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What Are Trigger Warnings for Books?

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate and author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. She is a former trade newspaper editor.

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Warning: If even the mere mention of mature, offensive, controversial, or disturbing topics will trigger negative or upsetting feelings and thoughts for you, then please stop reading now.

That’s my trigger warning for this article, where I’ll discuss what authors need to know about trigger warnings for books and other content.

The Book Report That Made Me Want to Throw Up

I was in 7th- or 8th-grade library class one day in the early 1970s. One of the girls in my class is scheduled to give a book report and review of a book of her choice. Her choice is The Exorcist, a novel about demonic possession.

Instead of just giving a brief summary of the story plot and her opinion of the book, she decides to read the goriest and most disturbing passages from the book to the class. I’m feeling totally sick from being forced to listen to this. I went home at lunch and didn’t go back that afternoon.

Growing up in a very disciplined Protestant Christian home, I didn’t know how to tell my mom what I had just experienced since I knew it would totally freak her out. I just told her I might have the flu. I couldn’t sleep that night either. I eventually got over it.

As a more mature reader today, discussion of this topic doesn’t even disturb me, and I even enjoy paranormal and horror genre content. But let’s consider that I still remember that incident now, around 50 years later.

If you’re familiar with the history of either The Exorcist book or film, you know how much controversy it aroused when it came out. The visceral reaction to the film included vomiting and fainting for some movie watchers, though you have to question if reports of these early reactions primed later watchers to react similarly.

A new MPAA movie rating system, which had just been introduced a few years earlier in 1968, gave the movie an R rating for mature audiences, though there were critics who said it should have received an even more restrictive X rating.

Given its controversy, and looking back at this incident, I cannot believe that our teacher even allowed this student to do a book report, complete with graphic and explicit detail, on a book that was intended for mature, 18+ aged audiences, not a bunch of 12-to-13-year-olds.

I am not advocating for censorship or banning of books which is such a political and ideological hot button issue. Rather, I am an advocate for including appropriate trigger warnings in books and other content in an effort to set expectations and be respectful of your readers, and to help avoid negative feedback to your work.

What Exactly Are Trigger Warnings?

A trigger warning is a statement that warns consumers about content that contains elements that might be disturbing or inappropriate for sensitive or young audiences, often noting what those elements are. Those elements might include the following, a list that is long and not even exhaustive:

  • Blood and gore
  • Violence or assault of any kind
  • Physical, emotional, or mental abuse
  • War or other traumatic historical events
  • Animal cruelty
  • Mental health issues
  • Paranormal and the occult
  • Swearing and profanity
  • Crude humor
  • Sexual themes, situations, and descriptions, explicit or suggestive
  • Weapons
  • Bodily functions
  • Smoking, drug or alcohol use
  • Medical conditions and procedures
  • Negative or stereotypical depictions of race, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, or disabilities
  • Flickering, flashing, or blinking content in video that can cause seizures for people with conditions such as epilepsy
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Trigger warnings sound pretty much like the MPAA (now MPA) ratings for movies and the Parental Advisory Label (PAL) for explicit and profane music lyrics, right? Well, it pretty much has the same function, though a primary function of MPA and PAL ratings are geared as a guide for parents to use when deciding on age-appropriate content for their children.

But trigger warnings can be for readers or content consumers of any age who may be disturbed by exposure to any of these elements due to their life experiences, traumatic events, or beliefs.

My Book Is for Mature Adult Audiences—Do I Still Need Trigger Warnings?

Just because an audience is mature, either chronologically or intellectually, it doesn’t mean that they couldn’t be disturbed by situations, characters, or other elements in your book that could cause them distress. This is one of those “better safe than sorry” situations.

Books that are considered “adult content” are not the same as “content for an adult reading level.” Adult content generally means content that is inappropriate for minors. You need to indicate that when you upload it to KDP. Amazon wants to make sure that adult content is not shown to young or sensitive audiences.

The YA Problem

One of the more difficult age issues is classifying YA (young adult) work. It’s in that gray age area. You don’t want Amazon to show it as appropriate for children. For any audience younger than adult, be clear in your book description what age group your content is for, for example, age 3–8. That will help parents decide if your book is right for their children. On KDP, you can enter your age range for Juvenile and Education book categories. There are currently five levels, starting with baby to age 2, going up to 7th to 12th grade for ages 13–18.

What I thought was interesting is that in an Amazon product listing for a box set of the Percy Jackson book series, the book description said it’s loved by readers aged 8 to 80. Think about that simple statement. It clearly indicates that this is not for very young readers less than 8 years old. And it encourages consumption by adult readers of any age. How can you clearly, but artfully, communicate age appropriateness to your potential readers?

What About Trigger Warnings for Diversity and Inclusion Issues?

I’m not going to delve too far into the topic of diversity and inclusion as they relate to trigger warnings. It is such an expansive topic that warrants deeper conversations. However, I do want to make mention of how entertainment giant Disney is handling content from their vast historical archive that includes stereotypical and disparaging depictions.

According to a New York Times article from October 2020, the beginning of these movies now includes an unskippable warning about the inclusion of negative depictions and mistreatment of people or cultures, saying, “These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now. Rather than remove this content, we want to acknowledge its harmful impact, learn from it and spark conversation to create a more inclusive future together.”

Is that enough? Will it really spark conversations between parents or educators and children about these issues? Should Disney remake these classics?

Again, I cannot, within the span of this discussion, even hope to scratch the surface of this issue. But I did want to point out that even the most powerful of content creators are struggling with how to handle trigger warnings. We all need to be aware of the impact of what we offer and share.

Where Should a Trigger Warning Go?

Your trigger warnings should appear before your book or content begins. Ideally, it would be on a separate page just prior to the start of your book. But before your readers even get to the start of your book, trigger warnings and age appropriateness information should appear somewhere in your book’s description and promotions.

But Won’t Trigger Warnings Turn Off Readers From Even Checking Out My Book?

A trigger warning is like an ingredients label. If you have a health issue, you’re a label reader when you go to a grocery store or restaurant. If you see that a product contains an ingredient that makes you ill or aggravates your health issue, you can easily decide that it’s not good for you to consume. While other people may even be more attracted to a product if it includes certain ingredients. Same situation with books.

Not warning readers of what to expect can result in bad book reviews, bad PR, or even returns for refunds. If readers unknowingly dive into your book and then later become distraught by what they experience, they may decide to express their anger far and wide on social media. Do you really want to deal with that?

Creative Freedom and Responsibility

You can write whatever you want to write. But with creative freedom comes responsibility. While you cannot control how anyone will react to your content, you can control how you present your work to the world so they can decide if it is right for them.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2022 Heidi Thorne

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