A Few Thoughts On Spoilers – Part One – A Great Twist

A digression, inspired by a recent comment exchange, over the nature of spoilers. I’ve always made a point of making this a spoiler-free blog. I’d like to think that you can read my reviews and go away knowing whether or not you’ll enjoy a book and still be surprised by whatever lies within.

But it’s clear that different people have different ideas of what constitutes a spoiler, from other readers to blurb writers to cover designers to Dame Agatha herself. So I thought I’d set out my thoughts on the matter and see what other people think too.

First of all, let me say that I’m probably over-sensitive about such things – that’s the whole point of the blog after all – so apologies in advance if you think my views extreme. Let’s take an example first of all – and, by the way, if you’ve never heard of the film The Sixth Sense but may in the future want to watch it, look away now. That’s probably nobody, but a warning never hurt.

There are two ways to watch The Sixth Sense. The point of it, by the way, is that it has a massive twist. One of the great film twists, I’d say. But it’s a twist in a film where you probably wouldn’t have been expecting a twist – it’s a ghost story after all. If you were one of the lucky few who watched it before word got out, you could have watched it and been taken aback. If you weren’t one of those few, you watched it looking for the twist, and I think about half the people I know spotted it, and half didn’t (including me, by the way). But for me, I would much have preferred not to have been watching it so clinically, I’d have preferred to have just been surprised. So even saying “it’s got a great twist that you’d never expect” isn’t what I want to hear.

I know this isn’t a universal view. A number of thrillers have been released in recent years where the fact. Take the recent novel I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh – which I haven’t read by the way. The first two quotes on the book are:

“A terrific, compelling read with an astonishing twist that floored me. I loved it and did not want it to end” Peter James

“A hugely assured and gripping debut and a twist that made me green with envy” Mark Billingham

Now, I don’t know the nature of the twist but the implication is that more than just a revelation of whodunit. And if I read the book, I’d be constantly looking for it, rather than fully enjoying the quality of the tale being told. Most interesting, of the sixteen author quotes on Amazon, these are the only two that refer to THE twist – one refers to the “unexpected ending” and a few others refer to “twists” but I presume this means that the notion of the one great twist is what is going to sell the book – the Peter James quote is actually on the front cover in an abridged form. So it seems that the existence of a single great twist is a selling point for a lot of people, hence the prominence by those people who want to sell the book. Understandable.

But looking for that twist is distracting. I recently read Before I Go To Sleep, a much praised thriller recently made into a much less praised film. As I read that, I found myself thinking mostly about what the twist would be – something that really isn’t helped by the casting of the film. But the book is much more than that and I found myself enjoying it less that I might have done. On the other hand, if the twist hadn’t been promoted, would I have even read it in the first place? In this case, yes, as Mrs Puzzle Doctor had read it and told me that I should as well without saying why, just that “it’s your sort of thing”.

So, to get back to my point – is the phrase “It’s got a great twist” a spoiler? It probably depends on the story you’re reading. The Prestige has a great twist but given the film is about magicians – indeed, as explained early on, the “prestige” is the ta-da bit of a grand illusion – you’d expect something. Similarly the other magician film Now You See Me (although “great” might be over-stating it. “Stupid” perhaps?) But The Sixth Sense being a ghost story, you wouldn’t be expecting one if someone hadn’t told you about it.

And what about crime fiction? Dame Agatha’s masterpiece – you know the one that I mean – I had great difficulty reviewing because of this idea. On the face of it, it seems like a perfectly traditional outing for our favourite Belgian but the ending blows you away. Similarly the other main “clever” Poirot (which most people seem to think is rather stupid) – knowing there’s more to it than a normal mystery actually makes this one even more obvious.

But I’m just as guilty of applying double standards here, and for the same reasons as the publishers. Take my recent review of Michael Jecks’ The Tournament Of Blood. Here, you learn the name of the killer in the first chapter and are privy to their thoughts, but there is still more to it – still a mystery to solve – but you only learn this at the end. And the reason that I mentioned this, despite my misgivings, is that I want people to read Michael’s work and I’d seen a couple of comments (on Goodreads, I think) saying things like “Loved the series so far. Started this one. Not a mystery. Threw it away. Never going to read a book again. Where’s my tin-foil hat gone?” In other words, I had exactly the same motives as a publisher who wants someone to read the book that they’ve invested in – I want people to read books by an author that I really enjoy.

The comment that provoked this ramble had similar intent. “You should read The XXXXXX XXXXX – it seems to be an inverted mystery but by the end…” The writer of the comment wanted to encourage me to read the book (although I had already said I was going to). But this annoyed me – still does annoy me in fact – because, as ever, I wanted to be surprised, not necessarily by the surprise but by the fact a surprise existed in the first place.

I’d very much welcome anyone’s thoughts on this matter – do you want to know about a clever twist at the end or not?

Well, I’ve gone on long enough on just my first issue, so I’ll make this a “Part One”. Next time, blurbs and why I try not to read them…

Oh, and by the way, this isn’t a real blog post, you’re dreaming and there’s a clown behind you…

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29 comments

  1. I just read 2 reviews of the book, one by Martin Edwards and the other by Clothes In Books.
    Martin Edwards speaks of “the ingenious plot twist” while Clothes In Books says,”and just when you think you know what’s going on it can pull surprises…. Can’t say more than that. But, a really excellent final 20 pages.”
    It is because of such reviews that I read the book, otherwise I have no interest in an inverted mystery.

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    • On the other hand, Rich’s review at Past Offences – the one that I read – sells the book enough for me to want to read it without mentioning the ending.

      There’s no right or wrong here, by the way, it’s personal preference. I’m just curious to see who, if anyone, shares my point of view. It’s clear that you don’t with regards this book, but what about something that you would have been going to read anyway?

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      • When I intend to read a book, if someone tells me that there is a clever twist or a real surprise at the end, I will become more eager to read the book. I will certainly not be annoyed and will not complain that the book has been spoiled for me !

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      • We’ve established that we have different expectations here – repeating your opinion is not going to change my thoughts on the matter, and I doubt that any argument that I can make is going to change yours. People are allowed to have different opinions on this, there’s no hard and fast rule. But I’d appreciate that when writing on my blog in future, people lean towards my expectations – house rules and all that.

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  2. PD, it’s an interesting point – I always try NOT to reveal spoilers, but I sometimes find it very hard to avoid talking about an author’s twists. I’ll give you an example: Carr’s The Nine Wrong Answers – I think I can say the book is full of twists; after all, if there are nine wrong answers then the story must twist, right? I don’t think I can be more specific. In his biography of Carr, Doug Greene says, “The ultimate solution is a superb job of misdirection.” I think that’s fair enough; would that be too much of a spoiler for you? (And if you haven’t read that one, go out NOW and find it. It’s not one of Doug’s favorites, and Anthony Boucher wasn’t happy with it, but I think it’s still one of the most amazing Carr ever wrote.)

    I think part of the problem is that the books I enjoy most are the ones where I am so thoroughly misdirected that when the author pulls the rug out from under me I am thoroughly amazed. But how do I let the reader know that without at least talking about twists and turns? I don’t have an easy answer, any more than you do.

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    • I think from the way that Carr sets that one out that it falls into the same category as the magic films that I mentioned. Carr comes out and basically says that he’s going to try and play a dirty trick on you from the very start of the book – all that Greene’s comment says is that it works. I love it by the way – the review’s here, although do bear in mind that the comment I make about the ninth answer might be (honestly can’t remember the book that well) a bit spoiler-y but the review was written when I was still starting out reviewing…

      And I totally agree with the best books being the ones that fool me – although those where I feel clever when I spot the killer come close like Death Walks In Eastrepps. I recently reviewed a Terry Pratchett book (after his passing) that always wowed me simply because I had no idea it was even a mystery until the reveal – but it took the great man’s death for me to review it as the very act of it turning up here gives that bit of the game away and if you’re looking… much, much easier to spot what’s going on.

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  3. If you even label a book as a “mystery” then you’re creating an expectation of a surprise ending in which whodunit is revealed. I complained in a previous comment that this expectation causes me to ignore certain “suspects” in a mystery because they’re too obvious, despite the fact that they might be the most likely criminal. I enjoy a good surprise as much as anyone, but I think the demand for it can lead to absurd conclusions. After all, the easiest way to fool you is to have the criminal turn out to be someone who in real life would never have been the guilty party. Either that, or there are simply a large number of suspects and one is pulled out of the hat at the end and declared guilty, with the solution depending on some tiny clue on page 24 that you’ve forgotten by the time you get to page 240. That may be technically fair, but for me there is no surprise factor. So, I think the expectation of a surprise ending is unfortunate, but I don’t suppose anything can be done about it since it’s a selling point. I think Raymond Chandler was exactly right when he said that a good mystery is one that you would read even if the end were missing.

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    • I don’t agree at all with the Chandler quote – what’s the point of a mystery if we don’t find out whodunit?

      And I agree that the “least likely suspect” is a big problem for the genre – even the most celebrated writer of the genre used it again and again. Although for well-read crime buffs, this makes the least likely suspect into the most likely so if it’s not them…

      There are ways round it though. The locked room usually creates a “nobody could have done it” so if you have a clever solution to that bit, then you can have any suspect you like as the killer as everyone is the least likely.

      But there is a difference here between the surprise of who the killer is and the surprise that “things aren’t what they seem”. The differences between what can be spoiled between, say, The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd and Mrs McGinty’s Dead for example. One is a straight (and pretty clever) whodunit and one has that extra something. It’s the existence of such an extra something that I don’t want to know about.

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  4. Personally, Puzzle Doctor, I abhor the mentioning of twists at the end of a book; earlier this year I read a recently-published book which I suspected might have a finishing twist and so I deliberately stayed away from all reviews, press, author interviews, etc. Found myself getting completely swept up in the story and then completely blindsided by a kicker of a twist with a handful of pages to go. There’s nothing quite like being completely kicked in the gut by a development like that as far as I’m concerned, and upon going back to check I found that all the reviews, a lot of the press, all the author interviews mentioned the existence of a huge twist…which would have completely changed the way I read the book (even if it seems that the author themself was hapy for this to be the case…).

    At the other end, I can name at least two books where blurbs or synopses have promised a twist only for it not to materialise…which was really rather irritating, to say the least…so perhaps there’s some leeway in definitions here? Dunno, just a thought. In the work of someone like Jeffery Deaver its unavoidable that you’ll anticipate a twist as that’s his selling point (and that’s been his problem in recent years), but with locked rooms there’s the double-twist of both who and how, which while you’re expecting it still works because the book is predicated on that basis…to be honest, I’ve lost track of the point I’m making here.

    As a happy medium, someone recently recommened me a book by saying it contained lots of twists…that’s different, since there’s no expectation that any of them will necesarily be at the end (though, let’s be honest, that would be a bit weird). “Lots” is a relative term, of course, but I’ll see how that one pans out!

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  5. Thanks, Jim. I think your preferences tie in almost exactly with mine, so it’s nice to know that I’m not alone here. Deaver is an interesting case – I agree that the “it’s not the thing you think it is” idea, once it was established, did handicap some of his books. I do wonder if the book of his that really hooked me would be more obvious now that I understand his style a little better. Now he usually keeps things bouncing backwards and forwards (The Skin Collector and The Kill Room are good examples of this, where you’re not even completely clear about what you’re supposed to think) but there have been recent examples where he’s hung on too long with the clearly obvious fake-out (obvious for his fans, that is) – not sure I should name his most recent example of that, as it’s a spoiler, but I’ve reviewed it here.

    And yes, the easiest way to pull a “surprise” in a straight whodunit is to establish that nobody could have, hence making everyone the least likely suspect. It could involve a locked room or an iron-clad alibi. But the last thing anyone wants is a book described as having a clever solution where, for example, the victim was shot but one of the suspects has no fingers, as everyone will know whodunit just from that…

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  6. I definitely lean towards your view of spoilers. I’d rather not know if there’s a big surprise, astonishing twist (double-twist) or what-have-you waiting for me somewhere in the book. As pointed out, it is difficult not to anticipate some sort of twist when reading a mystery, but it’s nice when an author cooks up something extra good that you’re not expecting.

    And I do my best to provide spoiler-free reviews over on the Block. When I absolutely feel like I need to write something out of my system (usually because I’m disappointed in some way), then I try to use a method of disguise in the font so folks can avoid the spoiler if they want to.

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    • That’s a method that I’ve used once or twice, but I’m wary of the spoiling things for the sort of person whose curiosity might get the better of them (like me!). Glad to know that I’m not alone with my thoughts on spoilers, Bev. Many thanks.

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      • Hmm. I think at that point then it’s really the reader’s problem, not the blogger’s.

        I mean I often get annoyed with myself because I reach for walkthroughs with computer games too soon, when if I just resisted I’d obviously solve the puzzle after about five minutes’ more thought and have the sense of achievement rather than a hollow sense of cheating. But I feel that’s entirely my fault for being unable to resist temptation.

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    • I have to say I’m with richmcd on this (I don’t seem to be able to reply to his comment). If curiosity gets the better of them, then that’s their look-out. I’ve done my best to keep the spoiler from them. That would sortof be like an author not putting the solution there at the end because a reader might sneak a peek before reading the whole thing. If the reader’s gonna peek, then they’re gonna.

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      • I think on the Mesopotamia post, you can infer what I’m talking about without highlighting the text though, which may be a step too far – but on the other hand, I think I’m probably less careful with better-read books, like the popular Poirot novels. Something to consider in the future.

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  7. Very, very interesting post. This is a subject dear to my heart, I like to know as little about a book as possible going into it. Since I read blogs a lot, I know that is unlikely. I had not thought about knowing about the twist in advance and how that can affect the reading. I look forward to Part II.

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  8. Fair enough chum, there is a big difference between how you market a book and how you tell a story – inevitably, in the case of the famous Christie book or SIXTH SENSE, it is impossible not to recommend it on the basis that you will be pleased because it does something unexpected, which we tend to call a twist but which can mean lots of things. After all, the authors wanted to wrongfoot their audiences and if they do it well, then enthusiasts are going to enthuse about it, right? But I agree, later Shyamalan films that had a twist suffered (most notably THE VILLAGE) by people looking for it (on the other hand, UNBREAKABLE has a clever reversal at the end that i do not think people would see coming, no matter how hard they looked). What i think is really good about SIXTH SENSE is that you can enjoy it a second time – if all a story really has going for it is a twist, then i think you have a problem.

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  9. On the subject of spoilers, your frequent disparagements of Roderick Alleyn — sometimes completely gratuitous — spoiled my recent reading of her A Man Lay DeadI actually liked the book a lot — it’s a great romp even if the solution’s a bit implausible (but then John Dickson Carr) — but at the same time I found myself in a sort of defensive mode throughout, rather than just relaxing and enjoying the fun.

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    • OK, I can’t take any blame for having a go at Alleyn. In fact, I actually think I’m a bit softer on Marsh’s books than others – I like the bits before the murder happens, usually – and I’ve never read A Man Lay Dead. There has to be a cut off somewhere and taking a pop at a disliked character is fair game in my book…

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      • But John, you are the king of spolers on your blog

        Yes, but the purpose of the posts on Noirish is more encyclopedic than reviewing; that’s why I don’t call it a blog, and that’s why there’s a big warning about spoilers in the sidebar.

        Personally I don’t mind spoilers of the kind to which the Puzzle Doctor so strongly objects. Obviously, when reading a mystery I don’t particularly want to know in advance whodunnit (although, if you think about it, if you ever reread a mystery, you in effect are doing so despite your own spoilers!), but lots of the other stuff is interesting to know about in advance and, for me, if anything enhances the reading experience.

        Example: I recently noted a newly published book on Goodreads and, having done so, out of interest looked at what others had to say. One guy said he’d given up early on because “the murder” was done and solved in the first chapter and all the rest seemed to be about the interactions of the characters. I left a comment for him that there was another murder about halfway through and that it was the solving of this second murder that represented the “mystery” aspect of the book. Was that a spoiler? By the Puzzle Doc’s definition, yes. But the Goodreads guy didn’t think so: he was grateful for the tip and off to rescue the book before it went to the knacker’s yard.

        But the sniping at Alleyn does get to me. You have a problem with the character; I don’t. And note how I generally keep quiet when others are lauding Christie to the skies . . .

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      • I can’t speak for the good doctor, but I think you’ll have to get used to Alleyn getting it in the neck over at Fedora, though i will try again – but my god the last Marsh i read was just unbelievably awful. 🙂 The definition of a spoiler has to very from title to title – I have no interested in runing anybody’s experience (though they really, really should stay away from Ngaio Marsh’s FALSE SCENT – which is by any sane standards complete rubbishl and only comes half way through the Alleyn run … And yes, not becessarily the world’s biggest Christie fan (planning to embark on POSTERN OF FATE next month – I’m shuddering at the thought already).

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      • I wouldn;t want to upset John too much – he’s related to that well-known Northern headbager Paul Barnett plus he is liable to drop all of his 70+ books on our heads! 😉

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      • John, I’m sorry that you take the sniping at Alleyn personally but he is such an easy target and the best known sleuth that I dislike. Not sure many people would get the reference if I referred to someone being as boring as Inspector Wilkins, for example. But I’ll try and rein it in a bit.

        And as for that version of the spoiler, as I said in the first post, publishers will say all sorts of things that I would generally count as spoilers in order to encourage people to read good books. I’ve done it myself…

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