Your Fan Theories are Undermining Good Storytelling

Before I get started, I want to lay out that speculation is fun. It’s good. It’s what storytellers want you to do when they’re setting up a mystery. They’re leaving out certain details and leaving blanks for viewers to fill in. Everyone’s supposed to have a pet theory; their take on what the outcome of a story or a thread could be. It’s the bedrock of the watercooler conversation. You recap and then you speculate. Where we’re getting it wrong lately isn’t the impulse to speculate. It’s the collective speculation on places like Reddit and Tumblr that are absolutely destroying any sense of surprise in narratives, especially in televison.

The biggest culprit right now is the fandom surrounding Westworld. After every episode, thousands and thousands of people congregate on these websites, pick apart every single detail, notice every piece of foreshadowing and more often than not, land on “fan theories,” that they widely accept, rewatch old episodes with those fan theories in mind, gaining them even more evidence and then, weeks later, watch as their theories turn out to be 100% correct. But what they’re doing at the scale that they’re doing it isn’t really innocent speculation. It’s trying to outsmart the storytellers. That’s not the point of storytelling.

I might be going out on a limb here, but I’m pretty sure that the writers of Westworld are more interested in making viewers think about the ethics of artificial intelligence rather than having viewers try to call its big season finale twists. Twists are powerful assets that you’re supposed to be shocked by. There’s a very pleasurable feeling in being surprised by a narrative doing something you didn’t expect. But a good reveal takes build-up. And good build-up takes foreshadowing and hints and misdirects. Now one could say, “if you didn’t want me calling the twists before they happened, why did you leave this trail of narrative breadcrumbs for me to follow?” to which I’d say that the trail is supposed to get you close enough to the answer to sense that an answer is there, but never let the answer reveal itself until the story is ready for it to do so. You’re supposed to agonize over it. And you’re supposed to do so essentially alone, or with a few other people who are as in the dark about the answers as you are.

Now, when thousands of people are agonizing over the breadcrumb trail in the same place at the same time, and they’re getting wise to storytelling conventions because there’s only so many stories out there in the world, something interesting, frustrating and at least to my knowledge, new happens. They begin to correctly predict the rest of the story, or at least the twists that the writers are building to. It’s one of the myriad of annoyances that I have at the internet for being a place where everyone can communicate anything. We have Wikipedia and Twitter but we also have the alt-right and all our good twists ruined.

What I think the cause of this is is that people have lost track of how to watch TV or read books or anticipate movies. The pleasure seems to derive from picking every piece of material apart until there are no surpises left instead of, to quote The Leftovers, letting the mystery be. It’s why you get absolute nonsense like “trailer breakdowns” on YouTube and endless posts about set photos from the big blockbusters. People can’t wait for things and are trying to find out everything they can about them as soon as possible. It’s as if the suspension of disbelief is gone, that fans are entering into these stories with the idea that they’re just stories and seeing them simply as puzzles to solve.

People aren’t investing in these stories with their hearts, they’re doing it with their brains.

There’s some big theories surrounding Westworld right now that are gaining serious traction and are probably going to turn out to be right. If you want to learn what the collective brain of thousands of people have most likely correctly figured out, follow this link. But seriously don’t. Why would you actively want these spoilers? People have figured this stuff out by watching episodes collectively millions of times over, fishing for small details that you’re not supposed to be able to notice until you rewatch the whole season after you’ve learned the big secrets, and then reporting their findings on forums. If this is you, you are watching the show wrong.

I’m sure I’m sounding like a curmudgeonly asshole for telling fans that they’re watching TV the wrong way, but they are. It happened on Game of Thrones last season, where that show’s fandom had so thouroughly called almost every major twist in a season filled with massive reveals that when the solutions to these huge, decade-spanning mysteries were finally revealed, they were each met with a collective “meh.” I’m talking Cersei using the wildfire on King’s Landing. Jon’s true lineage. Even Hodor’s death was predicted years and years ago. Are people just bored? Are we stuck in some bizarre post-modern world where the definition of media consumption has shifted from enjoying stories to breaking them? Maybe not, but this is troubling stuff.

And so with Westworld, put aside the idea that so-and-so is actually Arnold, this-and-that is actually happening in a different timeline, and whatever other prediction you’ve heard repeated over and over in different comment sections and just let the reveals come at their own pace. Feel the anticipation. Get confused. You don’t have to look everything up. Not every hunch needs to be confirmed by strangers on Reddit. Let yourself be surprised. Get shocked! In 2016, the urge to outsmart a story instead of letting it play out on its own time is real, but trust me. Let the mystery be.