For a culture so obsessed with “enjoying the journey,” we sure do hate a ruined ending — isn’t that contradictory? A ruined ending — and the subsequent spoiler alerts that follow — belies our secret obsession with the destination: to enjoy the journey, we need to know how it ends. We don’t want to know how the story ends because we like to be kept in suspense to see if we’ll actually arrive at… well somewhere, we’ll know when we get there. And yet we tell one another endlessly that we must enjoy the journey. The truth is, there’s more than one way to ruin the ending of any story — indeed to ruin the ending of any life — and the easiest way is to ruin the vision for where you’d like to end up.
The ruined ending actually encourages us to enjoy the unknown journey all the more because we know where we’re headed. I think of all the flights and train rides that delighted me precisely because I knew where I was heading: anticipating the destination made me all the more aware of the details of the trip, of how we got there. The Medievalists understood this. Dante for them was great precisely because he riffed on Virgil’s endings in a new and bold way. Julius Caesar rewarded the Elizabethans precisely because they knew of the plot and assassination in advance. You can almost hear the echo of their whispering how Romeo and Juliet both die at the end and the follow-up questions from a theatre-departing mob who wondered what kind of world would lead to the death of two children in love? A world filled with Montagues and Capulets. If there was any sin to the narrative mind of the Medieval man, it was that one of his friends might spoil the beginning. The start of a story is the seed of the end and the slightest variations in what is sown prophecy that wild variety of crops that will later fill our narrative harvest house.
You see this at work in the “spoiler alert” memes for historical fictions. For Titanic, spoiler alert: the boat sinks. For Pearl Harbor, spoiler alert: the base is bombed. For Sully, spoiler alert: he lands the plane in the river. For The Passion of the Christ, spoiler alert: he dies and rises.
If the power in any historical drama is not what happens in the end but how and why and when and where and, especially, for whom it happened, then the power in any story at all could be the very same. In fact the worse crime would not be spoiling that the ship sinks in the end of Titanic but rather spoiling that the historical Titanic ever set sail at all. Why do I say that? Because that’s what happened during the rerelease of the film at the 100th anniversary of its sinking: tons of kids took to Twitter baffled that such a historical event ever occurred, which added historic insult to historic injury. The kids knew the boat sank in the movie. What they didn’t know was that a hundred years prior, 1,517 human souls really were lost to the sea. In refusing to spoil the ending, they spoilt the entire tale of 1,517 actual lives.
We must know the ending to know our place in the journey. You see, the ending of Avengers wasn’t ruined for me because I discovered via the trailer that Iron Man would destroy the aliens. I didn’t know he would going into the film. Rather, the ending was ruined for me because I knew The Hulk would catch him. I didn’t know “what” would happen, but I did know “how” and “to whom,” which spoils far more than knowing the rough plot outline — even than knowing the Sparknotes version — ever could. Knowing Hulk will catch him takes all of the tension out of Iron Man’s sacrifice. And if you hadn’t figured that out and haven’t seen it, for that spoiler I fully apologize.
The Medievalists understood this. The various tales of Arthur all agree that Camelot fails and Arthur suffers. In some, Arthur dies. In others, he loses his wife and best friend. In one fascinating version Lancelot is the King of the Fae. Guinevere the Queen of the Fae. Therefore Arthur’s union and his vision of Camelot work for the law of men but against the laws of the Fae. Camelot must fail because his ideal does not match up to the forms of the universe. We’ve all encountered at least one self-obsessed leader whose most compelling vision is both a lie and an act of piracy.
All of the endings to all of those Camelot stories would be spoiled in one sense because the audience always knew that Camelot failed. It’s like trying to tell a story in which the Titanic does not sink: to do so would be an act of sci fi and the exception — that it stays afloat — would simply prove the rule. But how and why and for whom it sinks changes the Titanic for us. And how and why and for whom Camelot fails changed everything for the people of that time and they spoiled the ending gladly in order to preserve the beginning. Knowing where they headed, they enjoyed the journey far more than we ever could. When I first wrote this, I knew I was headed to New Haven at the start of February for the launch party of the new issue of The New Haven Review to which I contributed a short story. How I would get there and what obstacles I would encounter remained a mystery. I ruined the ending to preserve the story and in fact the beginning surprised me for I left with a documentary filmmaker I just met, one who might hire me to go to Alaska.
Didn’t expect that.
Did expect to arrive at New Haven’s Institute Library.
The sort of awakening described by some historians as The Renaissance (though I agree with the historians who disbelieve in the existence of such a period) was not so much an awakening as a rebirth, a phoenix which had to be ruined in order to be remade. It was in the embers of the monasteries that Aristotle was preserved, because the end of the monasteries was always to preserve the highest and best and truest and that meant first and foremost preserving that queen of the schools: philosophy and theology. It was in the warm ashes of Assisi that man learned to love nature not as his mother but as surely as his sister and to call that bright bulb in the midnight sky neither “the moon” nor “Lady Goddess Luna,” neither a name of indignity nor a name of worship, but rather Sister Moon. You could say Assisi ruined the chief end of creation in order to let men rediscover its beginning in a Creator. And in the same way, it may well have fatally disturbed those end-spoiling naturalists of The Renaissance had they known that their ideological ancestors would ruin the beginning of their era by describing their naturalism with a word that means “born again.” Which is another way of saying that the start of spoiled endings itself needed a spoiler alert.
As authors of fiction, we’re readers of fiction, yes? Hopefully the best kind: those who draw on fiction in order to first imitate the greats and, hopefully, become great ourselves. That in mind, what do you think would happen if the moment you finished a great book, you immediately went back to the first chapter and read how they set it up? How would spoilers change your view of a great beginning? And would that make it easier to imitate the great stories?
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