Trigger Warnings: Protecting Your Readers
I’m not what you might call a "delicate flower." There are few things that trigger me, and even fewer that offend. However, I am also only one person, and the beauty of the world is that it’s made up of such a vast variety of individuals.
As an author, it's your job to step back and take a good, hard look at the work you’re shipping out to the masses and decide whether there’s anything—no matter how small—that might trigger a reader. And if there is, it’s your duty to provide a warning.
Now, let’s back up a bit here. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term “trigger,” just what do I mean? I’ll allow the experts at Psych Central to explain:
Okay, okay, okay. I can sense y’all’s frustration from the future. If we base it off this definition, just about anything we write could—and very likely, for at least someone, does—cause a trigger effect. But let’s be realistic here. It isn’t your job to warn readers of the expected and everyday things, only the unexpected and possibly hurtful. You know, things that are potentially or even blatantly distressing.
Now here’s where I think it gets hairy for some authors. You see, the whole reason I’m writing this post is because I’ve read several books lately that lacked trigger warnings even though they clearly should’ve had them. So, let’s discuss what I mean when I say, “things that are potentially or even blatantly distressing.”
I’d like to hope it goes without saying that any on-page depictions of traumatic events—such as rape, sexual assault, murder, abuse, suicide… you get the picture, right?—should always and forever warrant a trigger warning. There should be absolutely no question about that.
However, what about mere mentions of these events? Or themes that encompass them, but don’t necessarily show them in gory detail? Do they need trigger warnings too?
This is where you, as the author, need to step back and use your critical thinking cap. Try to put yourself in the shoes of someone who has suffered a similar life experience as the one you’re writing about. There’s no black or white answer here, you just have to use your best judgement. However, keep in mind: If you haven’t lived certain events, it isn’t always easy to understand the effect they can have on a person.
Let me give you a personal example. I mentioned at the beginning of this post that I’m not easily triggered. However, there are some things that can send me into dark places I’d most certainly rather avoid. Therefore, I do choose to actively avoid certain stories with subject matter that might make me uncomfortable. Especially when I’m not given a warning, so I can mentally “brace” myself.
One of these areas is suicide. I’ve had several people close to me pass away due to this harrowing act and reading about it can be challenging at times. Again, especially without some preparation. I recently read a book where, no, we didn’t physically see a character commit the act on page, but several subplots delved into the various repercussions that echoed in the wake of the deed. No trigger warning was supplied, and while I slogged through, I was rather uncomfortable and wound up in a not so fun emotional place for little while.
When in doubt, it never hurts to throw up a warning just to be safe. If you’re concerned it might give away a plot twist, ruin the suspense, or otherwise harm the presentation of your story, you can always provide a spoiler warning prior to the trigger warning. Believe it or not, I’ve seen this done before, and quite effectively too.
In case you’re wondering what that looked like, allow me to demonstrate.
At the top of an otherwise blank page near the beginning of the book was the title:
Approximately one inch down the page, it stated:
Note: Reading these trigger warnings may cause spoilers.
Then, closer to the bottom of the page (so any reader who so chose not to read the trigger warning wouldn’t accidentally catch the words out of the corner of their eye) the warning(s) were listed:
This book includes references to [xyz] and graphic depictions of [xyz]
Many people believe trigger warnings are “too coddling” and don’t support their use. I am not of that camp. Triggers are very, very real and can lead people down desperately dark and dangerous mental pathways. It isn’t “coddling” to protect someone from harm, especially when it would be our words harming them.
Think about it this way: Every writer I know writes because it’s a passion of theirs. For some, it’s as necessary to their daily existence as breathing. For others, maybe it’s only a hobby. But no matter how strong the driving force, the simple fact remains that we do it because some part of us loves it. I know, for me, the very idea of hurting someone with the words I write makes my heart ache. That’s the exact opposite of what I wish. Do I want the reader to feel strong emotion in the context of the story itself? Absolutely. But do I want my words to physically harm them, as a person? Definitely not.
So, whether you’ve experienced a traumatic event of your own or not, be sensitive to those who have. You can still write the story you want to write, just be cognizant of how it might affect your readers and act accordingly.
Until next time,