Spoilers: A User’s Manual

Jeff O'Neal

CEO and co-founder

Jeff O'Neal is the executive editor of Book Riot and Panels. He also co-hosts The Book Riot Podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @thejeffoneal.

Jeff O'Neal

CEO and co-founder

Jeff O'Neal is the executive editor of Book Riot and Panels. He also co-hosts The Book Riot Podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @thejeffoneal.

One of the hindrances of social reading is the fact that not all readers have read the same books. If I want to write a post about, review of, tweet about, or otherwise engage a group of people online about, say, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, I have to tread lightly about giving away plot details, even though there is a really good chance that I need to reference those details to say what I want to say about it (even here I can’t really say what I want to say about what I want to say for fear of “spoiling” the novel).

But there are also some instances in which you can discuss the details of a movie, play, book, or TV show and not cause “narrative injury.”  We have free reign to reference Hamlet’s death or Gandalf’s resurrection, but why can’t I still assume in a group of reasonably educated people that everyone is cool if I make a “Fredo, you broke my heart” reference? And is that my problem, or theirs?

As Yoda says, confusion leads to fear, and fear leads to suffering, and suffering leads to watching Star Wars prequels, so we need a common set of guidelines to sort this business out.


To begin, there are two competing directives at the heart of the difficulty about spoilers:

The Right to Surprise

The inherent right of any viewer or reader to experience the pleasure of not knowing what’s

going to happen next.

The Right to Debate

The inherent right of any viewer or reader to engage in public discourse about the content of a
given work of narrative art.

The below schema is an attempt to navigate these two principles fairly.


Part I: When Spoiling is Fair Game

In the following circumstances, one can discuss crucial plot details and reveal endings with a clear conscience.

Group A: Canonical Works

Works that have, to borrow from Jonathan Lethem on intellectual property, “infiltrated the common mind to the extent of Gone with the Wind or Lolita or Ulysses.” These are part and parcel of our cultural knowledge and to pre-empt a reference, discussion, or squabble because someone hasn’t yet read/seen/heard a given work hamstrings public discussion of narrative art.

Group B: Network Television more than a week old

If I want to discuss last week’s episode of Forensic Scientists and the Cops Who Love Them, then I need to be able to do that before too much more of the television river has flowed on. And yet, we must give folks some leeway to DVR. Given the short shelf-life of television programming and the readily available means of storing and accessing programs, a week’s moratorium on spoilers for television shows gives interested parties more than enough time to catch-up.

Group C: Premium Cable Series That Have Been Available on Netflix In Their Entirety for More Than One Year.

Premium cable is a bright line of demarcation between the knowers and the not-knowers. The time between seasons coupled with delayed DVD releases make this a real pain point. Unfortunately, this means you won’t be able to discuss the first season of GAME OF THRONES for about 87213 years, but you gotta protect the innocent. Actually, at this very moment, the novel Game of Thrones is fair game as it falls under Group F. Any deviations from the novel, however, are embargoed until the conditions for the series have been met (dear lord, I am enjoying this way too much).

Group D: Movies that have been on DVD for more than 1 year

If you really cared that much about what happens, you would have seen it by now.

Group E: Adaptations and Re-Makes

Assessing the fidelity and experimentation of remakes and adaptations is the signal pleasure of discussing them. If you didn’t care enough about the book or the 1941 version starring Mickey Rooney to make a point to see it, you’ve forfeited your right to surprise.

Group F: Novels More Than 10 Years Old

See the rationale for Group D.


Part II: Exceptions to Part I

Exception A: The Age of Consent

This exception relates to Group A,E, and F. For these categories, spoilers are only permitted if the spoilee, the party who has no experience with a  given work, is over the age of 25. This exception acknowledges that a certain latitude must be given to those who haven’t had sufficient opportunity to be exposed to even canonical works. In these cases, the spoiler must ask permission before spoiling the given work. If no permission is given and the spoiler still discloses key elements of the work, then the spoilee is given license to call said party a mild expletive.

Exception B: The Sixth Sense Protocol

This exception acknowledges that certain plot elements so rely on surprise that the Right of Surprise must be maintained at all costs, even The Right of Debate. In such cases, the potential spoiler is enjoined to use veiled references to the plot element that will not reveal the nature of the plot element, but that will also be readily understood by those who have prior knowledge of said plot element. For example, if I were to discuss the final scenes of The Sixth Sense, I would refer to it as “the twist at the end of The Sixth Sense.” This is a rare exception and must only be invoked in cases where the work’s central value is contingent upon preserving the surprise, as in The Sixth Sense. Note: this exception does not apply to Group A. Also, Vader is Luke’s father.

Exception C: Subsequent Works

Generally, sequels will appear well into the ethical spoiling window, but in cases where they are released earlier, then spoiling the original work becomes ethical on the day of the sequel’s initial release. For example, the day The Return of the King opened in theaters, one would have been morally sanctioned to discuss plot elements of The Two Towers.

Exception E: The Historical Record

You cannot spoil history, so a work of art that depends upon historical events is therefore incapable of being spoiled. Caesar dies. Jesus is killed. Rudy gets to play in the last game. That’s the way it was, so this is the way it is.


So, how’d we do? What did we miss? What should be changed?