This spring I couldn’t wait for Neil Gaiman’s “Good Omens” to release on Amazon Prime Video. After seeing so many tantalizing tweets showing David Tennant in costume as the demon Crowley, the Whovian in me just had to be the first to watch it. As soon as it hit Amazon I binged watched the entire thing and 36 hours later I was treated to Tori Amos singing the final song. I absolutely loved the miniseries. It was clever, well-written, and all the actors, but especially David Tennant, were amazing.
Then, about three or four weeks later, tweets and quotes from interviews with Neil Gaiman, David Tennant, and other principles from the show started appearing. In these interviews, Gaiman, Tennant, and others revealed all sorts of behind-the-scenes information — including discussion about Crowley’s relationship with Aziraphale.
For me, the pleasure of watching the show was watching the relationship between Crowley and Aziraphale. It wasn’t a show so much about stopping the end of the world as it was about how an angel and a demon overcame their understandable differences to become very good friends who are able to work together for a common goal. This was my interpretation of what was happening on screen. My imagination at work that allowed me to enjoy what I was watching.
So imagine my shock when these interviews revealed that what I interpreted and imagined the relationship to be was completely wrong. That what I loved best about the interactions between Crowley and Aziraphale had a completely different context and difference nuance than I imagined. The very things that helped me have a great time watching it in the first place did not actually exist for the characters. I was completely wrong about both Crowley and Aziraphale — writer Neil Gaiman said so!
It was and still is heartbreaking. Now I find myself unwilling to watch the show again. It’s even become a touchy subject. I want my version of the story to be the story. I want my fairy tale.
The same need for the story to be the story of my imagination applies to other beloved books and films, including one of my favourites, “The Christmas Candle” by Max Lucado and featuring Hans Matheson (The Tudors), Samantha Barks, and Sylvester McCoy (Seventh Doctor, Doctor Who). The Christmas Candle is a very sweet Christmas film set in turn of the 20th century England. Until of course you look deeper and read interviews by Max Lucado to find that what he intends for the book and for the film is quite different than the way the film plays in my mind.
These are but two examples showing how and why giving the audience spoilers is a bad thing for authors. The key to enjoying a book or film is in the audience’s imagination. It doesn’t matter whether or not what the audience picks up from a book or film matches what you the author intends. What matters is what the individual reading or watching your work perceives. Readers want to enjoy their experience, the time invested with your work. Unless compelled in some way, they always start out on your side and will stay with you only as long as they are enjoying that time with your work.
Whether it’s in your book description or in interviews later, it is critically important to preserve the audience’s imagination — even when what they get from your work is very different from what you intend. Yes, this can be hard. As a biographical historian I can feel frustrated when the audience comes away not getting the facts of the subject’s life correct. But as frustrating as it can be when the audience gets it wrong, it is vital to not contradict them — unless asked and, sometimes, unless you make them aware that what you tell them could be a spoiler.
As writers, we want our ideas to come through clearly. When they don’t, we want to shout from the rooftops all sorts of background information. But while we like our background information, it is important for us to be mindful that background information may in fact destroy the reading or viewing experience.
Let us then be mindful about spoilers and let the reader/audience decide.