Recently, a member of a writing group I’m in got feedback that if they are going to post pieces that include graphic descriptions of suicide, they ought to include a trigger warning.
Immediately, someone else rushed to their defense, saying that the member had the right to post what they posted.
Whoa. Slow your roll.
Trigger warnings are not censorship. They aren’t a tool of the easily offended or the Sensitivity Police, demanding that people stop writing things that might make other people uncomfortable.
I don’t know how we got to this place as a society where having consideration for other people and their struggles has become equivalent to censorship. That’s a problem that has pervaded every aspect of our lives and goes well beyond the scope of a blog about writing.
At least part of the problem is a misunderstanding of what trigger warnings are and why they’re important, and that I can help with.
The Truth About Trigger Warnings
In writing groups over the past few months, the debate over trigger warnings happens constantly. Here are some of the reasons writers are often against the practice (none of which happen to be accurate):
- Fear that people won’t want to read their book if it has a trigger warning on it.
- Fear that trigger warnings will spoil plot twists.
- Fear that they’re enabling censorship of uncomfortable stories.
As an author, I understand all of these fears, especially the fear of censorship. That’s something all authors should stand against. Whether you’re writing about unpopular political positions or stories set in the year 4572, you absolutely should have the right to write them.
But that has nothing to do with trigger warnings. The point of the warning isn’t to discourage people from reading your story. It’s to alert those readers who might have a severe emotional reaction that your book contains the type of material that may cause that reaction.
It’s similar to the way that many food items contain warnings that they were processed in a plant that processes peanuts. That doesn’t stop the company from selling the food or stop people from buying it. But it does let people who have an allergy to peanuts know that they are potentially exposing themselves to a serious health problem.
Triggers are a Real Mental Health Issue
One of the reasons writers often object to trigger warnings is that they think ‘trigger’ is a code word for ‘thing that bothers me’ and that readers shouldn’t be coddled this way.
It’s not coddling to issue a trigger warning, though, because triggers can cause mental health issues for trauma survivors.
Simply put, a trigger is anything that reminds a person of a traumatic event in their lives. For someone with PTSD or unhealed trauma in their lives, triggers can wreak havoc. The person might freeze up, have a panic attack, or have a flashback — a very unpleasant experience in which they re-experience their trauma as if it is happening now.
Is that how you want your readers to react to your work? I certainly don’t. I want readers to come away glad that they read my books, not terrified and so sick to their stomachs that they never want to read anything of mine again.
Providing a trigger warning doesn’t guarantee that nobody will ever get triggered.
I write thrillers, which means that my characters share a scary world with people who want to do grave harm to them. They are trauma survivors. They are facing off with murderers, rapists, and kidnappers. Of course this is going to trigger some people!
If I include a trigger warning, I can help readers make an informed decision about whether the types of books that I write are for them. If a reader gets triggered anyway, at least I did my part to help them avoid a bad situation for themselves.
But Can’t Anything Be A Trigger?
Sometimes writers are loathe to use trigger warnings because they think they’re being asked to warn people about every possible trigger in the world.
It’s true that triggers can be idiosyncratic. For example, a person who associates the smell of chocolate chip cookies baking with the time they were abused in the kitchen might be triggered by that smell. You can’t predict that, and it would be ridiculous to put a trigger warning for every sight, smell, and sound in your book.
That’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about the type of events that it’s reasonable to expect might trigger someone.
Witnessing or experiencing life-threatening violence can be traumatic, so you should offer trigger warnings for things like:
- Sexual or physical abuse (especially if graphic)
- Domestic violence
It’s especially important to include a trigger warning if the reader isn’t likely to expect the content. For example, if you are writing a murder mystery, the reader should expect that someone will meet a violent end, so it’s not as vital to include a trigger warning here. If you’re writing a romance, however, your readers might not expect murders, rapes, or other potentially triggering content, so it’s best to include a trigger warning.
Some types of trauma are more tragic than violent. For example, people who have lost a child, whether it’s through miscarriage or serious illness, might be triggered by stories that contain these types of tragedy.
Finally, if you include especially graphic or gory content, the considerate thing to do is to use a trigger warning. Some people (myself included!) can’t take a lot of blood or other serious injuries and could have a traumatic reaction to these types of descriptions.
But Won’t My Trigger Warning Spoil Plot Twists?
Plot twists are an important part of keeping readers engaged, especially if you write thrillers or mysteries.
However, if your twist is that someone was raped, murdered, or otherwise attacked violently, that’s not a great twist. These types of events rarely engage readers positively when they are used for shock value.
Also, your trigger warning doesn’t have to give away plot events. It can be as simple as, “This work contains references to domestic violence that might be upsetting for some readers.” Note that in this example, you aren’t giving away HOW the work includes domestic violence or who the victim is. So if you want your twist to be that an antagonist switches sides when she learns that her lover is abusing someone else the same way he abuses her, you haven’t given anything away.
Ideally, your trigger warnings will not stand out so much that they are memorable for the wrong reasons. It’s likely that someone who is not triggered by domestic violence will forget about the warning after they read it, so it shouldn’t interfere with any surprises you’ve baked into your story.
The Bottom Line About Trigger Warnings
The bottom line about trigger warnings is that they help your readers avoid negative experiences while reading your book.
Some trauma survivors experience severe mental anguish when they get triggered, so the considerate thing to do is use warnings to help them avoid that.
You’ll also sell more books and have more satisfied readers if you use trigger warnings. Readers who get unnecessarily triggered aren’t going to want to read more of your books and might warn their friends about their experience.
Do you use trigger warnings? Share your thoughts about it in the comments!