An interesting comment came up in one of my Facebook author groups. One of the authors commented and said they’d been contacted by an irate reader who was upset about the ending of their book. They then asked the group if they should include trigger warnings in the future. The response so far, with a few dissenters, has been a resounding no, with many commenting that they ‘don’t do trigger warnings.’
Now, I am not condoning author abuse. And the reader mentioned could have handled the matter without resorting to cursing at the author and instead used it as a teaching moment. No one should attack an author in reviews, social media or email. There are ways to air grievances or address problematic elements in books that don’t involve hate-filled speech.
But what is a trigger warning and why should we as authors be concerned about them?
First, it became very clear, very quickly that nearly all the authors in the thread have the wrong idea about why trigger warnings are needed. So what is a trigger warning?
A trigger warning is a statement at the beginning of a piece of media that alerts the viewer/reader to the sensitive material contained within that could be potentially distressing or harmful.
It is much like the ratings that the MPAA, ESRB and MRS provide movies, video games, and comic books. It is to inform their consumers of content and allow them an informed decision. Trigger warnings can help a reader understand that a book is going to contain certain material and allow them to make an informed choice as to whether or not that material is for them.
Trigger warnings are not frivolous, ‘indie,’ or for those seeking special treatment. They are legitimate warnings that can help someone avoid undue stress that can lead to major problems especially for those with mental health issues.
Trigger warnings are potentially lifesaving for people who have dealt with traumas like sexual assault, hate crimes or violence. Eliminating these advisories and zones on campus suggests that someone should have to listen to someone who questions their humanity or experience.
This kind of insensitive rhetoric also implies that mental health issues or traumatic pasts ― those that require a safe space or a trigger warning ― render a student weak. And that type of attitude silences those who may be struggling.
Let’s play a game.
You click on the links below.
Don’t want to?
Because you don’t know what’s actually behind that word do you? You have no idea if I’m linking you to porn, a picture of kittens, or a virus.
If you clicked on through you’re a braver person than I. Or maybe you have a software plug-in installed that tells you what the link is when you hover over it. Chrome does this automatically in a small box at the bottom of the page.
Guess what. That’s your warning. You didn’t want to chance a nasty surprise on the other end of that link. Why? Because you want to keep your computer and yourself safe.
That’s all trigger warnings are for. Keeping people safe. It’s not about ruining the plot or spoiling things for your reader. It is about allowing people to make informed decisions. It is not about limiting you or what you write. It is not about you. It is about your reader who suffers from PTSD or other trauma-induced anxiety, it is about your reader who is a rape or domestic violence survivor. It is about your reader who lives with a major mental illness like depression or anorexia.
We would never do anything to deliberately hurt or cause our readers distress and yes we want them to enjoy the emotional highs and lows of our plot, but not at the expense of their mental health.
Warning: The following contain strong abelist rhetoric.
Using trigger warnings is not censoring your writing. You are welcome to write the darkest, goriest, most unsettling and depressing thing ever. Just please say so. Leaving it to reviewers is unfair, insensitive, and lazy.
It is not about being ‘offended’ or upset about a plot development. It is genuine acute distress brought on by reliving a past trauma that can manifest as an anxiety or panic attack, suicidal ideation, depression and so on. There is a major difference in having an emotional impact on your reader and triggering them into an episode.
“Squirm,” and “discomfort,” for example, do not accurately capture the sensation of white heat, rapid heartbeat, the feeling that you are about to die or vivid flashbacks of assault. Many administrators and professors feel that students need to grow a “thicker skin.” A marginalizing “sticks and stones” understanding of what “counts” as “real” pain is evident not only in the statements of many professors, but in the large number of comments that quickly followed the Times piece, where readers categorized trigger warnings as “coddling” a “weak” “victim-mentality.”
Additionally, the idea that any trigger warnings constitute censorship is not only incorrect but also definitively misleading. In most cases, no one is saying professors cannot teach texts or show videos. Nor do warnings imply some sort of apology for lessons to follow. Nor, in the interesting choice of words of one professor quoted in the Times piece, do trigger warnings mean that students “should not be forced to deal with something that makes them uncomfortable.” Warnings seek mainly to give students information they need in order to decide whether or not to take or stay in a class.
— What’s Really Important About ‘Trigger Warnings’ By Soraya Chemaly (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/soraya-chemaly/trigger-warnings-college-new-york-times_b_5359276.html)
When and How to Use Trigger Warnings
So we’ve established that no one wants to censor you and you’re not spoiling anything for anyone so what next? Many authors seem very confused on when and how to actually use trigger warnings. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Does my plot contain sensitive topics like abuse, domestic violence, racism, homophobia, suicide or rape?
- Do my characters experience abuse or suffer graphic violence on the page?
- Do any of my characters suffer from a mental illness?
- Do any of my characters die in the course of the plot?
- Do any of my characters struggle with substance abuse?
- Are there any graphic scenes of violence or sex that are not expected in the genre or not covered by the blurb?
If you answered yes to any of these you owe it to your reader to use a trigger warning. I am not saying give away your plot. There are very simple and easy ways to include trigger warnings without spoiling anything for anyone. You aren’t going to list every trigger you can think of, obviously. Just the ones that pertain to your story. It is as easy as just saying: major character death, suicide, rape.
My book The Jeweled Dagger contains the following after the blurb:
Trigger warnings for: verbal abuse, transphobia, character death, attempted rape, homophobia.
Now, do you know what the book is about? Have I spoiled the plot for you?
Not likely. The words, while providing all the information you need, do not spoil the plot for you. If you feel that I have taken away anything from your reading experience by listing these then I’m not sure why you bother with blurbs either.
Those of us who occasionally use trigger warnings are not as naïve as we’re made out to be; we understand that there is no magical warning that will assuage all anxieties and protect students from all traumas, nor is there a boilerplate trigger warning or trigger warning policy that professors can be reasonably expected to follow formulaically. Rather, trigger warnings are, in practice, just one of a set of tools that professors use with varying degrees of formality to negotiate the give-and-take of classroom interactions. If you take away the media hysteria surrounding trigger warnings, you’re left with a mode of conversational priming that we all use: “You might want to sit down for this”; “I’m not sure how to say this, but…” It’s hardly anti-intellectual or emotionally damaging to anticipate that other people may react to traumatic material with negative emotions, particularly if they suffer from PTSD; it’s human to engage others with empathy. It’s also human to have emotional responses to life and literature, responses that may come before, but in no way preclude, a dispassionate analysis of a text or situation.
The P.C. backlash and the trigger-warning backlash hold a common fallacy: They see pushback from the margins and mistake it for threats to the most institutionally powerful.
—The Trigger Warning Myth by Aaron R. Hanlon (https://newrepublic.com/article/122543/trigger-warning-myth)
We as authors get a lot of grief from all sides and it is understandable that having to account for yet another thing on our to-do list seems counter-productive. It is perfectly understandable that we want our readers to be surprised by plot developments. But we lose nothing by listing a simple warning. We may even gain more readers.