Spoiler Alerts to Myself: Predicting the Endings of Books
People hate watching movies with me. My expressions reveal emotions that shouldn't be there yet, and I gasp minutes before the most beloved character actually dies. Sometimes I just can't help a tiny squeal escaping when I've mentally unraveled the plot twist. It renders fellow watchers slightly irritable, but I always feel a sense of smugness--one I attempt to mask--so I'm impervious to it.
If reading was an activity more conducive to joint enjoyment, I'm sure people would hate reading books with me, too.
I used to feel accomplished when I predicted what was going to happen in a story; like I somehow understood the writer more deeply than others. At the time I saw my spoiling the ending for myself as an accomplishment, it didn't happen all that often. But over the years as I've read more and more, it began to happen on a regular basis.
For awhile I found that I didn't enjoy the stories as much. I kept going out of my way to find more outlandish stories with characters of which I'd never seen the likes, and settings I wouldn't have thought characters to occupy. I had to keep fueling my need for new, exciting, strange, and unusual stories to stave off my predicting the plot.
For awhile, it worked. I read stories featuring characters so unlike myself that I found it difficult to relate to them and, consequently, predict their actions. But over time, not even this could satiate my hungry mind spoiling the story for me. Like before, I would find myself at a crossroads in the plot and know undoubtedly which path the story would take and how I would feel about the consequences of the tale having traveled that path.
I realized then that a lot of stories--while having different characters, settings, and writing styles--follow similar narrative arcs. I remembered a reference in one of my English classes to there being a theory of a set number of story plots. I did a little digging and found Georges Polti's 36 Dramatic Situations, which essentially lays out all the options for how an effective, engaging story can be told. It doesn't mean that any story that follows one of the 36 plot lines will be good; it's just a elemental marker for what a story has to have--anything else is extra, which can either enhance or detract from the quality of the story.
Some of the 36 dramatic situations are easily recognizable in popular works. For example, To Kill a Mockingbird is "self-sacrificing for an ideal," Shakespeare's Othello is "mistaken jealousy," My Sister's Keeper is "self-sacrifice for kindred," and Water for Elephants is "rivalry of superior and inferior."
It suddenly made sense why I was able to predict plot lines, but I still didn't like the fact of my doing so. I began taking steps to avoid subconscious spoilers at all costs: I swore off romance because it wouldn't be a romance if the character didn't find love; I swore off series books because it implied the main character couldn't die until at least the end of the series; I swore off mystery because all mystery books ultimately have their mysteries solved. I closed myself off to genres I might, under normal circumstances, enjoy.
Sometime later, I began watching Game of Thrones and found that I was entirely unable to predict what was going to happen because each character has their own plot line and all the many plot lines intermingle to form the Game of Thrones narrative. Because there are so many stories happening at once and many characters whom one must follow, it's harder to keep any one character's plot line straight for any length of time.
Even knowing this, I knew I didn't want to actually read Game of Thrones. I'm sure the books are wonderful and I have no doubt that I'd enjoy them, but I seldom read books in a series, especially when the entire series isn't already out--I don't like to wait. Plus, despite my obsessive love of reading, I do believe some things are better watched than read.
So my conundrum was this: the only type of story I'd found that I couldn't spoil the ending for myself was something that I had no desire to read.
I wish I could say that, as of today, I had worked out a true solution to this conundrum. However, since I really haven't, I've done what I can to circumnavigate it. I asked myself what I was really losing out on by predicting the plot lines of novels and my answer is, honestly, not much.
The fact is that I love to read with an undying passion and if I enjoy what I'm reading, I'm not going to give it up just because I've got the foresight to predict an ending. Through practice--continuing practice--I'm training myself to learn that subconsciously giving myself spoilers is not a big deal and not a reason to change my reading habits.
Maybe one day I'll be able to read a romance or a mystery without feeling too smug or being too cynical. One day, but not today, and that's okay because I'm still growing as a reader.