Toward a Unified Theory of Spoiler Windows
It came up again on my Twitter feed recently, and I feel like it’s time for me to try to get this ball rolling. (To give credit where credit is due, it was this tweet by Saladin Ahmed that got me thinking about it again, and John Scalzi .)
I’ve said for some time that the Internet really needs to get its act together on the subject of spoilers. Barring some outliers, we all seem to agree spoilers are bad as a general rule: you should be given fair warning and a chance to consent to receiving information about a story you have not experienced yet. However, the exact details are a contentious issue in both directions; I’ve encountered people who insist that saying a minor character shows up in a given book/episode is not a spoiler, and I’ve also encountered people who insist that spoiling a book released in the 90s is reason enough to rage.
I think the Internet would be a nicer place if we agreed on a statute of limitations for spoilers. It turns out, the inestimable John Scalzi already hit on this back in 2009, but given that I’m still seeing people talking about this on Facebook, clearly it didn’t stick. Also I’m not sure his numbers work, and they don’t differentiate between what I think of as “soft spoilers” (the above mentioned “minor character appears in this part of the work”) and “hard spoilers” (“X character is the murderer”). So here’s me, trying my hand on my much less circulated blog. What do you think?
Definition: Hard Spoiler vs. Soft Spoiler vs. Softest Spoiler
A “soft spoiler” is a piece of information that is not known unless one has gotten to the part of the work being discussed, but does not actually affect any particular mystery or moment of tension. Examples include the above-above-mentioned appearance of a character, but also “There’s an episode all about Character Y in Season 2 that I really love!” or “Man, you’ll love Chapter 10!”; or fairly obvious tropes of the genre/setting/main character, like mentioning that Han Solo and Chewie have a scene where they pilot the Millennium Falcon. Note that I said that a soft spoiler does not affect a mystery or moment of tension, meaning it cannot even incidentally answer a question the narrative asks prior to the point being discussed; “Han pilots the Falcon” is not a soft spoiler if the survival of Han or the Falcon is uncertain at some point prior to that scene.
A “hard spoiler” is a piece of information that is a factor in a major conflict, plot twist, or other keystone moment in the work. Examples include, yes, saying who the murderer is in a murder mystery, or saying a character dies partway into the book, or explaining the big twist of the movie. Basically, if it reveals key information ahead of the work doing so, and absolutely no mental labor is required to make that connection, it’s a hard spoiler. (See how I didn’t use examples? Good job, me!)
“Softest spoiler” is added because of the example Scalzi brings up in his own blog post (whether or not The Comedian jumped in Watchmen): a “softest spoiler” is a piece of information you get within the first couple minutes of a work beginning, or something that makes absolutely no sense without the greater context of the movie. In other words, it is still a spoiler, but it does not ruin anything for you. In the former case, you still get to have all the emotional ups and downs and big reveals of the main body of the work, because all that’s happened is someone has skipped ahead about ten pages/two minutes for you; and in the latter case, you will only realize something was a spoiler after it cannot any longer be a spoiler.
So, that down, here are my recommendations for the statute of limitations on spoilers, divided into hard, soft, and softest. My proposal is that, after the statute of limitations, you are allowed to discuss the work more or less freely, perhaps with some courtesy checks (“anyone mind spoilers for Game of Thrones?”) when speaking aloud in a group whose experiences you don’t know.
Preamble: If you are not sure how much of a spoiler something is, don’t spoil it without tagging. If there is any nuance to your interpretation, don’t spoil without tagging. And personal requests always trump the statutes of limitations: if I still haven’t read Ender’s Game and have asked to not have the ending spoiled, don’t tell me the ending of Ender’s Game.
Softest spoilers: 48 hours (because people often don’t have cable these days and should get a chance to view it via streaming sites; most will have it within 48 hours)
Soft spoilers: One week (because people are busy and may not get to their Hulu account/DVR backlog before then)
Hard spoilers: Two months (give it plenty of time to have been available before you’re just tossing out the ending of the episode)
Softest spoilers: One month (long enough to allow people a chance to arrange child care or finish their papers or whatever and get out to the movies to see it)
Soft spoilers: Three months (long enough even second-run theaters are starting to get it)
Hard spoilers: One year (long enough for it to be widely available on DVD and streaming)
Books (Including Novellas):
Softest spoilers: One year (like Scalzi says, books take longer to reach a wider audience)
Soft spoilers: Three years (time enough for paperback and e-book versions to be created)
Hard spoilers: Five years (a nice, long period of it being available in multiple formats)
Short Stories: Double the times given for books (because short stories are even less likely to reach a widespread audience than books, and are often not presented in alternate formats for ease of reading unless they win an award or make it into a collection)