Warning: May Contain Spoilers

Update from my shopping trip a fortnight ago: you’ll be pleased to hear it was a success. I now have a new teapot and several attractive-yet-practical new frocks to complement my existing writers’ wardrobe of pyjamas, thermal underwear, fingerless gloves, and a fleecy onesie. Give me the right clothes, a Dropbox folder, and a cup of tea, and I’m unstoppable.

So this post is slightly behind schedule as it was my birthday on Friday so I decided I deserved a day off. Some people might say that, as a self-employed author, I have every day off: but those people don’t appreciate how much work goes into this blog. Also it’s my birthday, and my blog, so I can do whatever I want. And today I want to talk about spoilers.
You may remember my last post – all about death – https://ruthdehaas.wordpress.com/2015/02/26/death-where-is-thy-sting/ started with a ‘contains spoilers’ disclaimer, including on the list of spoiled books the Harry Potter series. I had a moment of hesitation about including it, since the precise book in question, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, came out more than 12 years ago, so you’d have thought everyone who was bothered about it would have got round to reading it by now.
Except that, if you hadn’t read the books the first time around, and you’d just started the series, you might not be very happy to have advance news of a major character’s dramatic death unexpectedly plonked in your lap. Better safe than sorry, I figured. Now, not everyone has the same sensitivity to spoilers – some people don’t seem to mind them too much, others peek at the last page of the book before they even get started. But I’ve always found them annoying – I still angrily remember someone spoiling the end of Watership Down – and they can be difficult to avoid. Even if you deliberately stay away from the obvious sources – like fan fiction or discussion forums – you can still come a cropper. Never mind friends with big mouths, how about book reviewers? How about blurb writers? How about cover artists? The copies I read of both Dune and Ender’s Game featured cover art which spoiled the surprises therein, and good luck with reading a paperback book without even glancing at the cover. I’ve also learned never to read either the introduction or the back of any classic novel, since the publishers seem to assume you’re a lazy A-level student and that you couldn’t possibly want to read a hundred-plus-year-old book for pleasure.
I always try, therefore, to slather on the spoiler warnings, especially on the internet where you have no idea who might stumble across your words, and not to spoil anything for anyone – but where should you draw the line? Should you try not to let slip that Romeo & Juliet end up dead? (oops) Surely, as with copyright, there has to be a limit somewhere. But should all out-of-copyright works be fair game, or do you figure that at least someone might not know Elizabeth Bennet ends up marrying Mr Darcy? Oops, sorry, guess I just spoiled Pride & Prejudice there. Does it matter? Surely everyone’s seen the TV version with Colin Firth swimming in the lake? Actually, maybe not – the people who’ve just started their degrees in English Literature this year were not even born when that first aired on the BBC in 1995.
And that, I think, is the point we need to bear in mind, the point the Wordsworth Classics editions forget – that what we might think of as established, as known, as already-read, as canon, will always be fresh to someone. There will constantly be new generations of young readers who want to discover literature for themselves, whether that’s Jane Austen or JK Rowling. And we should all, I think, do our best not to spoil it for them. Don’t forget, a boy who was the same age as Harry Potter when the first book came out in 1997 is now old enough to be reading the book aloud at bedtime to his own children. I hope he doesn’t give anything away.

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Death, where is thy sting?

I’m posting this slightly ahead of schedule as I have Friday designated as a shopping day to acquire a new writers’ wardrobe. Wearing pyjamas and onesies to write is comfortable, but not great if I want to go to the corner shop or take a stroll through the park, and I have it on good authority that the best combination of comfort and style for the modern lady writer is the dress-over-leggings-lifehack. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Before we get stuck in, please note that this blog entry contains spoilers for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the Harry Potter series, and A Song of Ice and Fire.

I’m currently wrestling with the plot of my novel The Silvergreen Sea, in particular trying to work out how to depict death and the afterlife. As ever, the freedom of the fantasy genre can be both a blessing and a curse. On the plus side, you can invent your own version of an afterlife, ghosts, resurrection, revenants, whatever you feel like. But if you make it too easy to come back, or to communicate with the dead, then you can blunt the impact of character deaths and end up ruining your own story.

I saw a good example of this when relaxing with a movie (a writer is never entirely off duty…). On Monday night, I brought myself fully up to date with the Marvel Cinematic Universe by watching Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It was pretty good, although not quite what I was expecting: it’s less a comic-book superhero movie, more a paranoid spy thriller which wouldn’t feel out of place in the Bourne series.

But one very comic-book thing about the film is its flippant approach to death. Hundreds of nameless and apparently bloodless soldiers are killed in a ‘gun goes bang bad guy goes down’ fashion. The only death treated as if it’s of any significance is that of Nick Fury (played by Samuel L Jackson), who bleeds a bit, and even gets a tombstone engraved with a quotation from Ezekiel 25:17. But then he pops up again, apparently fine, despite being pretty comprehensively shot up by the eponymous Winter Soldier. And, frankly, I felt disappointed.

The Winter Soldier in one of his more friendly moods

The Winter Soldier in one of his more friendly moods

Why? Did I hate the character? Not at all. I just felt cheated that the film tried to have both cake and death, yanking on our emotions by killing him off, but still keeping him alive for the sequel. This isn’t an isolated incident. Superhero comics are so notorious for doing this that ‘comic book death’ has its own Wikipedia page, which notes that apparently the only permanent deaths in comics are Bucky and Uncle Ben. Except that the Winter Soldier turns out to be a somehow-still-alive Bucky (the Captain’s WWII buddy). So I guess it’s just Uncle Ben.

Comic books aren’t the only medium to pull this trick, of course: George RR Martin, for all his bloodiness, has resurrected or fake-killed so many characters that it’s no surprise most fans are dubious that, despite being thoroughly stabbed in A Dance With Dragons, Jon Snow is actually dead, or at any rate will stay dead.

In my view, it’s a thoroughly problematic trope: it cheapens death within the story, and it’s unkind on bereaved readers who could share characters’ grief and gain catharsis through it, but don’t have access to a handy resurrection spell. One of the most affecting parts of the Harry Potter series, imho, comes at the end of The Order of the Phoenix when Harry realises that, whatever he does, he can’t bring Sirius back, or talk to him ‘beyond the veil’. That’s something that resonates with an audience. As an author, you need get your readers in the gut, and putting some death in your tale is an excellent way to reach some of the most powerful human feelings – but not if you pull its sting with your fantasy shenanigans.

This then, is the question I’m currently trying to resolve: in my setting, the (non-hellish) afterlife is definitely real, so how do I keep the sting in death? Tricky. But it turns out that The Winter Soldier, as well as showing the problem, shows the solution. We see glimpses of how Bucky is brainwashed into a ruthless killing machine; and it doesn’t look pleasant.* It’s the same solution Martin used for Theon Greyjoy, and what JK Rowling did to Neville Longbottom’s parents.

It’s quite a simple solution, really: if killing a character isn’t quite going to do the job, just subject them to a fate worse than death. Problem solved. So that’s my way forward as an author: as soon as I’ve bought a couple of new frocks, it’s time to think up some horrific fates-worse-than-death and then inflict them on my imaginary friends. What a great job.

*I’ve also been reading an excellent if rather harrowing fan fiction which imagines the process in detail: http://archiveofourown.org/works/1815529/chapters/3897427 (trigger warnings for violence, rape, torture, attempted suicide, mental illness, brainwashing, everything really).