The Courtesy of Spoiler Warnings

Monday, January 4, 2010

I tried some time ago to track down who coined the term "Spoiler Warning" - with no success. My guess is that it caught on the the late 1970s, but that's just a guess. I know that Don and I grabbed it when we heard it and began to use it as a warning whenever we wanted to discuss a plot development that we knew some in our audience had yet to experience.

Linda Holmes' "The Spoiler Problem (Contains Spoilers)" essay on the Nov. 11, 2009, "Monkey See" page of the National Public Radio website - and the commentaries that accompanied it - may make up one of the best discussions of the problem of spoilers. As one of the brilliant recappers (as "Miss Alli") on the Television without Pity website a few years ago, Linda was freed from spoiler concerns in her recaps of The Amazing Race, Big Brother, Married by America, Survivor, The Apprentice, and The West Wing. Followers knew from the get-go that her delicious analyses took episodes from start to finish.

In effect, there was a big fat "Spoiler Warning" that went for the entire website. And that's my point: It is the civil thing to do to warn a listener or a viewer or a reader that the upcoming sentence or paragraph or essay is going to give away something that the listener or viewer or reader might want to have kept secret.

That is because: There will always be someone who hasn't seen or read an entertainment designed to be seen or read for the first time. Do we - should we - just say, "The hell with them"? When the American Film Institute came up with its "100 Years 100 Movies" list, I'd seen something like 96 of them. How many have you seen? As a grownup, you've certainly had the opportunity to view them all, but it's a safe bet that visitors to my website (who are more likely than the general population to be pop-culture savvy) are not going to score 100 out of 100. Nevertheless, from Citizen Kane (1941) to The Graduate (1967) to the last line of Some Like It Hot (1959), there are developments in many of them that are designed to be seen for the first time, rather than encountered as a conversational gambit or a cheap joke. (I have an intelligent friend who thought he knew what happened in Psycho (1960) but (as it turned out) hadn't seen it and was taken aback when he actually saw the film recently.)

Laura (1944) is one of my favorite films; I recommend it to people who like mystery movies and often lend them my copy. But the frickin' DVD packaging gives away a plot twist that doesn't occur until 46 minutes into the 88-minute film, so I always put the disc in a different shell and tell the friend not to read reviews before they watch the movie. (By the way, since I was 2 years old when the film was released, I didn't see it until more than a decade after its initial run; luckily, people weren't as determined in those days to show off that they had deep pop-culture knowledge, so I was able to see it for the first time without knowing that twist in advance. Whew!)

Because everything goes double for mysteries. The gag of people leaving the theater saying to those coming in, "The butler did it," was printed long ago - but the tendency remains. Agatha Christie mysteries, for example, can often be revealed in a sentence: hardly, then, bonus points for those who spill the proverbial beans. Whether it's Murder on the Orient Express (novel in 1934, film in 1974), The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (novel in 1926), or And Then There Were None (novel in 1939, film in 1945), it's simply impolite to give away the solution. Yes, even when the conclusion (And Then There Were None) differs between print and screen.

That doesn't mean you can't talk or write about it. It just means you need to warn your audience, so those who choose to do so can skip it. Mental Floss ran an informative article on Christie recently, and it included a discussion of Ackroyd. All it had to do was run a vivid text bar as the discussion began, a text bar that told readers that the article would reveal the solution to that mystery. Simple. Courteous.

People who Tweet comments along the lines of, "I just saw the season ender on SHOW X and was surprised when THE HERO turned out to be THE VILLAIN"? Well, I won't be following those Tweets any longer.

That doesn't mean it's always simple. Linda Holmes, for example, is faced with an endless, twisting, annoying complication, no matter what the subject of the pop-culture blog may be. Some may even be annoyed at something as basic as that a sequel to something is in the works. But, for the rest of us, I think we can handle things well by following a basic two-point guideline:

1) If people have seen something, you don't need to reveal it; if people haven't seen something, you shouldn't reveal it.

2) If you can't resist discussing an entertainment's surprises, clearly mark that discussion in advance with a "Spoiler Warning" notice.

Is that so hard? It's been our policy at Comics Buyer's Guide for 27 years, and it seems to have worked without many glitches.


rich February 24, 2010 at 9:17 AM  

"Laura (1944) ... the frickin' DVD packaging gives away a plot twist that doesn't occur until 46 minutes into the 88-minute film ..."

I often wondered if I'm the only one who notices these things. Many of these DVD boxes are being prepared by people who haven't seen the film -- they're working off a synopsis they found somewhere -- or they watch the film and just describe the plot from beginning to end.

I enjoy reading movie reviews AFTER I've seen the film. Not only am I in a better position to judge the reviewer's comments, but I admire an author's skill in describing a plot without divulging any major surprises. A good writer can make you feel as though you know the whole story -- until you see or read the whole story.

** I always thought that the spoiler warning originated with CBG. That's where I first encountered it in the early 1980s.

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