Trigger Warnings

A discussion on a previous post has raised the flag again. This flag is a question:

Should novels/fiction have trigger warnings to indicate the potential risk to the reader?

I’ve seen it discussed in reading groups, in social settings, in the library, but I don’t understand a couple of things about the need or desire to put trigger warnings on stories.

One of those is the use of genre to indicate the most likely reader for the story. If I see a book with zombie as part of the genre, I don’t open it. I don’t like zombie stories. Or vampire stories. Or historical stories (except the adventure ones). Never have. I like ghost stories, though there are some paranormal ghosties that go too far, so I might read the blurb and the first few pages to see if it’s going to meet my need for a fix (that will come up later).

I know some stories will trigger me in ways I don’t want to be triggered. Some of those stories are romances — weird, right? But if it’s a romance with a baby, I don’t read them. Not since … well, not since then. It might take me days to get over one of those. Sometimes longer. A mother never forgets.

Why? A story is an emotional connection from word-images to reader. That’s how it’s supposed to be. I sit down, tuck the blanky around my legs, and delve into another life. There will be ups and downs, conflict, tension, pain (at a distance, vicarious, safe). I may even cry and enjoy that release of pressure.

The fix (told you that would pop up later) is an emotional need to live within a moment that creates those highs and lows without risk. We learn through experience, but what we experience in our mind is as strong as what we experience in the real world.

Maybe not exercise, but if they keep telling me it’s possible, I will believe! (maybe I should write it into a story? Hmmm.)

Why do I need to put a warning on the story if the genre is going to reflect the type of story?

Will some readers be offended if I do that? I worry about that.

Will they think I don’t trust them to figure it out? I worry about that, too.

These are my fears. If I put a trigger warning on a dark fantasy and say it’s scary or dark and likely to induce anxiety, even knowing that most people read that genre for that reason, will it have the effect of saving someone, or will it push more people away because I don’t trust them?

I’m not being funny about this. It’s as serious as cultural appropriation (maybe another post for that nugget).

What do you think?

Should writers put trigger warnings on their stories if there’s a chance someone will be overloaded with a nasty moments of anxiety?

Photo by Marie Pankova on

How about: Ongoing incidents through the series may evoke anxiety (thanks for the example, L).

Tell me what you think, but remember this:

All comments are monitored, so nasty stuff won’t make it past the gate-keeper, and will be replaced with blank space. I’m a bit wary of posting this discussion, so if it gets too interesting, it will be removed.

51 thoughts on “Trigger Warnings

  1. I’ve worried about this, too. My upcoming novel has some very, very serious moments in it that could very well warrant trigger warnings by some people’s standards. But I don’t like putting on trigger warnings on my stories just the same.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. There’s no way you can anticipate every reader’s triggers. Like you say, the genre, the cover, and the book description should indicate whether a book is dark, violent, etc. Readers who are particularly susceptible to certain triggers may want to read reviews to get a more thorough idea.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s true. Until I get enough reviews, though, I may need to put a single line on the blurb (don’t know what yet, maybe ‘be over 18’ or similar?), perhaps, and make sure the cover and genre selection are accurate.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I would if it were erotica or spatter/gore, but I’m not sure about how far this would then go.
      I’ll just make sure the cover and blurb and genre aren’t likely to confuse a reader.


      • Cage, I’m wondering if you think erotica or spatter/gore are more harmful/triggering than supernatural horror? I think the supernatural horror is way way more harmful as it is planting memes/neurolingual messages in one’s brain, where erotica and spatter are more visual triggers. I was thinking about the label thing last night and tried to compare it to warning labels on films, which pretty much lay out the problem areas that could be harmful to children. Without going into details, you might think about giving it a rating like a movie, like NC-17. Or those warnings they put on album covers “explicit lyrics.” But then, kids are drawn to things they are told not to read/hear/see etc. Paternalism gives labels to things, where libertarianism says let the populace sort things out on their own.

        Liked by 2 people

      • I don’t know what N-17 is (I’ll look it up) — aha, no children under 17. If there were consistent labels of this sort, I’d consider using them. When publishing on Amazon, they ask the question about suitable age groups, and apart from erotica, they don’t have other restrictions.
        It’s not that I think splatter/gore is worse or less harmful/triggering, but they’re easier to show in terms of cover or genre, whereas stories of fantasy can vary from Cinderella-style tales to Gothic witches eating children. What I write (most often) is fantasy in an urban setting with a dark tone (which is why I usually add the label ‘horror’ to the stories, even though I don’t consider them ‘horrifying’ — other people do).
        My concern, and the reason for the post/s, is that I don’t want to mislabel or misrepresent what the reader’s going to see/get.
        And if I send a copy without a cover or blurb that’s appropriate, it’s my bad if the reader is triggered. I should have thought of that, and said something to the effect of the contents.
        For that alone, I need to consider this question with a lot more care in the future.

        Liked by 1 person

    • In the modern world, people do expect more clarity in what they’re getting.
      I think the cover and genre and blurb should be enough, but that’s assuming that each part has been done to suit the internal story. It may be something I need to ensure of all three of those elements to make sure I’m not doing a misrepresentation somehow.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. That is a question I debated. My LEARNERS AT LOVE series started out as a romantic comedy, however my main characters all had their own stories. So it the various mental health issues became a major part of the book as well. I have a character who became addicted to alcohol while he was at college and found out his parents were divorcing, although is now recovered, another character who had a nervous breakdown due to huge stress and went on a self-destruct episode including drink, drugs and gambling, who has been through rehab but is still in enormous debt, another character who is in the music industry and has a casual attitude towards his drinking and drug-taking, and the character I was especially worried about was the one who has perhaps the most major mental health issues, including self harm.

    But the way I have written the book, the reader gets to know the characters “on a good day” but then as the story progresses, they learn more and more about them and their past battles and current challenges slowly come out. I didn’t want to give anything away to readers as I thought it would spoil the reading.

    So what I decided to do was to make clear in the book description on Amazon and on the cover that this is on the whole a light-hearted romance with mental health themes weaved into the story. One thing I am truly truly grateful for is that everyone who has reviewed my books has said that I dealt with the mental health themes with a lightness that did not weigh the story down or make it depressing. I just showed my characters had been through challenges and were all learning, about themselves, about life and about love.

    But it is a story that is there to make readers feel better, feel hope, and romance, love and friendship are the major themes. I absolutely did not want a Disney Princess ending, but I wanted to show that despite major mental health challenges, someone can rebuild their life and gain so much joy. They may always have a weakness that they need some additional support with, but by communicating and accepting support they are more likely to find an environment in which they can heal and grow and thrive. The very last lines of the third book in the series were so important to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. I think I’ll have to put more work into the covers and blurbs to ensure readers know the likely contents of the story. And for the beta readers, I’ll have to warn them because I may not have the cover or blurb complete when I give them the story.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Where would you end? The list could be long: violence, sex, graphic, horror, romance, erotic, murder, zombies, ghosts, vampires, monologue … might be so many multiples, and, unlike foods which might kill or cause serious conditions and need labelling, books can be viewed, even online.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. When I finished my second book Ancient Book of Eli, I wrote a commercial to market my book. It featured a sign that says “Vatican Book Screening Room”, and then it fades to the inside of this room where a monk has just finished reading my book. The monk walks up to a table on the right, where there is a sign that says “Acceptable”. The sign on the left of this table says, “Banned” and there is a flaming pit behind that sign. As the monk places my book in the Acceptable area he says, “Even though this book has too much sex in it for my taste, I am going to recommend it to the Pope, as I feel that it has the potential to make the Bible interesting and maybe it will get people back into reading the Bible again.”
    I wrote another commercial which is sarcastic and it warns that anything done to excess could end up with harmful consequences! Air, sunshine and water are all looked at as being positive things, but breathing too much air, or being exposed to too much sunshine, or drinking too much water can all lead to death. There is not data available to back this up yet, but prolonged extensive reading of my book may come with some annoying side effects. Continuous reading of my new book may cause an uncontrollable movement of your eye muscles, which is commonly known as twitching. Other side effects may include restless leg syndrome, headaches, upset stomachs or profuse sweating. Any side effects that are incurred due to reading my book are unintended and the author assumes no responsibility if you experience any loss of cognitive functions, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, hair loss, mouth sores or hemorrhoids.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. When I was a child my mother put all of her ‘adult’ books in a grocery bag in the closet in the spare room and said, ‘don’t go in there.” (There is no better way to encourage a child to read.) As a writer I assume that if what I’m writing triggers something (or my stuff is just boring) the reader will lay it down and forget to pick it up again. The only book that ever triggered me was ‘The Thornbirds’. No clue why, other than the fact that I had the flu which has an odd psychological element for me as well. But I also don’t write horror or scifi.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I didn’t like Thornbirds, either, but mostly because it was slow reading, almost no tension, and skipped a lot of reality.
      The reason I write horror/scary is probably to test myself, but also because … I liked scaring the siblings when I was a kid, and can’t seem to help it. And we didn’t have any books in the house. At all. Just goes to show that story will happen with or without the books.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I wouldn’t do it. People can stop reading if your words upset them, just like they can switch channels. If they can’t tear themselves away, that just means you wrote a great story!

    I do put a fiction disclaimer on mine though…

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Hi Cage, I would not expect to see a trigger warning on a book that is obviously horror that it is scary and could cause anxiety. I also think that is self explanatory. My new supernatural historical novel contains two rape scenes. Those may require a trigger warning. I am still deciding but am gravitating towards including it.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Well, reading about a rape could really upset someone who has been a victim of sexual abuse or rape. However, I don’t think dark and scary is something to warn people about if the book is supernatural horror. Dark and scary is expected in those genres of books. Suicide and rape are the only two events that I would provide a trigger warning for. I horror book doesn’t necessarily have a rape or suicide in it so it isn’t something you would automatically expect.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. No. If someone is completely clueless enough as to not understand the genre, the cover, the blurb, reviews, what the author may have blogged about it, etc, then they deserve to experience whatever the author has written, however the author has written it.
    With all the age categories around these days, (YA, etc) not even an age ‘warning’ is necessary. (this assumes the author isn’t being an arse and trolling their readers, of course)
    I suspect the rise of trigger warnings has more to do with a, percieved, desire to feel emotionally safe inside a story, to not be challenged … which defeats the whole purpose of the story.
    Our culture these days is all about these things too. We are constrained by myriad layers of control mechanisms, all designed with our ‘best interests’ in mind, of course.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Pingback: Trigger Warnings — Two | Cage Dunn: Fibber, Fabricator, Teller-of-tall-tales

    • In writing the post, I didn’t consider how a blind person would see the cover — how do you decide if a book isn’t what you want or like to read? What are your options for deciding: blurb, title, preview? something else?
      I’m very interested to hear your opinions.


  11. My first response is that it could be a step in the direction toward censorship to which I am vehemently opposed. An early reader, age three, I was ensconced in a world that felt surreal to me and so I avoided the children’s section of the library in search of things that were real. History and biographies became my earliest friends and as soon as I discovered philosophy wanted all I could get my hands on. There were no hidden books where I grew up and there were no books at all. The library provided both a safe haven and an escape.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The library (when we moved to a town) was my safe place, too.
      I hope things like warnings or the TV thingies don’t lead to, or aren’t part of, censorship. I don’t know enough about the how or why to know if it could become a roadblock to writers.


  12. Pingback: A Content Warning | Cage Dunn: Fibber, Fabricator, Teller-of-tall-tales

  13. Not sure you could cover all of the possibilities, though… But I get it… I have abruptly closed many a book that got too close for comfort — and not in a scary way, but a very uncomfortable one. If skipping ahead doesn’t solve the trouble, I find I don’t go back…So you may be on to something!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Pingback: What Am I Reading? #6 | sparksfromacombustiblemind

  15. I ‘get’ the trigger warning. I never thought about the fact that certain things ‘trigger’ me (nor did I think it was relevant UNTIL): I was watching a movie where they had a character as an abuse victim (sexual abuse as a child). She was put in a dangerous situation and I began to get highly upset (far more than was warranted, given it was a FICTIONAL character in a movie). I barely finished watching that movie (because it was part of a trilogy) but I’ll never see it again. I asked my therapist what the heck, because I’ve seen violence in movies, people with past histories and so forth. She said I’d been ‘triggered’ by the woman who had been abused and was in the dangerous situation, in her opinion. I didn’t know what triggering even was frankly. Thought it was another example of overly P.C. thinking and the nanny state was sticking their long nose into terminology again. It’s not. I now understand my reactions to certain things a lot better. Before I was wandering around belittling myself for being ‘too sensivity’ and so forth. Triggers are involuntary (well mine are), and by judiciously choosing things I read or watch, I can avoid being triggered. It’s not good for anyone, not me and not those around me if it happens. So having a little heads up is great IMHO. Sorry about the lengthy response too. I have a tendency..

    Liked by 1 person

    • I understand. One of the things about the craft of writing is to find a way to get the reader to fully empathise with the main character in the story (applies to movies, too), so with certain issues, it’s possible that trigger or content warnings may be appropriate. My trigger isn’t any of the abuse or violence aspects, and I know it can’t be a warning (caution: happy children present — doesn’t sound right). Knowing what to put when it’s needed and how to put it is another question.
      Will people in the US understand what I say as an Australia (we have different movie grading/warning codes)?
      It’s going to be a fine line in most cases.


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