Have you come here to play Jesus to the lepers in your head?

The Spoils of Story

with 8 comments

Before you read this, please note that in this post, I give away significant plot details on a number of stories that, if you have not read or seen them, then first, shame on you, and second, be aware. 




Still with me?

The other night, friends of my wife’s had dropped in for a spell, and talk turned to Harry Potter as one of them saw my copy of the Half-Blood Prince sitting beside me on the sofa.  One friend then popped the question—do you think Dumbledore’s really dead? 

Well, Potter author J. K. Rowling answered that for us nearly two weeks ago.  The answer is a decisive yes.  Personally, I hadn’t ever bothered to question the matter—Rowling went through significant lengths to cement this fact into the narrative.  Still, some “fans” have cried betrayal and now threaten a boycott of the next book.  No doubt Roddenberry met with similar vitriol when Spock died at the end of Star Trek II.   

My real concern, however, was that my wife, sitting not three feet away and who has not read the books, was spoiled the outcome of the series’ sixth volume.  I’m just happy to have been able to keep her in the dark as long as I had.  Last year, someone in line with us waiting to get into see the Goblet of Fire let this detail slip, and thankfully my wife had missed it. 

So I’ve found myself thinking.  Does knowing the ending really spoil the fun?  Well, yes—but only to a point, and even then it depends on the story.  I doubt I’d find any argument in regard to, say, The Sixth Sense, The Usual Suspects, The Shawshank Redemption, or even Life is Beautiful.

But consider something like Star Wars.  I was little when I first experienced the original, so it came as a mild shock to see Obi Wan sacrifice himself at the hands of Vader.  Much later, upon first viewing the bloated phenomenon that was Episode I, I had a feeling that Qui Gon’s graceful presence would not last for very long either.     

Many stories follow some kind of archetypal formula, and Harry Potter is no different.  Many writers and critics had stated from very early on that Dumbledore would have to fade away at some point in order to allow Harry to go the last leg of the journey alone.  We see similar events in The Hobbit, as well as The Lord of the Rings.  When I think of Gethsemane, I can sort of find this kind of formula at work in the Gospel. 

The heroes of myth usually grow along a defined trajectory.  Joseph Campbell articulated these for us in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, a model which George Lucas used to create Star Wars, and which Rowling appears to use for Harry as well.  You read enough and you can begin to see these elements play out, and for me, it never ruins the experience.  The true test of an author’s ingenuity, I believe, is in the color he or she uses to paint the journey. 

So when my wife does sit down to read the Half-Blood Prince, I believe she will find that her knowledge of the end did not tarnish the pleasure of the story.  After all, the story isn’t finished.  (Some of these “fans” need to get a grip)

(Hat Tips to: Fantasy Fiction for Christians and The Leaky Cauldron)


Written by taj

August 16, 2006 at 2:03 pm

Posted in stories, Writing

8 Responses

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  1. I suppose knowing that crucial tidbit of information could ruin part of the experience of Half-Blood Prince, simply because that book is much slower in maintaining excitement as the other books–I felt like the whole book I was waiting for something to happen. Dumbledore’s demise definitely provided the necessary explosive finale the story needed. But even knowing the ending, I think the book will still surprise and provide entertainment–after all, we are still all wondering about Snape. Half-Blood Prince is really the book that brings Snape to the spotlight, and casts him as a much more powerful and interesting character than ever before.


    August 16, 2006 at 2:18 pm

  2. Your wife remained unspoiled for an entire year? Either serious kudos are due, or maybe ya’ll should get out more.


    August 16, 2006 at 6:34 pm

  3. I don’t mind knowing the end to some movies because the journey is what makes it enjoyable.

    One exception however is with “The Sixth Sense”. I did not see this movie until it was on DVD and no one had spoiled the ending and it was fabulous. Had someone told me the ending, I don’t think I would have enjoyed the movie nearly as much. Just my opinion.


    August 17, 2006 at 1:03 pm

  4. I had a personal tradition going that I would not read a HP book, or learn anything about the plots at ALL, until after I saw the movie, b/c I didn’t want to spoil the movie for myself. I had read book 1 just before the movie came out, and found that I was very disappointed in the theatre, b/c I knew what was going to happen, and it wasn’t much fun. So for movies 2, 3, &4, I didn’t read the books until after I saw the movies, and I felt far more tension and excitement.

    Unfortunately, I found out by accident that Sirius dies in book 5 (I was not happy), so I went ahead and read it after I read book 4. Which led to my reading book 6. Ah, well. The tradition was fun while it lasted, and I know I would have hated it if I had found out anything about the plots prior to seeing the movie (and now, prior to reading the books). I’m going to do my best to isolate myself from everything HP related until I can read book 7 by myself!


    August 20, 2006 at 7:52 pm

  5. Good comments. I do think that not knowing is always best in that it enables the maximum effect in the drama. It’s not whether the story follows a formula–most do–it’s how well it executes the formula that makes stories great. I wrote an article a few years ago for Breakpoint.org that examined the Hero’s Journey in HP, Star Wars and other great legends and blockbuster franchises Google “Alex Wainer, the story that won’t go away” to find it.)

    By the way, Im returning the favor of your visit to my blog and your comments. I cannot find an “about” section on Quadrivium and am not sure exactly who it is I’m writing to. Who are you and what can you tell us about yourself?


    August 20, 2006 at 8:01 pm

  6. My opinion would be that the true test of the talent of a storywriter is if the story still has its impact even after you know the ending.

    For instance, I can watch The Sixth Sense many times and it’s still a great movie, even though I know the ending. This is also true of A Few Good Men which, despite the knowledge of the ending (“You can’t handle the truth”) is a great movie over and over again. Another example is the telegraph scene in We Were Soldiers. Even though I’ve seen that movie probably twenty times (since it’s my favorite movie), every time that scene occurs I get choked up because of how powerfully written and directed it is.

    I would say that if a story is only as good as the shock value of its “surprise” ending, then the author is a hack. 🙂 If, on the other hand, it’s a good story no matter how many times you read/see it, then the author is doing his/her job correctly.


    August 22, 2006 at 10:59 am

  7. Which is another way of saying that the fun is in the journey, not the destination. There are a lot of books and movies these days which are reliant on clever plot twists at the end (i.e. The DaVinci Code). This comes from the need for constant suspense to keep something entertaining, to make it a thriller. Which unfortunately usually translates, to me, into lack of character and emotional depth in the story. I think one of the fascinating aspects of the Harry Potter series is that it manages to both be thrilling and plot-twistingly entertaining, while at the same time developing and evolving its characters and their world.


    August 24, 2006 at 2:58 pm

  8. […] one can spoil a good story.  Yes, there are rare cases, but in general, I believe this is true.  I actually flipped to the back of The Lord of the Rings […]

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