Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Spoiler Alerts — should they be required?

Sheila Lowe, MS, mystery writer and forensic handwriting analyst

I’ve spent a significant portion of the last couple of days od’ing on the second season of the Netflix series, House of Cards; four episodes to go. I detest most of the characters and feel like I’m watching a train wreck, but I can’t turn away. That’s good writing. In the first episode of the season there’s a big shocker that I would not dream of sharing with viewers who hadn’t yet seen it. Every review I’ve seen carries a big SPOILER ALERT.

Downton Abbey was one of my favorite shows for the first three seasons, but I’m not watching it anymore. Someone who had seen the first few episodes of season four told me about an upcoming plot line that I just did not want to see, or the fallout from it in subsequent episodes. The person in the know made sure I really wanted to hear about it before making the reveal (a spoiler alert).

Some people don’t want to be surprised. They read on past the spoiler alert because they want to know what’s coming. Others stop at that warning and go no further. But the warning gives them the choice. 

Until recently, Amazon required reviewers to put a Spoiler Alert warning at the top of any review that contained “tells” about significant plot lines. That has changed. I found out the unpleasant way.

I’m sure I'm not the only author who semi-regularly checks her reviews, and that’s how I discovered the offending comment tucked inside a back-handed compliment regarding my current book, WHAT SHE SAW: “The premise of the story was good, including memory loss and XXXX (redacted because it’s a friggin’ spoiler), but it lacked the punch that Ms. Lowe’s previous novels held.” Okay, so the person wasn’t crazy about the book and gave it only three stars. Fine, that’s their opinion. It’s got a healthy number of five star reviews, too. But why did this reader have to spoil it for others? Spite? Ignorance? Insensitivity? Indifference?

Anyone reading the full comment would have no compelling reason to read the book because this line gives away one of the most important plot points. I was unable to resist adding a comment (yes, I know, it’s not recommended) asking the reviewer not to put a spoiler without a spoiler alert. Then I emailed Amazon and asked them to remove the review. Amazon failed to respond. I wrote to them again and finally got the answer that Amazon no longer requires readers to post spoiler alerts.

Any thoughts from the standpoint of reader or author? Do spoiler alerts matter to you, or am I making a big deal out of nothing?


  1. I hate it when reviews included spoilers! For mystery writers and readers especially, it's a offense. We go to a lot of trouble to craft and plot/ending that surprises people, and most of our readers love and want that. So yes, spoiler alerts are essential if readers/reviewers want to discuss the twists after the fact. Fortunately, most readers respect this.

  2. I agree - in the mystery community, spoiler alerts seem like they'd be a must. A reviewer for one of my books revealed a scene - not exactly a plot spoiler, but basically the final action scene of the book, and I thought, hmm, do I say something or not? I ended up not saying anything, but it made me realize there are two types of reviewers. One group seems to want to be helpful and let other people know what to expect (without spoiling anything), and the other group is not interested in helping others choose - they just want to spout their own opinion.

    1. And then there are the trolls, who use the internet to spread their negativity and nastiness everywhere they can. Small group, but sometimes horribly destructive.

  3. As a reviewer,I try very hard not to include spoilers in my reviews. I have the luxury, though, of not reviewing books if I think I can't manage it without giving away too much.
    But some library journals encourage spoilers, just to aid librarians in purchasing decisions. But having reviewed for some of those, I do always try to suggest who might enjoy a particular book.

    As a reader, I very much dislike spoilers. They've often discouraged me from reading something because I already know what's going to happen.

    1. I agree Marlyn. But I have to admit that the first thing I did after I read this post was go check some of my reviews to see if I have ever given away any crucial plot points! There was one review where I did do so but said so in the title of the review.

      As you pointed out Sheila, Amazon doesn't appear to be "masking" these anymore, like they used to.

      Otherwise, I do try very hard not to include spoilers in my reviews as well. But it can be very tricky. What I don't want to do is write a generic review that only comments on the writing style of the author and compares it to other popular authors, a review that you can basically copy and paste for hundreds of other books. I want it to be individual and reflect my experience of that book and its characters.

      Which is why if I intend to review a book, I do it pretty much straight after I finished it, while it's still fresh in my mind.

      The balance of good review vs revealing too much can be hard to achieve but is doable.

  4. Spoilers are called that for a reason: they spoil the story.

    I have heard from several authors who listed their books on Google Books that they took them down. While Amazon's Look Inside program entails the first few pages, Google's also includes the last few pages. Not really a good program for crime fiction writers.

    1. Yes, Google gives away half the book. I wonder how much that impacts sales.

  5. I try my best not to spoil things but it's hard to please everyone. I was once chastised strongly for revealing something that was on the very first page of the book. I'm sorry she was offended but I just don't see how a piece of information that early on can be considered a spoiler---and, yet, she thought so. That, of course, makes me second-guess myself all the time now but at least I try to be "good" ;-)

  6. Sheila -
    I genuinely feel for you!
    It amounts to a case of grand theft. All the work, craft and creativity you've invested and "splat". Brutal!
    The review sites should lay out guidelines and advise reviews will be removed if violated. I would think Amazon would be motivated to do this as such misguided reviews impact their(and unfortunately your) sales. I do not believe such a practice would constitute censorship.

  7. I am a reader. I get most of my material from Amazon and read it on a Kindle. At the end of most (maybe all) of the books is a chance to tell how I felt about the read. I rarely take that opportunity. Usually when I love a book, but not always even then. Never once thought about spoilers (or warnings). However...

    You would probably all hate my reading habits. Spoilers don't bother me a bit. Much to the horror of my husband and others, I frequently read the ending well ahead of time. It doesn't spoil most books for me because it's the unfolding of the story (with it's wordplay and nuances) that I enjoy the most. Knowing "whodunit" is okay. I can still appreciate a well written story.

  8. First novel out and getting good reviews BUT there are spoilers. Character is trying to hide his background but, despite my plotting,he is outed.

    But was that a spoiler? I think it spoiled a surprise, although not the whole plot, but the reviewers felt it made no difference. Maybe they were right and I was being too sensitive.

    The reviews range from 4 to 5 star, so why object?


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