Why you shouldn’t care about spoilers + Notes on Hyouka

The worrying modern trend people have of caring about spoilers, especially for Game of Thrones, which is poorly-written television anyway, annoys me to no end.

The details of a story, a plot, only matter insofar as they do the following: Communicate the narrative’s themes, advance a character arc, or enhance our understanding of an existing character. This is not an impassioned defense of prose, or at least it’s not intended to be, but the method by which a story is told.

A good plot is inferior to a good methodology, a good framework, because the framework changes everything else from plot to character to presentation. And good prose, while it oils the wheels of any story, is not the absolute defining factor of good writing either. This is a somewhat juvenile solution, but if I were to rank the facets of ‘good writing’ in order of importance, I’d have to first define ‘good writing’. Okay. ‘The effectiveness with which the story/characters communicate/s its theme/s.’ Done. I’d then say:

  1. Method by which the story is told
  2. Character development/thematic development
  3. Medium (visual, audio, text)
  4. Prose/direction/timbre (whatever’s applicable) – the presentation. The makeup.
  5. Plot/story

It’s easy to confuse the first category with the medium, but by ‘method’ I don’t mean presentation so much as I mean the framework. This is difficult to explain.

A good example is the anime Hyouka. Hyouka is a 2012 anime produced by Kyoto Animation about a high-school Sherlock Holmes named Oreki Houtarou, essentially (although there’s a ton more under the surface) which focuses on small mysteries. When I say small, I mean small; utterly banal things like ‘what was the announcement over the loudspeaker about?’ and ‘why did my middle-school teacher go and look at a helicopter flying past the window three years ago, but only once on one particular day?’ Hundreds of people have criticised it for being boring or stupid because of this. It’s slow-paced, patient, small in scope, but it’s definitely not stupid.

The plot is irrelevant. It exists only as a framework to communicate the story’s themes, which are far deeper: exceptionalism vs effort, the nature of expectations, emotional and logical intelligence and how they play off one another. The characters initially seem like archetypes, simple and hackneyed, but the further into the show you go the more developed they become. The ‘story’ in Hyouka is not the mysteries, but in fact four different stories. One is about the acceptance of having talent. One is about committing oneself to a set ideal and state of being even though it may have been less than what you imagined. One is about accepting a legacy despite having other desires, and personal inhibitions – and the fact that needing to accept your lot in life doesn’t prevent you from asking other people for help – and the last one is about accepting the need for improvement. Top it all off with the simultaneous realisation that what they’ve got at the moment isn’t so bad after all and you’ve got a story.

I didn’t name which character experienced each arc, but if you’ve watched the show you’ll already know who’s who so it doesn’t matter.

Note how none of what I said had anything to do with mysteries, because they’re not the point. The point is character. Because of the framework, or the method by which Hyouka is told, Houtarou’s development is king. Visually, it’s not so subtle that it’s hard to understand, but it’s not screaming its themes in your face through overt dialogue either. By the end, it doesn’t seem like much has changed on the surface. But there are definitely differences in how the characters act, and we understand why they act the way they do much better.

In case you couldn’t tell, Hyouka is excellent. In any case…

I think about where this modern predilection for plot began, and I have to conclude it started with detective novels, probably Christie and Marsh and so on in the Golden Age. Throughout history, no culture cared about ‘spoilers’. Up until the 20th century you could talk about any part of the plot you wanted. No one complained when a guy started talking about the death of Patroclus or of Juliet in any random given context. The way in which the story was told was king. But modern detective novels barely have more than two real characters – the detective and their erstwhile sidekick – and the prose is barebones to say the least. They survive purely on plot; there’s no other reason to read these things. And that puts you at risk of ‘spoilers.’

Let’s analyse that word, ‘spoilers’. Does it ‘spoil’ the story to have all the basic plot details revealed to you? Then it’s not worth experiencing the piece at all! You can find stories that have good plots, where knowing the plot won’t ruin the experience, by the millions. So reading and watching things where the plot is king is a waste of time. You could be experiencing better stuff.

So stop caring about spoilers, because if they ruin the product for you then it was no good in the first place, and if they don’t, then who cares? Keep going.

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