This article was inspired by a discussion in a writing group, and a series of questions that were posed about the inclusion of trigger warnings in books. But first, a word on what trigger warnings are –and what they aren’t.

Trigger warnings attempt to forewarn audiences of content that may cause intense physiological and psychological symptoms for people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. People with PTSD have physical, emotional, and mental symptoms that are triggered by stimuli that is similar to the trauma the individual experienced. Hence the “trigger” in trigger warning.

Individuals do not have control over what triggers their PTSD, but many have personal strategies to cope with triggers when encountered. Those strategies work best when the trigger is expected, hence the importance of warnings: they give people the forewarning necessary to put on their metaphorical armor, or to decide not to partake in that particular media.

Trigger warnings aren’t meant to warn people of content they might find offensive. Unfortunately, the rise of “Lol ur triggered!” troll culture has led to a shift in how the term is perceived.

The Original Questions

Q: As a reader, would you welcome trigger warnings in a book?

A: Yes. There are some specific situations that I’d rather not encounter without a warning. If the specific trigger warning isn’t relevant to me, I can just ignore it. To paraphrase a popular saying, it costs me absolutely nothing to let people with PTSD have something that makes their quality of life better.

Q: As an author, have you ever included a trigger warning in your book – either in a WIP, beta copy, or finished book?

A: I have for beta copies. There are things in some of my works in progress, and in short stories I’ve written but never published, that I would definitely want to put a warning on.

Q: Trigger warnings are often used for strong sexual and/or violent situations. What other scenarios might you consider as requiring a trigger warning?

A: Sexual violence and graphic descriptions of harm definitely deserve a warning, and I would suggest including warnings for domestic abuse, slavery, and exploitation. It might be wise to include warnings for grievous harm to children and animals as well.

Q: Do you think that including a trigger warning could limit the creativity of an author, or is it a good practice to alert readers to strong material in a book?

A: No, I absolutely don’t. That implies that if authors have to indicate up front how twisted the content of their book is, they might be tempted to be less graphic. I find that concept… interesting.

I stand behind everything I write; if a reader or critic were to question any specific scene, I can explain why I included it and what its purpose is. And no, none of them are just for “the lols” or shock value. It’s absolutely good practice to warn your readers if you include content that is a common PTSD trigger.

Q: If you think a trigger warning is a good idea, where would be the best place to put it so that people will see it before reading the book?

A: I would include trigger warnings on the back cover for physical books and at the end of the book description or blurb for ebooks.

Argument: Trigger Warnings As Spoilers

People have alluded that they don’t want to see or use trigger warnings because it would spoil the plot and shock value of the book. That shouldn’t be a concern if the warning is well written.

A trigger warning shouldn’t be a graphic description of the triggering content. Example: “This material contains an explicit descriptions of a character being skinned alive, raped, and slowly eaten alive by maggots.” This is unnecessary. At best, it’s a spoiler. At worst, it’s triggering in itself.

At the same time, a trigger warning shouldn’t be so vague that it could refer to almost anything. “Contains strong sexual content” is a good example of this. What exactly is strong sexual content? I’ve seen this kind of warning used to describe everything from explicitly-described consensual sex to safely-practiced BDSM to domestic abuse to violent sexual assault to pedophilia, necrophilia, and bestiality.

Obviously this means that a sexual assault victim or survivor of abuse can either avoid your work entirely because it might contain something that’s deeply disturbing to them, or keep reading and hope it doesn’t. Either way, you’re doing yourself a disservice as an author if you include a warning this vague.

Here’s my rule of thumb for warnings: make it clean, concise, and clinical. Example: “Contains graphic scenes of torture, grievous bodily injury, sexual assault, and death.” This A) alerts those with PTSD that might be set off by these specific types of content, B) is not unnecessarily graphic, and C) doesn’t provide plot spoilers.

Argument: Your Blurb Should Provide All the Warning Needed

Well, no, not really. And definitely not in all cases.

There are many, many stories that are not about sexual assault, torture, or abuse but which include graphic descriptions of those things. Some are quite integral to the story; others probably could have been cut. At the end of the day, especially if you’re writing something other than erotica or horror, your blurb alone probably won’t provide adequate warning.

A blurb should showcase your book’s main selling points. How many science fiction and fantasy authors have sexual assault, child abuse, or explicit torture as the main selling point of their books? I’d hazard a guess that the answer is not many.

Argument: “The real world doesn’t have trigger warnings!”

You’re right; it doesn’t. Fiction isn’t the real world, though. It’s an escape, a place the reader chooses to go for relaxation and entertainment. The reader who paid for your book deserves not to be ambushed with content that causes them to relive traumatic events. Reading is an immersive experience for many people, and graphic descriptions of violence can feel (and trigger psychological reactions that are) very real.

Argument: Everything Is Potentially Triggering

Yes, there are innocuous things that can be triggering for those with PTSD. Chances are that encountering a brief description of that thing in a book is unlikely to trigger the reader’s PTSD the way encountering it in real life would. What we’re talking about are common triggers such as graphic descriptions of violence.

At the end of the day, there is no way to include a trigger warning for everything that might conceivably trigger someone’s PTSD. No one is asking that you do so. What people are asking for is reasonable warning about things that are clearly common PTSD triggers.

Why I Support Trigger Warnings/content warnings

I like my readers. I don’t want to ambush someone with something that, for them, is deeply traumatizing or painful. I also think it’s inviting justifiably negative reviews if I include obvious triggers without giving the reader some kind of advance warning.

Like it or not, PTSD is incredibly common. According to the US National Institutes of Health, PTSD affects about 7.7 million American adults in a given year– and due to the stigma surrounding PTSD and the difficulty of accessing affordable care, the true number is probably considerably higher. If you choose not to include trigger warnings for content that deserves it, you’re alienating a significant number of potential readers.

I strive to treat my readers the way I’d like to be treated. At the end of the day, well-thought-out trigger/content warnings get a “hell yeah!” from me.

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5 thoughts on “Trigger Warnings In Writing

  1. Triggering us a broad spec psych term – you can be triggered with any compulsive, anxious avoidance or trauma based disorder, not just PTSD. Assault fictions sans other mental health issues can be triggered into depression too. My friend Kai is on a group that was (also?) debating similar and we were talking trigger warnings todst at our writing group. As a psych nurse, I see them as essential, incredibly so. Lots of good points raised.
    Good article otherwise.

  2. This is a well-focused and informative article pertinent to both the reading and writing communities.

    Thank you for sharing, Leland, I’m grateful to be able to share this information with our Indie community!

  3. Trigger warnings make victims of people. As artists, our intent is rarely (if ever) to hurt anyone with our art, but rather to express ourselves as creatively as possible and evoke emotion. If someone has psychological problems it is their responsibility to either get the help necessary to deal with those issues, or not do things that “trigger” them. Putting the responsibility on authors not only puts unreasonable demands on us, it created a victim mentality for the reader. If their PTSD is triggered, it becomes the fault of the writer.

    We can’t cotton coat the world, and even if we could – it wouldn’t be helpful. People need to learn to make choices that are right for them, practice living and coping skills as well as learn new ones. While trigger warnings may seem like a very loving, caring thing to do for others, the truth is that its codependent and enabling. It only helps to keep people sick.

    I’m speaking as someone who has overcome much trauma and once crippling mental illness. I’m fortunate to have been able to overcome that, and believe I only did because I never viewed myself as a victim, though I easily could have. To be healthy we have to be responsible.

    My very strong opinion. As artists we shouldn’t be traveling down this route. Should we start putting trigger warnings on Starry Night by Van Gogh, or Edvard Munch’s The Scream? And cover them up before people can look at them?

    • Leland Lydecker says:

      The existence of a trigger warning does NOT make a victim of anyone. If it helps them avoid content they’re not far enough along their healing journey to face, good– it might just help them avoid a major setback. Otherwise trigger warnings are easy to ignore if you feel they’re not relevant to you. Having your PTSD or other mental health condition ‘triggered’ is not a sign that you’re not getting the help you need; it’s a sign that you’re not fully healed yet. This does not ‘keep people sick.’

      I strongly suggest you do some factual research into PTSD and other mental health conditions, or at least read the article you’re commenting on. Making unsupported claims and ridiculous comparisons (why would anyone ask for a trigger warning on Van Gogh’s Starry Night?) does nothing to support your argument.

      I’ll reiterate what I said in the article: including a brief, well-worded trigger or content warning costs authors absolutely nothing. It is not censorship– you can still put anything you want in your writing. But choosing not to is likely to alienate readers and expose you to negative reviews. The choice is yours.

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