Spoiler alert!: How long should plot details be kept a secret?

ImageBy some miracle, the first time I heard what villain Benedict Cumberbatch was really playing in “Star Trek: Into Darkness” was from Cumberbatch’s character himself, during the actual film. I spent the week before the movie’s release on Internet lock-down, afraid to even “Google” “Star Trek” in case someone somewhere had posted spoilers.

The true identity of Cumberbatch’s villain was carefully guarded by director J.J. Abrams, but secrets like these are getting harder and harder to keep in today’s media-saturated world. I wanted to be surprised by Cumberbatch’s revelation, and thankfully this time, I was. However, I can think of plenty of times when I’ve inadvertently come across major plot details for a movie or TV show while browsing the Internet or social media.

Lately I’ve seen quite a bit of discussion taking place about “spoiler” etiquette. What responsibilities do bloggers and other Internet posters have to avoid “spoiling” a TV show or movie for another viewer, and is there a “statute of limitations” on spoilers (such as, do you still need to flag a post “spoiler alert!” if you’re going to write about the ending of “Citizen Kane,” a movie released more than 70 years ago)?

Ask any film or TV buff, and they’ll probably agree that “spoilers” are one of their biggest pet peeves. However, this wasn’t always such a big problem. Before DVRs, or even VCRs (remember those?), if you wanted to watch a TV show, you just tuned in and watched it live. People also didn’t have the Internet to start immediately “tweeting” after the show.

Now, the Internet has dramatically changed how we consume and interact with entertainment media. As I’m walking out of the movie theater, I can instantly post a comment about the film on my Facebook page using my smartphone — a comment that could “spoil” the movie for a friend who hasn’t seen it yet. This issue is further compounded by the fact people don’t watch media at the same times anymore, either. I can watch an entire season of a TV show in one shot on Netflix, or catch an episode on a TV network’s website. For example, my job schedule changes from week to week, so I don’t even bother trying to watch one of my favorite new shows, the CW’s superhero drama “Arrow,” live. I catch the episodes online a week after they air, due to Hulu’s delayed posting schedule. This type of situation is even a problem with movies — films like “Iron Man 3” and “Star Trek: Into Darkness” both opened at different times in different countries, so you can bet spoilers were already floating around the Internet before some countries had even started playing the movies in theaters.

Some have argued that those who accidently get “spoiled” are perhaps a little too sensitive. Sometimes, this may be true. Finding out that (spoiler alert!) Matthew Crawley and Lady Mary get married at the beginning of season 3 of “Downton Abbey” likely isn’t going to ruin the whole show for fans. But sometimes, a surprise ending is the key to a film. In a movie like “The Prestige,” all the unexpected twists drive the narrative forward, and knowing the ending ahead of time would rob the film of most of its power. Finding out too many spoilers can suck the energy out of watching a TV show or movie or reading a book. I accidentally found out the ending to the “Hunger Games” series from a post on a friend’s Facebook page. I still finished reading the books, and enjoyed them, but would have preferred to experience the story without knowing what was coming.

So, to what extent are we obligated not to “spoil”? If you’re posting a major plot twist in a review, it’s a nice gesture to include the tag “spoiler alert” to give readers a warning. I’d argue you should maybe even do this on social media. On your Facebook profile, don’t post the name of the character who died in the season finale of the TV show you just finished watching (unless you’re willing to fight off angry protests from your Facebook friends). 😉

However, I do think the more time that passes after a movie/TV show episode’s release, the more the burden is on the reader of potential spoilers, not the writer. If someone references “Star Trek: Into Darkness” a year from now, I wouldn’t expect them to post a “spoiler alert” when they talk about Cumberbatch’s character. By that time, most of the people who were really excited about the movie (and would have been the most upset about a spoiler) have probably already seen it. I’m currently waiting for season 7 of “Doctor Who” to be made available on Netflix, but I also recognize many people have already seen the show on cable. It’s now more my responsibility to avoid “Googling” “Doctor Who” if I want the new season to be a complete surprise.

So, what do you think? Do you have any spoiler horror stories? When do you think it’s OK to spoil something? Or, is it never OK?


12 thoughts on “Spoiler alert!: How long should plot details be kept a secret?

  1. Thats a really good question… people should probably at least be given enough time to check out the movie on DVD without details being spoiled. But if it goes beyong that, it’s people’s own damn fault for not keeping up!

    For me, something you touched on is even more important, and that’s WHAT is a spoiler… nowadays, people think ANY plot detail is a spoiler. But that’s not true… a spoiler is something that ruins a surprise. Short of that, its not a spoiler. 😦

    • I do think there’s a time when the need to put “spoiler alert” expires. Once a DVD comes out, I think a movie probably fair game. 😉

      Yes, I think sometimes people get in trouble for posting spoilers that aren’t really spoilers. I wouldn’t consider talking about the fact Cumberbatch plays a terrorist attacking Starfleet in the new Trek movie a spoiler. Now the true identity of Cumberbatch’s character — that IS a spoiler. 😉

  2. Agree with you about people needing to follow some sort of “spoiler etiquette”. I remember people spoiling Miranda Tate is Talia Al Ghul for TDKR.

    An ongoing spoiler horror story relates to the soon-to-be-released Man of Steel. It is kind of indicated in one of the TV spots, if you watch really closely. Still, I came across this in the social media.

    I won’t spoil your interest too, but suffice to say that I have become more alert about avoiding such happenings again.


    • I have not heard any spoilers yet about Man of Steel. Thank you for the warning that there are something already out there! I’ve become very cautious about looking up new movies on the Internet, because it’s so easy to run across spoilers.

  3. I was lucky that I was able to see Star Trek Into Darkness before the big secret went public. My brother in law wasn’t so lucky; some friend of his spilled the beans on Facebook the day the movie opened and he read it. That’s not cool. Keep your mouth shut dude!
    Most movie websites I read do a good job of warning people of spoilers. Some even have separate message boards where readers can discuss the movie without spoiling things for everyone.
    I do agree that there is a window to this. Star Trek has been out for a week (in the USA) so I think it’s okay to talk about the plot out in the open.

    • I’m sorry to hear about your brother in law. I would have been so mad if I’d found out the big secret about the new Trek movie before watching it! 😉 Spoilers can be especially bad on Facebook, because as you’re scrolling through the posts, you don’t necessarily know what’s coming.

  4. I can usually avoid a spoiler on a blog. When I’m reading and I think they are about to spoil something, I stop reading. When I get spoiled on a movie plot it’s usually on a talk show where the “thinks he cleverer than everyone else” host, who gets to see the movie ahead of the interview (for some stupid reason), says something he thinks is soooo cryptic and mysterious about a plot twist or surprise ending. I hate that. (Fallon does it so much I no longer watch him. But he’s so bad at keeping secrets he spoils his own punchlines)

    My new pet peeve is the TV show live tweeter. Talking about a show while it’s on live. The stars of the show do it so that maybe more fans will watch live which is better for ratings. But these days everyone does it for some show. So I have to ignore twitter when a show is on. Particularly soapy gossipy shows like Revenge or Scandal. (These days I don’t watch anything but sports and the News live)

    Last weekend I was watching The Melissa Harris Perry show and she just gives away the end of the Scandal finale right at the top of the show and then she says “Spoiler Alert” AFTER SHE SPOILS IT! So I knew the big reveal the whole time. Annoying.

    But when I’m spoiled on a movie I chalk it up to bad karma because I used to be the worst spoiler. I didn’t understand the concept and I would describe a movie by it’s secrets. “Star Wars is about a father and son on opposite sides in an intergalactic war.” “Sixth Sense is about a dead guy who doesn’t know he’s dead and a kid who can see him.” “Crying Game is a movie about a crossdresser who passes for a girl.” I sucked. So I deserve every spoil I get. Oh yeah… Spoiler Alert.

    • Yeah, I think the change in how people consume media (watching it online instead of live, online is what I do most of the time) has increased the potential for spoilers. However, as much as I hate spoilers, I must also confess that I have “spoiled” things for others in the past. 😉 I’m really bad about talking about a movie or TV show and then letting something slip. I think I ended up giving away much of the plot of season 3 of Downton Abbey because I had a friend who didn’t watch it live. I know I need to work on that. 😉

  5. Good article, you have covered all angles well. I would say that the onus is on both the blog (or whatever) posters in having spoiler etiquette, but also on the readers to be spoiler-savvy. If a movie is coming out that I am looking forward to (like the recent Star Trek film) I simply avoid reviews or posts about it until I see it. If a TV episode has aired and I haven’t seen it, I don’t read posts about that show and I avoid facebook statuses of those people I know are also fans of the show.

    • I also try to avoid reviews until after I’ve seen a movie. I read several reviews for Star Trek: Into Darkness on Rotten Tomatoes that were borderline spoilers. If you’re a Trek fan, you’d pretty much be able to guess who Cumberbatch was really playing by reading the reviews.

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