Down With Spoiler Alerts

Raise your hand if you find that the concept of the spoiler ruins any real conversation about the craft of writing. I sometimes tell my students that if they flip to the end of the book all they will get is information. Information is not going to spoil the wonder of the journey. Get over the concept of spoilers, I tell them. I don’t know if they really listen.

Jonathan Russell Clark puts it well:

As a participant in a story, the most practical thing to do is ignore what you “know” and let the narrative plunder you for all your spoils, strip your skin off your bones, and let it, in every way it can, spoil you rotten.

Spoil you rotten. Exactly.

The spoiler alert (Caution: read at your own risk, etc.) implies that once you know a fact about the story it’s all over. But it’s not, is it?

charlottesweb_coverCharlotte (gulp) died.

Darth Vader was Luke’s father.

Rosebud was a sled.

Some spoilers are more emotionally loaded than others, I’ll admit. A seven- or eight-year-old needs to be delivered that particular arachnid demise most tenderly.

But I’m talking about writers here, people who want to understand what makes a story tick. If you’re a writer, the facts in a spoiler shouldn’t mean a thing unless you’ve read the pages in between or watched the entire movie. Facts are not what a novel is made up of (or a film). If that were the case, a bulleted list of scenes would do the trick and none of us need ever reread anything.  For the seven-year-old who first encounters Charlotte, rereading is everything. Rereading unpacks the beauty of friendship, of life, of loss and healing and regeneration. At that point, the child reader has gone beyond spoilers.


Prediction and Plot

One of the great delights of writing for the young is that they will sometimes write back to you. I was in Boston recently, thanks to the Wondermore Foundation. About a month after my visit, I received a large manila envelope filled with typed stories.

chachajiTeacher Lynn Barker at the Haggerty School in Cambridge had used my picture book, Chachaji’s Cup as a “mentor text,” she wrote. She’d read it with her class, stopping at a critical turning point of the story. She’d then asked her students to write their own endings.

I was enchanted. I understand completely the notion of the mentor text. I had many in my childhood, by writers who seemed as if they were writing every book just for me. I often closed them halfway and wrote my own endings, then went back to see if I’d gotten it “right.”

But here’s the thing. A lifetime has taught me that there may be no such thing as “right.” Story offers pathways. Each one you take is choice, for a particular reason, the product of your mind at that moment. The students’ stories were examples of all those many possible pathways my story could have taken.

Some of the young writers’ endings paralleled the one I’d chosen in my book. Others diverged wildly. Some went into the realm of fantasy. The old uncle died and returned as a ghost. There was tragedy and comedy and there was VOICE. In spades. Every single child had read the book with intensity and vision. Each writer had captured the drama of that single turning point and sent his or her own version soaring outward from there.

A footnote: The story of Chachaji’s Cup did diverge from the printed book, in quite another way, when it was turned into a musical production many years after its original publication. As for the talented young man who played the lead in that stage version–now there’s another story altogether. Raja Burrows–he had an exquisite voice and he brought my character to life. I still have demo audio files with a couple of songs from the musical.

Vonnegut and the Shapes of Stories

You’ve seen this one.

amanwithoutacountryIt’s distilled Vonnegut, iconoclastic and in its own bizarre way elegant. It’s funny, of course. And yes, it makes sense. It also gives us permission to play. We know because it’s Vonnegut, and because there’s more like it in A Man Without a Country (Maria Popova has a lovely post on the book) that none of it, and perhaps least of all the Western civ reference, is meant to be taken literally.

I could spend time drawing my own shapes, and it would be loads of fun. Non-Western civ shapes–the tortured plummeting downward of the Ramayana, the embedded spirals of frame stories and avatars through the ages. But this is my favorite list of all.

Snippet: “Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.”