Why it's time we stopped making such a big deal about twists and "spoilers"

The following editorial contains spoilers.

I first became aware of the concept of "spoilers" about 15 years ago, when a friend of mine, while watching the start of an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, held his hand in front of his face so as not to see the bottom quarter of the screen. 

Why? Well, he was trying to prevent himself from seeing who, if any, major guest stars might be appearing in that episode. Because he wanted to experience the narrative completely unaware of what might happen as things played out. 

He didn't want to get spoiled.

While people have tried to avoid finding out the twists and turns of the media they consume for many years, this was the first time I'd seen someone do it quite like this. It was also the first time I'd heard the word "spoiler" used in this context.

In the intervening decade and a half, spoiler culture has grown far beyond the nerdy roots from which I first experienced it. Part of that stems from the increased tendency for entertainment marketers to get a tad overzealous in what they reveal, part of it because those of us in the entertainment journalism game use that overzealousness to garner clicks, and some of it is because River Song says "spoilers" ad nauseam every second she's on Doctor Who.  

But the aspect I want to discuss, the part that has turned spoilers into a cultural phenomenon, is our collective obsession with "the twist," the moment you didn't see coming, the things that make you go "OH $#!%!" Those are the spoilers people try to avoid the most, and while that's understandable, it sets an unfortunate precedent.

Let me deviate for a moment.

About a week and a half ago I wrote an article and, in the headline, I revealed that Missy from Doctor Who was really the Master.

People went ballistic. Some comments were so vulgar they had to be deleted. How could Blastr allow one of its writers to reveal this huge surprise a few days after it aired!

Full confession -- sometimes I spoil people on purpose. Now, granted, this "Missy = Master" moment was not one of those times I purposefully spoiled, but it may as well have been. You see, it fits in perfectly with the reason why I believe sometimes a twist should be spoiled -- not out of malice to the audience, but because the specific spoiler is irrelevant to the characters, the plot and any subtext therein. Sometimes a twist exists simply for the sake of the twist.

I believe that our fixation on not  being spoiled for these "OH $#@!" moments, coupled with our constantly talking about spoilers across social media, has sent a message to the people making our entertainment. That message is "We don't care about good writing; just give us as many twists as possible."

We've canonized these superficial shockers, and, in the process, we've made truly compelling storytelling seem unnecessary. But, to my reckoning, there is nothing more valuable, nothing more necessary to the cultural evolution of the human species, than good stories.

Missy being the Master is not good storytelling. Knowing her identity beforehand doesn't change the way you view what came before, nor does the reveal, itself, have any impact on the events that occur after. It is a twist for the sake of having a twist. In a way, it's not really a spoiler at all, because this story, this meal that has been laid out before you, is already stale -- it's spoiled before you even took a bite.

Compare that with, say, the revelation that Darth Vader is Luke's father in The Empire Strikes Back. Nowadays, it's virtually impossible to be surprised by that, even if you've never seen Star Wars before. But that doesn't spoil the overall quality of the story. Watching A New Hope armed with the knowledge of who Darth is, you see Vader's actions in a very different light, and you judge Obi-Wan and his deception in a different way. And Return of the Jedi, from a narrative perspective, is deeply impacted by the reveal of who Darth Vader really is. Luke's entire trajectory is changed by that knowledge, and his choices guide most of the events of Jedi.

I wouldn't spoil Vader's big reveal, though, because, if you somehow didn't know, that moment would be amazing for you because it fits so well with the rest of the story. But even then, it's just one moment along a string of moments that weave together a compelling story. You don't watch Star Wars for the twist -- you watch because it's an exciting space opera with likable and engaging characters. So, if you are (most likely) spoiled for the Vader reveal, you'll still really enjoy the adventure.

Meanwhile, if you know Missy is the Master at the start of season eight, what changes? Is the story deepened in some way upon rewatch? Do the individual episodes make more sense? Not really, no. The Missy-is-the-Master reveal is only good the first time provided you weren't spoiled, and it has no intrinsic value beyond that.

Let's look at a more modern example. Right now, Arrow is in the middle of its third year, and it's in the process of answering the mystery set up at the start of the season -- who killed Sara Lance? Because we're only a few episodes in, we don't know the answer to that question, but the impact of her death permeates every element of the show. We know Laurel will become Black Canary because of Sara's death, we've intuited that Nyssa al Ghul will bring her father, Ra's, to Starling City. In the last episode, Roy Harper, after a series of nightmares, thinks he killed Sara, only to realize it was actually an innocent police officer he murdered while strung out on the drug Mirakuru.

All these character moments are the result of Sara's death, and that's just what we've seen so far. Maybe Sara's real killer will be a great twist, maybe it'll be dumb as rocks, but the mystery itself is what drives the story. A good reveal at the end would just be icing on the cake. And even if you were spoiled for it, that wouldn't make watching the rest of the season essentially pointless.

What I'm saying is this -- wanting to see how a story unfolds unimpeded by knowing what happens ahead of time is fine, but placing the burden of whether a story is worthwhile on that twist, the big shocking spoiler, is like saying that's the part that matters most. And it shouldn't be, because if that's all there is to the story, why bother watching at all? We deserve better than a story that can be spoiled with a single reveal.

What do you think? Have we become too obsessed with twists and spoilers, or are the big shocks -- and not knowing about them ahead of time -- what drives your digestion of stories? Let us know in the comments!

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