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Trigger Warnings: What they are (and are NOT)

Rosa Marchisella is the author of the gripping "Touch of Insanity" series and the bone-chilling novella "The Greatest of Books."

It's time we discuss what a trigger warning actually is and why you may want to consider including one in your book description or blurb if you include certain types of incidents in your story.

(Spoiler - it has nothing to do with your readers being dictators and everything to do with respecting your audience.)

trigger-warnings-what-they-are-and-are-not

Conversations are cropping up more and more in writing groups where an author ponders if they should include a trigger warning on their book and half a dozen folks jump in with things like:

  • "Life doesn't come with warnings"
  • "Warnings on books are spoilers"
  • "I'm tired of snowflakes wanting to be protected from words in a book!"
  • "They should know to expect [insert terrible thing] when they read [insert genre]"
  • "Bad stuff happens to people every day"

... and my pet peeve; "That's censorship!"

I'm fed up with authors spouting "life doesn't come with warning labels" and "trigger warnings are for delicate snowflakes". Let's take a look at some of these arguments against trigger warnings.

Myth: Censorship

I am beyond annoyed with authors equating trigger warnings (ie. Warning: Contains violent sex and domestic violence) with censorship (ie. "Remove this content from your book or it will never be published!"). You'd think people who write for a living would know the difference between a request for common courtesy and a dictator seizing control.

Including a trigger warning isn't censorship. No one is asking you to remove those parts of the book - which is what censorship is. Most readers assume you added them for a good reason and respect that decision.

Myth: Genre or "Mature" Notice Should Be Enough

Authors need to understand: Writing in a certain genre or saying there is "Mature" or "Adult" content, does not automatically equal rape and abuse. Most adults don't mind mature content - sex, language, and even some violence. But a shockingly large number of adults have been brutalized in their past. They have a very real need to know if there is triggering content, such as rape, domestic violence, and child abuse. They must know in advance so they can either watch for it and skip the scene or forego reading your book completely (while feeling positive toward you).

When someone who has been traumatized comes across triggering content unawares, they can have panic or anxiety attacks, and suffer nightmares and flashbacks - for days.

Myth: You Can See It Coming

I hear so many people saying, "But you can see things that might trigger you coming up". Sometimes that's true, but not always. And, even if you skip the triggering scene, the character spends the rest of the story dealing with the aftermath of the incident: recall, flashbacks, nightmares, overwhelming emotions, etc. that could trigger your reader and there’s no "lead up" to prepare a person for that.

Myth: I Have PTSD and Don't Need Trigger Warnings

As someone with PTSD, this one angers me a lot. It's a self-centered and narrow-minded response from someone - reader or author - who should know better. The simple truth we learn from being a compassionate and aware person is something psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors often mention is this:

Just because something doesn't trigger you doesn't mean someone else with PTSD from a similar or different cause won't be triggered. This is also true for people with phobias and other disorders.

As someone who requires trigger warnings, I can say with sincerity:

I am not a delicate snowflake. I am a deeply feeling person who was horribly brutalized. I am a determined individual who spent years clawing her way through PTSD to "normal" (or as close as I can get) so I can be a functioning parent, partner, and member of my community.

I tell you from personal experience:

It's hell to have old horrors dragged up from the depths because someone didn't have the courtesy to warn you about something in a book you were reading for pleasure to escape "Real Life".

I don't want to give up reading your books because there "might" be something lurking there to drag me back into the Darkness. I don't want spoilers or chunks of your work removed. I simply want to know if the "mature content" means

1) Characters having sex and cussing their faces off while stuff blows up around them, in which case: Good! I can deal with that. In fact, it will help me process my own emotions and "own my Shadow".

OR

2) The main character is going to be brutalized. In this case; Polite pass for my own well-being and the benefit of those who depend on me.... But, I will look for your other works and share a link to your book with people I know who might like this one.

Wouldn't you like the same courtesy shown to you?

Myth: People Are Just Delicate Snowflakes

Calling a reader is a "snowflake" (or any other slur) because they need a trigger warning is flat-out hostile. Why be a jerk to potential clients and reviewers?

Remember:

So, What is a Trigger Warning?

A request for trigger warnings is your readers asking that you respect them enough to give a heads up about how dark things are going to get. This can be done without giving details or spoilers.

You are being asked to do this so your reader can make a conscious and informed choice about your story. You are protecting your reader from inadvertent harm; showing them compassion which will garner a favorable opinion of you. They may not read this book, but they'll be on the lookout for another one by you, because you respected them.

More importantly, trigger warnings gift readers with something precious that was stolen by the people who hurt them: FREE WILL. You are giving others the ability to walk away from an experience that might hurt them.

A Trigger Warning Is

  • A short sentence that gives a concise list of topics (ie. rape, domestic violence, child abuse) in your book that may trigger your reader into having flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks, and other negative responses based on something traumatizing that happened to them in the past.
  • A courtesy and sign of respect afforded your readers to give them the option of being alert and skipping parts of your story or passing on your book.

A Trigger Warning Is NOT

  • A detailed description of actions or incidents in your book.
  • A demand for you to remove or rewrite content in your book.
  • A method of controlling you.
trigger-warnings-what-they-are-and-are-not

Not sure if your story should have a trigger warning?

Read my article, Should You Include a Trigger Warning? which lists content your readers should be warned about.

Original Article published Feb 13, 2017

© 2021 Rosa Marchisella

Comments

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on June 15, 2021:

This subject has come up with a couple of my author friends who write horror or paranormal fiction. I'm glad to see that they are concerned about their readers, but don't want to change their work to make it more "acceptable." Great review of the issue!

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