This (spoiler-free!) conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Amy Andrews, Online managing editor: To get started, see let’s go around and talk about what you think constitutes a spoiler or what your personal definition of a spoiler is.
Abby Muller, Arts and Culture managing editor: I generally think of spoilers as concrete details about where a story is going. Things about the emotional cadence of something, unless they’re about big things that you don’t know are going to happen, I don’t mind, because I don’t generally watch or consume a ton of media. So I tend to be choosier about what I’m going to spend my time with. So if I know I don’t like things that are going to terrify me, and I know that something has that going in, I’m less likely to prioritize it.
Ryan Walsh, staff writer: I think spoilers are wrapped up a lot in shock, and people really prioritize being shocked and having emotional responses to things. That’s why I think people enjoy media a lot for the plot twists and things that are revealed, and people are always chasing that first high. There’s a limited amount of experiences you can have, and so people try to preserve those. I guess that’s more like why people want to avoid spoilers but in general what a spoiler for me would probably be, I think it’s mainly related to revelation. There are probably things you can expect would happen anyway, but anything that’s out of the ordinary or that diverges from the general storyline, that you would want to save for yourself so you can preserve some shock that you’d like to feel, that’s what a spoiler means to me.
Liz Studlick, Arts and Culture editor: For me, it’s anything plot-critical in a work where the plot is kind of the point. At this point, spoilers are much less important to me because in the things that I’m gravitating towards, the plot isn’t really the point of what I’m reading or watching, it’s more like the experience of getting there. But there are definitely things like “Game of Thrones” where almost every plot detail is a spoiler just because it’s so based on those twists and turns. So absolutely something that has that kind of shock value. But I think in some kind of emotional sense, spoilers are whatever has power over you to “spoil” work. For some people, hearing what other people consider spoilers would not even really matter that much to them. A spoiler is whatever power you give it.
AA: I am probably a little bit more extreme in terms of what I think a spoiler is, so what Abby was saying about any details about a story, I don’t want to know. But one thing I often recognize as a spoiler that I think a lot of people don’t think are spoilers is hearing someone else’s emotional reaction to something. So if my friend is like, “You should read this book. It was so sad, I cried so much,” that primes me before I even know anything about the book going into it that I am expecting to cry, expecting to have this reaction, and that makes me read the whole thing totally differently. Sometimes people can tell me how they feel about things, but usually if it’s a piece of media that I haven’t consumed, I don’t want to know anything about it for the longest possible amount of time.
RW: Someone did that exact same thing to me when I first picked up Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go,” and they’re like, “Oh my god, that book is so depressing, my mom cried after she read the end of that on an airplane,” and I was like, “Okay.” There are definitely not-so-happy elements of that story, but I just went into it waiting for a moment that didn’t actually happen to me and then felt as if I had missed something. But why does expectation of something ruin your experience? Why do people want to go into something blind? If the goal is to feel a certain way or feel an organic way or a certain way that is particular to you—is it just trying to chase something that’s completely original? And then if it’s in any way revealed by someone else, it’s not exactly like you 100 percent reading, you’re also getting someone else’s view. And I wonder why that’s viewed as so bad.
AA: When the sixth Harry Potter book came out—we always got one copy of the book, my brother’s older, he always got to read it first. He read the book, gave it to me, and didn’t give me any impression of how he felt about it, and then he went into the other room to talk to my parents about the book, and I heard him start crying, and I was like, “Oh, shoot, something’s about to go down.” The whole rest of the book, it was waiting there. Sometimes when someone has that really strong emotional reaction and then you don’t have that emotional reaction, you’re like, “What am I missing? What didn’t I get what that person had?” And it feels like their emotional reaction took something from your emotional reaction.
Do you think spoilers vary based on the medium? Is there a difference between spoilers for books, spoilers for TV shows, movies, musicals?
LS: Spoilers seem almost essential to a TV-type medium—they’re contingent on a series or on having a plot. With movies, plot is relatively predictable. Versus TV shows—episodes have internal structure but the overall structure falls apart compared to other mediums where it’s more clearly laid out, so you can have things like “Game of Thrones” where any episode can be crazy emotional highs or lows.
AA: I have this theory of the spoiler spectrum where people either seek out spoilers or do everything in their power to avoid them. Where do you think you fall?
LS: I am more interested in not having my time wasted. Before I start a book, usually someone’s recommended it to me, so I’ll ask them, “What’s it about? Did you like it? Why?” and sometimes that verges on spoilers, but a lot of times I’ll read Wikipedia or read a book review of it. I don’t start a lot of new TV shows. I watch movies but I don’t feel like spoilers for movies are as salient. The only really salient spoilers for me are TV shows, in which case I try not to spoil myself. I accidentally did that for “Game of Thrones” a lot. “Twin Peaks,” on the other hand, doesn’t really have spoilers. It’s a detective, neo-noir soap opera, and half of it is like this supernatural thriller trying to solve this girl’s murder, and then half of it is the town’s soap opera. And David Lynch has said in interviews, “Yeah, I care about the plot, but it’s not really what we’re trying to do here.” He’s going for all these drama highs, but it doesn’t really matter overall to what the show’s trying to do. Maybe I would have been upset if people told me what happened in the later seasons, but you’re watching it more for the visual spectacle and the weird moments that are happening.
RW: On the topic of spoilers that aren’t plot related—I don’t want to spoil “Brave New World,” but there are just little elements that if you don’t pick up on it the first time and then someone points it out to you, it’d be like, “Oh.” Like how people have different rankings in society: alpha, beta, gamma, delta. I never picked up on my first reading, but then my teacher revealed the first day of class that we were reading it, and she was like, “Did you notice that all alphas are men and all betas are female?” It’s not exactly a plot element, because it’s never actually stated. But just revealing details or underlying themes or—I don’t really know what to call it, just the structure of things—I think some people like to pride themselves on being able to figure it out for themselves. And then if someone was to tell you that before you read it, then you wouldn’t have the experience of being able to be proud of figuring it out on your own.
AM: I have an example for this as well, which is this book I really really like that I read over the summer, it’s called “Uprooted.” There’s one character in the mythology of the story who’s referenced repeatedly. About halfway through the book I realized there was a connection between that character and someone from real-world history or mythology, someone I had heard of outside of the world of the book. Which is definitely a revelation that you’re supposed to have, but there’s no specific moment that prompts it. I got a friend to read that really recently, and I really, really wanted to know what her reaction to that was going to be. It’s not a character development revelation, it’s not a plot revelation, it’s just a really cool moment that I didn’t want to deprive my friend of by mentioning it ahead of time.
AA: How do you feel about spoilers for things that you’ll never consume, like media that doesn’t appeal to you that much, or if your friends are really into something and you’re like, that’s not for me at all, or something that’s really big in the moment, and again—it’s mostly things that don’t appeal to you, or you don’t have time, or you’re talking about, don’t want to waste your time with things—in that case do you think you’re more willing to either seek out spoilers, or just kind of let them wash over you?
RW: I think some people have this experience, they’ve taken literature courses where the professor is like—
AA: Oh my god.
RW: They’ll just like, casually say a detail, and then—
AA: I hate that.
RW: You’re like, what, and they’re like, oh yeah sorry, I didn’t mean to spoil it. But then it’s a different context if it’s in an academic context. The official goal of what you’re doing is to be able to write about something in an academic way and not, you know, be able to—I mean, you should be able to have both, in an ideal scenario, you should be able to emotionally enjoy a piece of literature and then also be able to engage critically with it. But you know, a professor will be like, oh yeah, they die.
AM: I was thinking about that in class today—we’re reading “Beloved” in an English class I’m taking. I’ve been reading ahead, so in discussion today, we were supposed to discuss to page 130, and I was on page 190, and, I wanted to talk about these things that I literally couldn’t remember if they happen past where we were supposed to be discussing. I don’t know if it counts as a spoiler because I can’t remember what has been revealed. I also don’t want to make a point based on something that no one else has gotten to yet or will have a response to, because that’s just a waste of everyone’s time.
RW: You also hold this power though, over other people. Because you have the ability to make a really shocking or insightful claim that other people have no ability to… make some claim, because they don’t know that information yet.
AM: That’s true. When I was like 14, my sister and my three cousins and I were on a family trip together over the summer. Everyone had finished Harry Potter except my youngest cousin who was nine or 10, because his mom was still reading him the books. We were told explicitly by our parents that we weren’t allowed to spoil him for the ending. So we took turns coming up with endings for Harry Potter which we told him were real, and trying to see how long we could have him sold on them for. The one we thought was funniest was that at the end Mrs. Weasley stabs Voldemort with a butter knife and that’s how he dies.
RW: I love fake spoilers. I told my friend going into the first Hunger Games movie—it was a bunch of us and him and he’d never read the book and we were like, yeah, you know, Jennifer Lawrence’s character, she just straight up dies five minutes in. And he was like, what? That doesn’t make any sense. There are two other movies. And we were like, that’s how it works.
LS: That’s something I want to happen, I am so into stories that completely subvert—I mean obviously then the power of the spoiler is so huge there, but I always want work that does that kind of thing.
AM: When I was younger, I would check a ton of books out from the library and just read all of them, and I also reread my favorites all the time. And if I was reading one, and had more in the stack to get to and just wasn’t liking it that much—you’re going to hate this.
AA: I am. I can already tell. I’m going to hate whatever you’re about to say.
AM: I haven’t done this since I was like 10. I would open the book to like a random part later in the book and read a couple pages to see if it got better.
AM: And if I was like, eh, I like where this is going—
RW: I have a friend who reads the last page of a book right when she buys it.
AA: That makes my skin crawl.
AM: —I wouldn’t do the last page. I would do later in the book. I didn’t want to know how it ended, just where it was going.
AA: Sometimes when I read books I put my hand over the right page so I can’t accidentally look at it before I get there.
RW: Oh, so you don’t catch like three words at the end of a paragraph.
AA: Yeah. Because I’ve done that. Especially if it’s like the last page of a chapter. And you’re like, oh, blah blah blah died, and I’m like, well, I don’t want to know that yet! I have to read three more paragraphs!
RW: Sometimes you see that one line of dialogue—it’s interesting how typography draws your eye to things and can spoil something. You can literally spoil something for yourself just because you’re optically attracted to something.
AA: My eyes move too fast. They got ahead of me and I can’t—I mean, I guess I can control my eyes, but sometimes they betray me! So I have to use my hand to help me out there.
Let’s quickly touch on a couple other things. This is a fairly common spoiler question, there are these kinds of people and these kinds of people. Do you believe in reading the book before you watch the movie?
RW: I think generally people feel that way, but I’m super pleased with the fact that I saw “Gone Girl” before I read it. A lot of people feel that way because they think the movie is more shocking than the book. It speeds up the pace, it makes it more suspenseful. I don’t think I have a definitive answer, but in that isolated case, I do appreciate the fact that I watched the movie before I read the book.
LS: I think there’s some way in which books are usually better than movies, in terms of they have more detail and they can have a lot more power in some ways or just go into things better, but I really don’t like reading the book before I see the movie for that reason. The movie’s just not gonna live up to that.
AM: I’ll read the book first if I can, like if I’ve seen a trailer and I have time and I’m anticipating going to see the movie, I will read the book first. But I don’t not see a movie just because I haven’t read the book yet. Like if I’m planning on reading the book, then I’ll try to delay seeing the movie. But if someone’s like “Hey, let’s go see this thing,” I’m not gonna not see it.
RW: Also, thinking about it, spoilers must also differ with gender. It’d be probably much harder to spoil Laura Ingalls Wilder for me than it would be for, you know, a 10-year-old girl. That’s really pushed hard in schools and by your peers. Also, the expectation in middle school where if you would see a boy holding the Twilight series, it was considered embarrassing. So it’d be much easier to avoid spoilers for “Twilight” if you were male than if you were female.
AA: There’s an episode of—I don’t know if you guys watch “Friends”—there’s an episode of “Friends” where Joey and Rachel are each reading books and they trade them, so Joey reads “Little Women” and Rachel reads “The Shining,” and then they get mad at each other because Joey is like, not purposefully, but really obnoxiously spoiling “The Shining” for Rachel, and then she comes back at him with like, the biggest big-spoiler thing that happens in “Little Women,” I don’t know if you guys have all read—anyway, there’s a thing that happens.
AM: Mrs. Weasley kills Voldemort.
AA: Yeah! With a butter knife. Yeah, so she just like comes back at him with this thing and he’s so devastated because he, in his extremely macho life, has never heard this spoiler, never would have heard it, and he’s just so devastated that she has to tell him that she made it up. Even though it’s real, and he’s gonna find out when he gets to that part in the book that it actually was a real spoiler. But I do think that gender thing is a really interesting question, because there definitely is different media being coded for different groups of people, and then, the people who talk about certain kinds of media, and who you follow on different media, that’s a really interesting point that I hadn’t thought about.
Do you think there’s a statue of limitations on spoilers?
AM: I think it depends more on popularity of the media than on time, like if it’s something almost no one has read, no one is gonna spoil you for it. But like, with Harry Potter, I feel like people pretty universally feel like we’re past the statute of limitations. Almost everyone has read Harry Potter and if you haven’t yet—
LS: —then you’re a child.
AM: —why not? Harry Potter is something that was so omnipresent that I feel like the statute of limitations like, collapsed, whereas we’re sitting here avoiding spoiling Little Women, even though that’s something that came out a long time ago, because it has an enduring popularity but not the same kind of overwhelming popularity. Same thing with “Star Wars.” People started spoiling that a couple weeks in.
LS: The classic line is literally like the biggest spoiler of—
RW: And you hear toddlers saying that phrase into a fan so they can sound like Darth Vader, and it’s like, you already know the spoiler without even knowing that it’s a spoiler. Some things get ingrained into culture—that was the biggest spoiler of the ‘80s. And now even if you say, like, how everyone used to say “you ruined ‘Star Wars’” because everyone has been taught that since they were a baby.
AM: But that line with “Star Wars” but then also the new “Star Wars” movie is more of the Harry Potter kind of thing where, because it was so waited for for so long, everything was silent about it for about a week, and then the longer you went after that, the more and more you would see. And then after about a month, which is more or less the point at which I saw it because I had never seen IV, V or VI and had to go back and watch them before I watched the new one, the floodgates kind of had opened at that point, because everyone seemed to feel like everyone who wants to see this movie unspoiled will already have seen the movie.
RW: I was super shocked for “Star Wars.” I was somehow like not interested in it and then just like on a whim decided to see it and then I was like, the suspense of like going back and forth, and then I was like, this can’t happen. And then it does, and I’m like, what!
AA: Yeah. I saw the new “Star Wars” maybe a week or 10 days after it came out, and I was really impressed that I had managed not to see anything about it on the internet and the whole time I was just sitting there like, oh my god, I didn’t know anything about it going in, I didn’t even watch the trailer. And it is interesting how the whole world culturally decides okay, after like, two weeks. It’s time for everyone to write their thinkpieces. I mean there are thinkpieces before that, but it’s time for everyone to kind of be like, okay, this is part of the culture now.
AA: Let’s go around one more time and talk about your worst spoiler ever, or a spoiler that was really memorable, or a time that you spoiled someone else.
RW: I was reading the John Green book “Looking For Alaska,” then my friend, we’re all watching “Downton Abbey” but he’s a little bit behind. And my friend and I get into a petty dispute over something. We were both mad at each other. So he decides to just be like, you know what, [drastic “Looking for Alaska” spoiler], and I was like a chapter in. So I was like, you know what, [extremely drastic “Downton Abbey” spoiler]. And he was like, What??
LS: I have kind of a ridiculous version of Abby’s “Beloved” scenario. I took this class last semester and like half the people were in it because they wanted to read “Infinite Jest.” We have two weeks with it and it’s like a 1000-page-long book. And three of us in the class have read it before, and so the discussions we had about it were completely insane because it’s just like, six people who had only read the first 50 pages or 100 pages being like, oh yeah, I think this is a big theme, and we were like, oh … there’s like a big theme that happens later… And then one guy, for no reason at all, was like, it’s obvious this happens in the first 100 pages because this thing happens later and immediately everyone was just pissed. Like, I can’t believe you ruined that. And I mean, it’s like a 1000-page novel, does plot even really matter at that point? I’m pro-academic-spoiler. It was just the strangest possible scenario.
AA: Um, I don’t have a story. I mean I’m sure I do because I hate spoilers so people spoil stuff for me by accident all the time. But now I can’t think of one.
AM: The other day I said there were turtles in “Beloved” and you got mad at me.
AA: Oh that’s true, you did tell me there were turtles.
RW: There is a pet turtle, right?
AM: That’s all I said, I said there are turtles.
AA: Wait, are there really turtles?
AM: I’m not telling you!
I don’t have a time where I got spoiled really badly, because for most of the TV I was watching senior year of high school through sophomore year of college I had been preemptively spoiled because it was all stuff that was popular with my friends and on the internet. I had been moving away from seeking out spoilers, but I was kind of okay with them, and the moment when I really became kind of much more spoiler-averse was watching season 6 of “Doctor Who” freshman year of college. It’s written by Steven Moffat so it’s literally just plot twist after plot twist and I had been spoiled for all of them, I thought. Except one. So I was like, I know where this season is going, I’ve never seen it but I know all of these things, and then this one thing happened and I was bowled over. I think I might’ve fallen off the bed that I was sitting on. I was like, okay, that was really great watching unspoiled for that one thing. That’s the point at which I definitively crossed the center of the spoiler spectrum.