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June 19, 2018

Should We Include Trigger Warnings for Our Story — Guest: Bran L. Ayres

Caution tape with text: Should Authors Warn Readers?

I’m attempting to take a vacation this week, and I’ve got two phenomenal guest posts by Bran L. Ayres lined up for us. Last year, Bran helped us get started in writing with diversity (complete with an awesome worksheet!). Then a few months ago, they came back with tips on avoiding problems with the #OwnVoices movement despite the difficulties for both authors and readers.

This week, we’re starting with Bran’s insights on trigger warnings. I’m excited for the opportunity to share this post because we haven’t talked about this topic much here, only a several-year-old discussion about whether YA books should have a ratings system that dreamed of the possibility of content warnings.

Now years later (and with the rise of self-publishing), we’ve probably seen books that label the content inside. But if we’re not sure whether we should consider using trigger warnings, Bran is here to share their insights and tips.

Please welcome Bran L. Ayres! *smile*

*****

Should Authors Use Trigger Warnings?

by Bran L. Ayres

We as authors have so much to worry about when it comes to our stories—writing, editing, and promoting being just some of the many tasks. Adding one more thing to our to-do list can feel overwhelming.

Yet, here I am asking you to consider yet another thing to add to your list. Trigger warnings.

What Is a Trigger Warning?

Trigger warnings have been a topic of discussion for some time. Many seem to believe they are a waste of time, and some even feel they are pandering to overly sensitive SJW’s (social justice warriors) and creating a ‘victim’ mentality. Some feel that trigger warnings mean that certain topics suddenly become taboo and that this censors meaningful discussion.

But what is a trigger warning? How is it used? Why should we as authors be concerned about them?

A trigger warning is a statement at the beginning of a piece of media that alerts the viewer/reader to the sensitive material contained within that could be potentially distressing or harmful.

It is much like the ratings that the MPAA, ESRB, and MRS provide movies, video games, and comic books. It is to inform their consumers of content and allow them an informed decision.

Trigger warnings can help a reader understand that a book is going to contain certain material and allow them to make an informed choice as to whether or not that material is for them. However, this is one of those important things that don’t get often talked about.

What’s So Important about Informed Decisions?

Like a lot of mental health related issues, trigger warnings come with a huge stigma, and being ‘triggered’ has even become a joke or a way to dismiss someone’s reaction to something. In fact ‘triggered’ is now in the Urban Dictionary and is defined as “getting filled with hate after seeing, hearing or experiencing something you can’t stand.”

Why are trigger warnings so important for authors to include? Click To TweetThis definition and the slang usage of ‘triggered’ has reduced a major health concern to the equivalent of a baby having a tantrum. This is very damaging to those with legitimate triggers. Much like the now-common-place insult of calling something/someone ‘cancer,’ it takes something dangerous and potentially deadly and makes a joke of it while at the same time dehumanizing the target.

Trigger warnings are not frivolous, ‘indie,’ or for those seeking special treatment. They are legitimate warnings that can help someone avoid undue stress that can lead to major health problems, especially for those with mental health issues.

Why Are Trigger Warnings So Important?

Let me be clear, I am not over exaggerating the impact this can have on our readers. As someone with a major mental illness and legitimate triggers, I will tell you right now that being triggered is terrifying.

It is not a surface emotional reaction of being angry or upset. It is having to relive horrible trauma that can put me in a tail-spin of self-loathing and depression for days, if not weeks. For someone contemplating suicide, it could be life-threatening.

“Trigger warnings are potentially lifesaving for people who have dealt with traumas like sexual assault, hate crimes or violence…

This kind of insensitive rhetoric also implies that mental health issues or traumatic pasts ― those that require a safe space or a trigger warning ― render a student weak. And that type of attitude silences those who may be struggling.”

— A Quick Lesson On What Trigger Warnings Actually Do:
They’re rarely used — and research shows they can help
.
By Lindsay Holmes

That is right. Life saving. And no, that is not an exaggeration.

No One Wants to Be Triggered, Not Even You

Have you ever been driving in town and had a close call with another car? Your heart races, you struggle to catch your breath, and your whole body seems to tingle with the effect of the adrenaline rush. You may even have to pull to the side of the road to regain your composure.

Being triggered can feel a lot like that, except throw in graphic memories of a trauma and extend the time over hours and days. It is not fun, and it pretty much guarantees I’ll never read anything you write again. I’m pretty certain that is not the reaction you’re looking for.

Everyone—Yes, Everyone—Wants Warnings

Let’s play a game.

You click on the links below:

Here.

Here.

And Here.

Don’t want to?

Why?

Because you don’t know what’s behind that word, do you? You have no idea if I’m linking you to porn, a picture of kittens, or a virus.

If you clicked on through, you’re a braver person than I. Or maybe you have a software plug-in installed that tells you what the link is when you hover over it. Chrome does this automatically in a small box at the bottom of the page.

Guess what. That’s your warning.

You didn’t want to chance a nasty surprise on the other end of that link. Why? Because you want to keep your computer and yourself safe.

Warnings Are Not Bad

We would never do anything to deliberately hurt or cause our readers (undue) distress. Yes, we want them to enjoy the emotional highs and lows of our plot, but not at the expense of their mental health.

It is not about being ‘offended’ or upset about a plot development. It is not about a ‘victim complex’ or being weak.

It is genuine acute distress brought on by reliving a past trauma that can manifest as an anxiety or panic attack, suicidal ideation, depression and so on. There is a major difference in having an emotional impact on your reader and triggering them into an episode.

Common Concerns about Trigger Warnings

“Using Trigger Warnings Is Censoring My Writing.”

Using trigger warnings is not censoring your writing. You are welcome to write the darkest, goriest, most unsettling, and depressing thing ever.

Just please say so. Leaving it to reviewers is unfair, insensitive, and lazy.

“Additionally, the idea that any trigger warnings constitute censorship is not only incorrect but also definitively misleading. In most cases, no one is saying professors cannot teach texts or show videos. Nor do warnings imply some sort of apology for lessons to follow.”

What’s Really Important About ‘Trigger Warnings’
By Soraya Chemaly

“Using Trigger Warnings Will Spoil the Plot.”

Trigger warnings are simple phrases that describe something that takes place in your story. If you are worried that having a trigger warning will give away too much of the plot, you are welcome to be vague.

Simple words like racism, homophobia, and abuse tell a reader plenty without giving away the whole plot. Often readers will see these and be more likely to pick up your book. The whole point is to prepare your reader for the subject matter.

My book The Jeweled Dagger contains the following after the blurb:

Trigger warnings for: verbal abuse, transphobia, character death, attempted rape, homophobia.

Now, do you know what the book is about? Have I spoiled the plot for you? Not likely. The words, while providing all the information you need, do not ruin the surprises.

When and How to Use Trigger Warnings

So, we’ve established that no one wants to censor you and you’re not spoiling anything for anyone, so what next? Many authors seem very confused on when and how to use trigger warnings.

When to Use Trigger Warnings

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Does my plot contain sensitive topics like abuse, domestic violence, racism, homophobia, suicide or rape?
  • Do my characters experience abuse or suffer graphic violence on the page?
  • Do any of my characters suffer from a mental illness?
  • Do any of my characters die?
  • Do any of my characters struggle with substance abuse?
  • Are there any graphic scenes of violence or sex that are not expected in the genre or not covered by the blurb?

If you answered yes to any of these, you owe it to your reader to use a trigger warning.

When should authors consider using trigger warnings? Click To TweetOf course, no trigger warnings are one-size-fits-all. We can do our due diligence and still have readers upset with us.

So why bother in the first place? Because we are professionals who value our readers, and we are willing to use tools at our disposal to offer them the best experience possible.

It costs us nothing to write a few more words and give them a head’s up. It also shows them that we haven’t fallen for the stigma surrounding mental illness, and that we care about them and their health.

How to Use Trigger Warnings

If you find you need to use some warnings for your book, where do you put them? Many authors put them under their blurb on Amazon or inside the front matter of their stories.

One book I read had a warning just before a chapter that contained on-the-page sex. This won’t work for everyone, but this author understood her audience (asexuals) and knew that there are some who are sex-repulsed and would want to skip that chapter. It was simple courtesy on her part.

Trigger Warnings Should Be Standard Practice

Using trigger warnings should be standard practice. In fact, many romance authors use a ‘flame’ rating to denote the level of sexual content in their stories. These are effectively trigger warnings, letting the reader have a better idea of what to expect and not encounter any unpleasant surprises.

The NSFW (not safe for work) tag is another example of a trigger warning. It tells us that what is included is sensitive subject matter that is best not viewed at work or in public.

We lose nothing by including a trigger warning. It takes, at most, two minutes to write and include with our story. So be courteous and kind, and if needed, please include them.

*****

Bran L. AyresAbout Bran Lindy Ayres

Growing up in rural Missouri surrounded by dense forests teeming with giants, dogwood horses, pine castles and grapevine snakes, Bran has always had a very healthy imagination. This was further inculcated by their mother, who encouraged them to read the likes of Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov. Their love of fantasy and writing has never waned even as they got older, and has developed into a need to write.

They currently live in Southern Missouri with three young nerdlings and several precocious felines. When not writing, Bran can be found with their face still glued to the computer screen playing video games or reading.

Find Bran on Twitter (@WriteRainbows), Facebook, Patreon, Book & Main, and Tumblr, or explore their books

*****

How to Write with Diversity Workshop

How to Write with Diversity Workshop - A Bran Lindy Ayres Workshop Series

This 4-week workshop is devoted to helping you overcome internalized bias and see the opportunities for diversity in your writing. With an intensive focus on writing diverse characters with accuracy, respect, and honesty, attendees will learn how to overcome internalized bias, avoid problematic tropes and stereotypes, and develop a diverse cast of characters.

The workshop focuses on sexual orientation and gender identity and will not address racial diversity as Bran is white and does not wish to stray from their lane.

The workshop includes four 1-hour lectures, worksheets, access to a private forum for posting assignments, and one-on-one help from Bran.

Sign Up for This Workshop!
Use Discount Code “JamiGold” to save 50%!
(Good during the month of June only, so sign up now!)

The workshop will be from July 1-29th this year and is $50 to attend. The first lecture will be Sunday, July 1st, time TBA. All lectures will be archived and will be available after the workshop.

The topics are as follows:

  • Week One: Recognizing and Overcoming Internalized Bias
  • Week Two: When to Avoid Tropes and Stereotypes
  • Week Three: Developing Your Diverse Cast
  • Week Four: Developing Your Diverse Cast Part 2: The Story

*****

Thank you, Bran! I definitely know some who consider trigger warnings a sign of weakness, but I love how you used blind links, romance “flame” ratings, and NSFW labels to show how content warnings are standard practice in many aspects of our lives and not something to be avoided.

In fact, I’ve seen plenty of authors who have turned these “warnings” into selling points, such as “Warning: Hot Sex Inside!” We all have different preferences, and what’s a warning to one reader could be a *grabby hands* signal to another. *grin*

With these insights, it’s easy to understand why we should include them with our work. The key to good reviews is matching the right stories to the right readers, and content labels are one way to play matchmaker. *smile*

(And *psst* Thanks to Bran for offering an exclusive 50% off their workshop to all of you with the discount code “JamiGold”! But that code is only good for the month of June, so be sure to sign up soon. *smile*)

Have you seen books that include content information? Where did they include it (book description, front matter, etc.)? Do you include warnings with your books, and if so, where? If you don’t use them currently, did this post make you think about adding content labels? Do you have any questions for Bran?

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Bran Ayres

Thank you so much Jami! I know it isn’t something that is on many people’s radar, but I feel it is important to consider. If anyone has any questions about the post or the workshop, please feel free to ask!

Melissa Maygrove
Melissa Maygrove

“…some even feel they are pandering to overly sensitive SJW’s (social justice warriors) and creating a ‘victim’ mentality.”

I’m afraid I have at least one foot in this camp. I give a general sex-, language- and violence warning with the story description of my books, because it helps readers vet the book before purchase, but I’m not going to list everything that could possibly upset someone.

I would, of course, gladly answer a reader’s question about content if they asked me.

Bran Ayres

It sounds to me like you are already doing your part to inform people. We cannot possibly know every topic that might trigger someone, that is impossible.

Amanda Kelley-Goodhew

Thanks, Bran. This was an excellent post. Apparently I’ve been living under a rock because I had no idea there were people thinking that warnings would be a bad thing. I personally haven’t had to use them yet, but I can think of at least one story that I have planned that could potentially use one. Now I have a better idea of how to do that, and why. 🙂

Bran Ayres

Hiya Amanda! Thanks so much for the comment! I hadn’t realized it was such a hot-button issue until someone in one of my Facebook writer’s groups asked about them. The response was … disheartening, to say the least. Like a lot of things that are designed to help marginalized groups (disability access on websites for instance), it can be a blind spot for those of us with privilege.

I’m gald to have been of assistance ^_^

Varina Suellen Plonski

THANK YOU, Bran and Jami, for posting this EXCELLENT article on trigger warnings.
I have been trying to figure out how to deal with this issue for my own work, and this has clarified and solidified my resolve to use them. My story deals with a young woman who was abducted in the past and subjected to rape and abuse. Now she has been trapped once again by someone who is threatening a young girl to force my MC to comply with his instructions to spy on and betray the master of her House. Her antagonist also uses rape and abuse, physical and psychological, to reinforce his dominance. Although the rapes are not graphic they are still present, but there are some very upsetting and violent scenes in flashback from her previous trauma.
In general my storyline is ultimately about healing and empowerment, as my MC uses her wits to outmaneuver her opponent, as well as learning lessons that enable her to overcome the traumas of the past and the present. But as many people have learned, sometimes the only way out is through.
Your article has given me the information I needed to be able to convey this so others can also learn the same lesson.
Thank you. Once again, thank you.

Bran Ayres

Hiya Varina! I’m so glad you found the article helpful! Those are definitely very heavy subjects and I appreciate that you realize how this can affect your readers. I’ve also found that having warnings can actually make readers more likely to pick up a story because they know it is going to tackle subjects that they are concerned with.
And you are most welcome. I’m thrilled to have been able to help.

Roland R Clarke

My current mystery/police procedural will probably require trigger warnings, in part as some readers might baulk at a bisexual protagonist, while others might react to other elements in my attempt at better diversity. This was a timely article – thanks, Bran.

Bran Ayres

That is understandable Roland. It’s sad that some people refuse to acknowledge the diversity around them. I applaud your effort to be more inclusive and if you ever have any questions on how to include more diversity please feel free to ask. ^_^

Roland R Clarke

Thanks, Bran – I’m sure to have questions as I get towards my final draft.

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Thanks. I would not use the phrase trigger warning – that is too American and not understood everywhere. But I would state if a book (one of mine or one I am reviewing) is for a mature readership. In a review book I would add if there were adult romance scenes, graphic violence or strong language. Readers find this helpful.
Very occasionally I have needed to add a term like torture to the list, but I do not read many of those books.

Bran Ayres

That is a great point, Clare! Phrasing matters and is dependant on our audience. ‘Mature readership’ is a nice way to put it. I also like ‘content warning’ for those who might not understand the term trigger.
Thanks for the comment!

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[…] this week, Bran shared their insights on whether authors should include trigger warnings with their story for readers. Today, they’re back with another important topic that applies to both authors and […]

Sieran Lane

Oh yes, very many of the books I read nowadays have trigger warnings. I didn’t realize “hurt/ comfort” was a trigger until I saw it, though. So some may not be as obvious as others. It’s good to look around and see what warnings other books have used. On mental illness, I have a character who has clear traits of narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder, though I never labeled them outright in the story. I have another character who is probably on the autism spectrum, likely Asperger’s (I found out about 2.5 months ago that I’m on the spectrum too.) I’ve never heard of trigger warnings for NPD, APD, or ASD before, and some may even be opposed to labeling autism as a “mental illness.” Would you include warnings for these? Some other neurodivergencies that I can think of that one may not immediately think of as needing trigger warnings, would be ADHD, other learning disabilities, borderline personality disorder, and histrionic personality disorder. What is your opinion on having or not having trigger warnings on these neurodivergencies? I don’t know if we want to give a character a highly stigmatized label like “borderline,” though, if the story never explicitly uses the word. I would be also concerned that the reader won’t take the character seriously, or might think the character is “being silly” or “overreacting” if the reader knows they have borderline, histrionic personality disorder, or bipolar, for example. P.S. I clicked on all of your “Here” links,…  — Read More »

Bran Ayres

Hiya Sieran! LOL! I wouldn’t deliberately link anyone to something malicious! But I’m flattered you trust me. ^_^

As far as neurodivergent characters, I don’t feel there is a need to warn for this specifically. Some elements might need warnings but I’ve found that simply putting ‘mental illness,’ ‘depression,’ or ‘depictions of mental illness’ are often more than adequate.

I think it is fair to give readers warning that a character is dealing with neurodivergence but I wouldn’t call it a trigger warning. Trigger warnings are much more specifically related to a symptom or aspect of an illness, they are not the illness itself. I hope that makes sense. ^^

I’ll use myself as an example. If I were writing myself as a character I would use trigger warnings such as ‘depression,’ ‘suicidal ideation,’ ‘past suicide attempts,’ ‘hallucinations.’ These are things that I live with on a daily basis that might be triggering for someone else going through something similar. I would also likely make certain in the narrative that my diagnosis is understood in order to counter negative stereotypes about schizophrenia.

Labeling mental disorders in fiction, in my opinion, is much like labeling a character’s orientation and gender. Best to come right and say it and not leave any doubt in the reader’s mind. These topics need more visibility in media and they will only get that if we are candid about them.

Thank you for a great comment!

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[…] post, I want to thank Bran L. Ayres again for their fantastic guest posts last week on whether we should include warnings for our stories’ content and on the elements of a healthy romance we can show in our stories. My vacation wasn’t as […]

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[…] Taking on a hot topic, Bran L. Ayres looks at if we should include trigger warnings for our stories. […]

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