In this highly-connected world, there’s always a chance that you’ll find out the plot twist or big reveal before you get a chance to read the story. Media critics are careful to add warnings at the beginning of their articles, but sometimes the image or the title will give away the surprise. Readers might remember to give a spoiler alert when they post online, but there’s no guarantee. Sites such as Wikipedia stopped using spoiler warnings in 2007.
What makes information a spoiler? Is there a statute of limitations on when you can discuss the surprise? And do you as a reader have an obligation to hold back on the spoiler? What is the reader’s responsibility?
Let’s break it down.
What is a spoiler?
When researching the root of the word, Ben Zimmer wanted to know if the demand for spoiler alerts was a new cultural phenomenon. He details it all in the Visual Thesaurus.com post “Spoiler Alert! Revealing the Origins of the “Spoiler””. Before the 1970s, a spoiler was someone or something ruining a situation. Then the National Lampoon magazine did a feature in 1971 on “spoilers” for famous movies and books. The author had declared it a “public service” to reveal all major plot points and surprises.
Can a romance novel be spoiled?
After all, we all know how it’s going to end.
Do we? You’ve never read a romance novel that had a happily-ever-after but also a cliffhanger? Have you seen every plot twist before it happened? Have you missed the agony of an author figuratively ripping your heart out and stomping on it because you were emotionally invested in a side character who died for no good reason?
Yes, even romance novels have body counts.
What about those times when the plot twist is so, so good that you just can’t handle the perfection? Or when you think something beautiful isn’t going to happen and it takes you by surprise because it does?!?
You haven’t experienced those moments?
Give it time.
Is posting a spoiler a public service or a public nuisance?
It all comes down to intent.
If you felt the book should have had a trigger warning, share it in your post. This will help other readers decide if they want to read it or not. Find a list of trigger warnings at BookTriggerWarnings.com. You can also read a beginner’s guide at Medium. The author explains how to write it in “internet shorthand” and an explanation of the trigger warning.
Are you posting information about the book to encourage discussion? In her post “Spoiler Alert! On Modern Problem of Spoilerphobia” at Tor.com, Sarah Kozloff argues that putting so much emphasis on the plot and surprises devalues the other elements of storytelling. She goes on to say, “If we are going to share our experiences of stories, we must be free to mention everything that we find relevant without fear of censure.”
Yet some critics feel discussing spoilers is a sign of elitism. Over at his blog ZigZigger, Michael Z. Newman says that media fandom “popularized the idea of the spoiler as a token of knowledge-power.” The person who reads the book first can disrupt, influence or ruin the reading experience of another person.
Look at it this way: A child is compelled to tell their classmates about Santa Claus. Is it public service or a display of knowledge-power?
When is it acceptable to discuss spoilers online?
According to “The Official Vulture Statutes of Limitations on Pop-Culture Spoilers” that Dan Kois created in 2008, unmarked spoilers are allowed in the text of an article three months after the book is published. Want to discuss it in a headline or in an article that is not specific to that book? Etiquette dictates waiting six months after the book is published.
By comparison, this guide states that opera lovers must wait 100 years after the premiere to discuss a spoiler and never, ever, ever in an article headline.
If you want to discuss a book online and spoilers might be revealed, pay attention to timing.
- Warn early and frequently. Preferably in all caps. Give a person time to stop scrolling or listening. None of this—spoiler alert!—it was a dream nonsense.
- Discussing the book in a chat? Abide by the rules. For example, there’s an author’s fan group that doesn’t discuss a new release right away. The moderators decide a specific date and time, giving readers around the world a chance to finish the book.
- Look at the timing of your review. Would you discuss the big surprise or plot twist if you weren’t one of the first people to read and review the book?