonathan Lethem on intellectual property, “infiltrated the common mind to the extent of Gone with the Wind or Lolita or Ulysses.” These are part and parcel of our cultural knowledge and to pre-empt a reference, discussion, or squabble because someone hasn’t yet read/seen/heard a given work hamstrings public discussion of narrative art.

Group B: Network Television more than a week old

If I want to discuss last week’s episode of Forensic Scientists and the Cops Who Love Them, then I need to be able to do that before too much more of the television river has flowed on. And yet, we must give folks some leeway to DVR. Given the short shelf-life of television programming and the readily available means of storing and accessing programs, a week’s moratorium on spoilers for television shows gives interested parties more than enough time to catch-up.

Group C: Movies that have been on DVD for more than 1 year
If you really cared that much about what happens, you would have seen it by now.

Group D: Adaptations and Re-Makes
Assessing the fidelity and experimentation of remakes and adaptations is the signal pleasure of discussing them. If you didn’t care enough about the book or the 1941 version starring Mickey Rooney to make a point to see it, you’ve forfeited your right to surprise.

Group E: Novels More Than 10 Years Old
See the rationale for Group C

Part II: Exceptions to Part I

Exception A: The Age of Consent
This exception relates to Group A,D, and E. For these categories, spoilers are only permitted if the spoilee, the party who has no experience with a  given work, is over the age of 25. This exception acknowledges that a certain latitude must be given to those who haven’t had sufficient opportunity to be exposed to even canonical works. In these cases, the spoiler must ask permission before spoiling the given work. If no permission is given and the spoiler still discloses key elements of the work, then the spoilee is given license to call said party a mild expletive.

Exception B: The Sixth Sense Procedure
This exception acknowledges that certain plot elements so rely on surprise that the Right of Surprise must be maintained at all costs, even The Right of Debate. In such cases, the potential spoiler is enjoined to use veiled references to the plot element that will not reveal the nature of the plot element, but that will also be readily understood by those who have prior knowledge of said plot element. For example, if I were to discuss the final scenes of The Sixth Sense, I would refer to it as “the twist at the end of The Sixth Sense.” This is a rare exception and must only be invoked in cases where the work’s central value is contingent upon preserving the surprise, as in The Sixth Sense. Note: this exception does not apply to Group A. Also, Vader is Luke’s father.

Exception C: Pay Cable Television
As pay cable shows are often not available to the general television viewer until long after their original air date, spoiling these shows is unethical until six months after the show is available on DVD .

Exception D: Sequels
Generally, sequels will appear well into the ethical spoiling window, but in cases where they are released earlier, then spoiling the original work becomes ethical on the day of the sequel’s initial release. For example, the day The Return of the King opened in theaters, one would have been morally sanctioned to discuss plot elements of The Two Towers.


So, how'd we do? What did we miss? What should be changed?


  1. Excellent; well done! "These will serve as rules of engagement." But I would like to propose an exception to Exception A. Let's call it the Caesar rule. Even if a 16-year-old student has never been exposed to Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar, it is still reasonable to assume that the assassination of the emperor is part of the historical record; so, if the plot of a work of art relies on generally known historical facts, it isn't spoiling to discuss those plot details.

  2. I was deeply disagreeing with the canonical bit until I got to the age limit. I'm still weary of agreeing with you- I remember shortly after my 25th birthday discovering that Little Nell dies, and being very put out. I'm still put out, actually. Grr.

    At any rate, I discovered you through some belated Book Hopping. I'm over at

  3. Bibliophiliac- Fantastic point. Couldn't agree more. Will definitely be added to the final version.

    Jane- We all must lose our innocence at some point, though I empathize. I had Les Miserables spoiled for me and have never been able to muster the energy to read it as a result. Thanks for dropping by and I subscribed to your site. So I'll be reading ya..

  4. Good rules to go by. One overriding point you could add is that, by indicating the presence of spoilers at the very beginning of the post (essay, article, etc) it leaves it to the reader to make up his or her own mind. Using the recent example of the Lost finale, while I was vested in watching it without knowing how it ended before-hand, I know plenty of people that hadn't watched the show and didn't plan on it. They felt no qualms about reading what happened and still wanted to be a part of that particular cultural moment. An early warning to the reader seems like a sufficient safeguard and one that should allow the writer to give away spoilers guilt-free.

  5. My own belated addendum: large latitude for spoiling the plot of mysteries, no matter how old. In a completely unrelated review of a book with an unreliable narrator, someone spoiled the end of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, one of about three Christie books I was interested in reading.

    So, I'm over 25, and the book is super old, old enough that the "Sixth Sense" exemption doesn't apply. But there is almost never cause to spoil the reveal at the end of a mystery casually, without offering at least a bit of warning first.

    On the plus side, since the whole reason to read the Christie was the ending, and I probably could have guessed it anyway since I knew at the very least the book was supposed to be some kind of game changer (this happened to me with Hitchcock's Stage Fright), I suppose it doesn't really matter.