Spoiling suspense


Although I won’t be present at my SCMS panel for reasons discussed yesterday, my paper will be. So I wanted to take a moment to discuss and expand (at length!) upon an element of the paper that Jonathan Gray & I co-authored – perhaps anyone who sees the presentation might offer some comments here.

The presentation is based on a long essay Jonathan & I wrote called “Speculation on Spoilers: Lost Fandom, Narrative Consumption, and Rethinking Textuality,” which is now out in Particip@tions: Journal of Audience & Reception Studies [updated]. We were motivated by a basic question: why would fans of Lost, a show whose pleasures seem wrapped up in mystery, suspense, and surprise, actively seek out spoilers that reveal upcoming story points and seemingly eliminate the chief narrative pleasures of the show? We did an online survey of over 200 Lost fans, and worked through a range of hypotheses as to what’s going on with this particular practice of narrative consumption, combining empirical reception research with various narratological and cultural theories. I won’t “spoil” all of our findings and analysis here, but I wanted to talk about one specific issue – the role of suspense – in response to David Bordwell’s recent mini-essay on film suspense.

First off, one of the clear findings of our survey of Lost spoiler fans was that they enjoy suspense and still seem to experience it while watching the show, even if they know the narrative outcome of an episode–90% of respondents mentioned suspense as one of the pleasures they took from the show, and one-quarter of them marked it as their primary reason for watching the show. Bordwell (one of my grad school mentors who taught me most of what I know about narrative) poses a question speaking directly to this issue: why do we feel suspense from a film we’ve already seen, or from a film whose narrative resolution is already known (like United 93)? His answer tours through some theories of emotion & cognition, but boils down to this: suspense as an emotional response is somewhat impervious to memory, functioning involuntarily at a more base level of mental processing and thus can be experienced even when we know the outcome of events. I generally agree with his account, but I want to separate the experiences Bordwell discusses of re-watching a film (his example is Notorious) from seeing a known story being told for the first time (as in historical films like United 93) – and reconsider how suspense works in watching an unknown narrative as well – and hope that these distinctions help us understand the spoiler phenomenon more fully.

So here are three scenarios for consuming a suspenseful narrative moment, which I’ll illustrate with the climax of the first season finale of Veronica Mars, “Leave it to Beaver.” Veronica has solved the season-long mystery of who killed her best friend Lily (and I won’t identify the person here in case you haven’t seen this brilliant show & choose to watch it unspoiled!), but has been trapped in an outdoor chest freezer by the murderer who is threatening to kill her (by a spreading fire) if she doesn’t hand over evidence. Will her father Keith come to her rescue before she is burned alive? Will the killer be captured or escape?

Viewer A comes to the episode unspoiled, with no insider knowledge of what happens next – the “ideal viewer” for a suspenseful tale. Theories of suspense are predicated on uncertainty, as ideal viewers experience a story which proceeds down an unknown path. But how uncertain are story events in most films or television shows? Genres have established storytelling norms that are rarely broken–in a slasher film we know early on which characters are likely to be killed and who will be the “last girl” standing; in a mystery we come to expect seemingly “unexpected” revelations and twists. Television series have industrial norms that impact narratives, making it highly unlikely that the lead character will be killed or seriously hurt, especially when the show is named after her! Individual series establish their own intrinsic norms for plotting that guide viewer expectations–just last night, I watched the most recent Veronica Mars episode and commented that the person arrested at the beginning of the episode couldn’t be guilty because “that’s not how it works on this show.”

Thus within the storyworld, the odds are stacked against Veronica’s survival, which leads to suspense according to Noel Carroll and other theorists. But viewers know that they are watching televised fiction, not experiencing the storyworld directly. Experienced viewers realize that the storytelling odds are actually reversed: Veronica’s escape from peril is all but assured, making the dreaded outcome (Veronica’s death) highly unlikely. The typical “ideal reader,” especially for an ongoing serial demanding dedicated viewing, does not approach a new episode naively nor treat the fictional world as if it were real, but watches with a set of expectations that guide the likely outcome of events as they typically play out on television. Bordwell’s cognitive theories of narrative comprehension point to how viewers use learned shorthand schemata to process story material and anticipate probable outcomes. Even if Viewer A has not been spoiled as to what happens in this episode, I’d argue that their level of narrative uncertainty about Veronica’s safety and ability to catch the criminal is minimal – we feel quite confident that our heroine will ultimately survive and justice will be served. We just don’t know exactly how it will play out. Yet Viewer A still feels suspense, even knowing that the most likely outcome is a “positive” resolution. Why? Let’s ask the spoiler fans…

Viewer B comes to the episode spoiled, knowing that Veronica survives and that the killer is captured – this is comparable to the United 93 viewer who knows that the flight will be hijacked, the passengers will revolt, and the plane will crash. Perhaps Viewer B sought this information out online before the episode aired, perhaps they’re watching Season 1 on DVD after seeing Season 2, or perhaps they accidentally stumbled upon spoilers (these are important distinctions for how spoiler culture works, but don’t seem to matter for understanding suspense). Viewer B approaches the episode with far less uncertainty than Viewer A, as any surprises from unexpected twists (like the specific identity of the killer) are gone. But in Veronica’s moment of peril, Viewer B’s expectations are not drastically different from Viewer A’s – Veronica will survive, but exactly how the events of her escape will unfold are uncertain.

This is completely consistent with the comments of our Lost spoiler fans – they know what will happen, but still enjoy watching how the story is told, experiencing suspense along the way. To quote from our essay:

By reading spoilers, it may seem that both suspense and surprise are eliminated, but suspense is complex. While surprise is seemingly impossible when the revelation is already known, suspense can still occur—Seymour Chatman quotes Alfred Hitchcock to argue that suspense derives less from mysterious secrets than the tension in how events will play out. Hitchcock suggests that suspense generates from the audience’s inability to reveal crucial information to empathetic characters, and offers what might be a mantra for spoiler fans: “For that reason I believe in giving the audience all the facts as early as possible” (quoted in Chatman, Story & Discourse, 1978: 60).

According to Hitchcock, suspense comes from being unable to intervene in the storyworld, a position that all viewers share regardless of their spoiled status. But there is another level as well here, as Hitchcock’s expertise was in how he revealed his story points, not the “facts” themselves – it seems that the elements that trigger suspense are found less in a narrative’s story, the series of events within the fictional world, but more in its telling (or what narratologists often call discourse), the expressive cues that elicit emotional reactions (such as music, camera angles, facial expressions, etc.). This is why a potentially suspenseful series of events can be narrated in a way that undermines suspense (as in most chase cartoons), and a seemingly non-suspenseful set of events can be told to create suspense (the red herring moments of many horror films) – such emotional reactions stem more from how a story is told, rather than what actually happens in the story. Both Viewer A and B experience the narrative discourse for the first time, even if Viewer B has confidence in what events will occur. Thus both spoiled and unspoiled viewers share the same uncertainty in how the events will be narrated and what cues will be presented, experiencing suspense from these cues in mostly similar ways.

And then there’s Viewer C, who not only knows what will happen in a story, they’ve experienced the exact same telling before – they’re rewatching the film or show. Bordwell treats Viewer C the same as the spoiled Viewer B, as both share story knowledge over Viewer A. But I’d argue that Viewers A & B are more similar in their common experiences of experiencing the narrative discourse for the first time, while Viewer C already knows both story and discourse. Does Viewer C experience suspense? Yes – here’s where Bordwell’s argument about the “low-level processing” of narrative cues matters most, as even though C has already seen the shots and heard the music, they still get the emotional rush each time. And although I’m moving onto thin ice concerning my understanding of theories of cognition, it seems plausible that cues like music and visual framing might be even less effectively “remembered” than story events, and thus even sequences that a viewer has seen multiple times can trigger emotional responses as if they are new – we remember what happened in a scene, but can’t quite reconstruct how it was conveyed until we rewatch and re-experience it.

But I would add one more thing to this model – if the pleasures of suspense are in the telling more than the story, then viewers B and C use their story knowledge to focus attention on the discourse, absorbing and enjoying how the story is told and the subsequent emotions that the telling stimulates. Again, our survey bears this out – many spoiler fans claimed that by knowing what was going to happen, they could actually appreciate episodes of Lost more fully! Fans wrote that they used their foreknowledge of story events to focus on textual details, subtleties of performance, foreshadowing and clues, and stylistic flourishes. Thus by knowing the story ahead of time, spoiler fans approach a “new” episode more like academic critics, simultaneously experiencing and analyzing a text. I’ve discussed this practice in the context of the broader trend of narratively complex television, arguing that such programs stimulate an “operational aesthetic” that combines the act of reading and rereading simultaneously. As Jonathan and I write in our essay, “If typical fan consumption practices for programs like Lost straddle the experiences of first and subsequent viewings, then spoiler fans are taking this process one step further, increasing their expertise to more fully embrace the logic of rereading, and, as one respondent noted, ‘allow[ing] for a deeper analysis while you are viewing it.’”

Ultimately, it seems that the emotional responses to suspense are not only impervious to memories in the act of rewatching (or watching a spoiled story), but also stand up to the process of self-analysis – you can watch the storytelling gears at work, be fully aware of how the cues are designed to stimulate your emotions, and still find yourself tensing up in fear and anticipation as Veronica desperately cries for help. Some pleasures simply cannot be spoiled.

5 Responses to “Spoiling suspense”

  1. 1 Chad Harriss


    This is an interesting study. In many respects, your findings parallel some of my own efforts to understand and recognize the formulaic structures of TV narrative. In short, I might add that whether viewers actively seek spoilers or not they usually know how a story will end. This is because viewers are conditioned by the quantity and similarity of narratives that they consume. This is one of the advantages to the Proppian first step to genre analysis that I’ve argued for in some of our past discussions.

    In short, Propp’s approach illustrates that there is an underlying, consistent “generic” structure. Whether we realize it or not, I believe that this consistency provides shortcuts to our understandings of certain types of stories and essentially provides a map to the resolution. Does this mean that we cannot be surprised or a narrative cannot break convention? Of course not, but there are more predictable endings than not–even in complex narratives. Take for example, the recent eps of Grey’s Anatomy where we are left wondering will Meredith live or die. The show is called “Grey’s” Anatomy so the outcome is predetermined’ I don’t need a web spoiler to figure this one out on my own. Now, was I still involved in the suspense of the situation? The answer to this is also of course; it’s why I watch the show. So when you say that pleasures are in the telling more than the story, you are absolutely correct. However, we still need to recognize how the parts of the machine are interconnected before we can truly appreciate the operation of the gears.

    In other words, I think your conclusions are entirely correct, but I’m not sure that the presence of the Internet world and the availability of spoilers has changed too much in the underlying modes of viewership. In the end, TV programs still rely on conventional structures–even if they presented in more complex and challenging ways.

  2. 2 Susan

    Sorry to hear about your appendicitis. Hope you’re feeling better.

    I wanted to comment on your essay about spoilers. I agree with your conclusions (found them really interesting, actually), but wanted to add some observations.

    First, fans can be capricious about whether they seek out spoilers. Some people want spoilers for every show they watch, others only for selected ones. Some fans vow that “this season” they will be unspoiled; others comment that they were “glad” they were not spoiled for a particular episode. So obviously there is a still some value in remaining spoiler free, even for fans who like spoilers. I’m not sure how fans make this decision – why do they seek out the spoilers for Lost and not for Heroes, even though they are fans of both?

    I am most familiar with the spoilers for Survivor — I am almost always aware of who the losing contestant is before I watch an episode. But I rarely seek out the spoilers for other shows. One reason is time. But I’ve discovered that I watch Survivor differently than I do other shows. Just as you conclude, I watch Survivor looking at how the editing is done, the narration, etc., to see how the narrative thread confirms the final vote. I’m also lazy. Being in suspense can be mentally draining, and I’ve decided I don’t want to invest that much mental energy into Survivor. There are times when I’ve peeked at spoilers for other shows, and usually it’s because my interest in resolving a plot point supersedes my desire to be surprised.

    There’s a wonderful thread in survivorblows.com that analyzes all the foreshadowing, clues, images, etc. to try to figure out who the winner is based on editing and storytelling. It’s amazing how accurate some viewers can be, guessing the winner based on the first couple of episodes. For these viewers, they are analyzing this show the way an English major parses a novel. And they view Survivor as a narrative, not as a reality game show.

    Speaking of books, there are people who read the last few pages before they start the book, or halfway through – they know the ending as they are reading. Same as spoilers, I suppose.

    (One of my Star Wars friends was so determined to remain spoiler free before the movies that he refused to go shopping for months before the movie came out, to avoid seeing the cereal boxes and other items with characters on them. Not really relevant, but a funny story.)

    BTW, your reasoning with Veronica Mars, that because the show is named after that character, therefore she won’t die and so suspense is lifted, isn’t totally analogous to Lost since its writers/producers are more apt to kill off main characters.

    Susan Youngwood

  3. 3 Jonathan Gray

    Jason, this sounds like a brilliant study of spoilers that you and your partner have penned: true excellence! 🙂 Seriously, though, in preparing to present the paper at the conference, it was precisely the issue of the hazy distinction between surprise, suspense, and anticipation (one that we kind of use in the paper) that struck me as something in need of more development down the road. Spoilers may seem to kill the former, significantly develop the latter, and work in contradictory ways with the middle, but I wonder whether surprise really does necessitate lack of knowledge. I think of the moment in a horror film when a teen starts walking down a long dark corridor. We KNOW s/he’ll have something jump out at them, but it can still scare the crap out of us when it actually happens. And that would seem to be actual (ie: physiological) surprise, not just the realization of anticipation.

    In presenting at SCMS, I also found myself talking of formula and genre, since these seem another prominent form of “spoiler”: watch a romantic comedy, and they WILL get together; watch a Shakespearean tragedy, and the hero WILL be brought down; etc. But if we start to consider generic/formulaic moments as quasi-spoilers, we can’t escape spoilers, since we always have a sense of what’s coming next, due to intertextual experience. I think here of Harold Bloom’s discussion of “the anxiety of influence,” wherein he sees influence as working Oedipally, with texts trying to kill their intertextual forefathers, yet never being able to free themselves from them. Bloom therefore sees the history of art and literature as doomed to tapering off — “rewriting” Shakespeare, to him, only makes one a weak writer, and reaffirms the cultural brilliance of those who got there first, such as Homer and Shakespeare and Chaucer. But as with many things, Bloom is wrong … and yet quite akin to the person who feels spoilers ruin everything, perhaps. Many people who read/view and love lit, film, TV, or other media only come to love their media of choice moreso after reading/viewing yet more of it — ie: when they’ve mastered enough rules of genre and intertext to seemingly cut off pleasures of newness. As Jeff Sconce argues, it’s in the algebra and integers of the equation of intertextual borrowing that mastery may result. So even when we know how a story might occur, the artistic membrane may *surround* the known/unknown rather than, as is often assumed, actually *being* the known/hoped-to-be-unknown.

    Perhaps, then, it’s not the fact that the stalker jumps out at the teen from the dark corridor that surprises us but it’s HOW they do it. Which means your “operational aesthetic” is not only always present, but always has been a huge part of aesthetics (not that you preclude this, of course).

  4. 4 doctoradder

    As a writer who’s sold a few things to the film & gaming industries, I found your comments interesting in lots of different ways. I’ve repeatedly had to explain the very nature of suspense to producers and story development execs who oughtta know better. I’m constantly amazed that every time I write or pitch an idea where the audience “knows” a key fact before the protagonist, the reaction is frequently: “But that makes our hero look stupid!” I’ve often encountered great resistance to storytelling modes that work in ways other than having us learn the facts alongside the protagonist.

    A couple of random thoughts:

    The movie “ALIEN” is, to me, the epitome of storytelling that utterly loses its impact on repeated viewings. I think that’s in part because it relies on SURPRISE more than “suspense.” The story doesn’t tend to develop complex, involving characters and the “mysteries” of the plot are straightforward and transparent. During the first viewing, most of the suspense is derived from waiting for the “jump” — what’s around the next corner, when and how will the next character get killed? During the first viewing, I found this movie almost unbearably tense — but with each subsequent viewing, I’ve found myself more absorbed by the art direction than the storytelling. I know there are people who remain big fans of the film through repeated viewings… I’d be interested to know what their reactions are, and how they relate to this particular film in terms of suspense.

    Another point… there seemed to be a vogue of storytelling in the 1960s and 70s that kept viewers at arm’s length from the characters — instead of “identifying” with the hero, the audience was often kept closer to the point of view of the villain, waiting for the inevitable justice to be wrought by the heroic figures.

    Of course, one of the greatest hit in the mystery genre on TV was “Columbo,” which used an “open mystery” structure — a structure that is predicated on “spoiling” what is usually the key revelation of a murder mystery: whodunnit and how. In a typical episode’s opening minutes, we usually saw the villain-of-the-week conduct a murder and begin covering his tracks. Then the show’s ostensible protagonist would show up — sometimes as late as 20 or 30 minutes into the 90 minute episode. Much of — scratch that, ALL of — the suspense on this show was generated from the factor of how the murder would be discovered. We had already seen how the crime had been conducted, and by whom — and after even a few episodes, it became clear that Columbo always got his man. The only question remaining was — HOW? What would be the fatal flaw in the killer’s otherwise perfect crime? And how would the shambling, sloppy, apparently semi-competent cop stumble across it this time?

    Similarly, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE often featured its crack team pulling a con job on a villain. The story was often plotted around the point-of-view of the villain, keeping us at arm’s length as we wondered if the villain would see through the elaborate ruse. Some of the better episodes of this show feature incredibly intricate plots and an unusual tension in shifting points of view between the heroes and villains.

    These were both very hardy and popular shows at the time they came out… just curious as to how they fit into your theories. Thanks for sharing your thoughts…

  5. Hey, I thought you might like to know that I made heavy use of your work on spoilers for my article, “To Spoil or not to Spoil: Teaching Television’s Narrative Complexity”. If you want a copy, drop me an email and I’ll send you the file. Actually, since I consulted your digital culture syllabus for making my own, I’ll send you a copy here as well.

    Love your work.

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