Readers are almost always going to just be along for the ride, but when it comes to selecting a book, they should be in the cockpit. Adding a trigger warning helps give readers more control in deciding what journey they take.


This post briefly mentions topics that may be unnerving or stressful for some readers, especially survivors of trauma.

In last Thursday's post, I mentioned trigger warnings being important in helping us readers choose a book that’s right for us, a book that we’re truly prepared to read. Most books, in my experience, don’t have a trigger warning or even anything in their summaries hinting at the disturbing content they contain. I highly respect the ones that do offer some kind of warning. A lot of literature doesn’t even need a warning, but for those books that contain sensitive content, I feel that trigger warnings are a necessity. The problem is determining what content is actually “sensitive” enough to require a warning, as everyone has different levels of sensitivity.

I've read books with trigger warnings that I felt didn't require the warning at all, and I've read others that were the exact opposite. Despite this, I feel trigger warnings are still more beneficial than superfluous. In my opinion, if a book focuses on themes or contains any scenes (especially graphic scenes) of murder, assault, self-harm, suicide, torture, animal cruelty, gore, or any kind of abuse, then a trigger warning is needed. For Young Adult and New Adult books, I think there should also be advisories if the book contains sexual situations, drug use, or profanity, or at least a note that the book is targeted for a specific age group and older. It’s important to remember that Young Adult generally spans from thirteen to eighteen years old. That alone is a wide spectrum, but to complicate matters more, New Adult (typically college age) is usually unlabeled and grouped with Young Adult in libraries and book stores.

The fact is that trigger warnings aren’t a new thing by any means. They might seem strange in literature, but we're quite used to them in movies, video games, and other media. So why not books? This isn’t just for younger audiences, it’s for everyone. Readers may not “see” the scenes playing out before them, but many readers are able to visualize the scenes in their heads. For me, this is even more intense than seeing it with my eyes. The experience is heightened when I can personally relate. Unfortunately, this is a double-edged sword. Scenes that describe abuse, for instance, trigger my own memories. Even the word “abuse” is slightly triggering for me (hence the warning I gave above), but reading scenes dedicated to abuse causes infinitely more distress for me. I’d much rather read an advisory that states, “This book contains graphic scenes of domestic abuse,” and make a conscious decision of whether to continue reading than get the book and stumble upon that scene unawares. Also, if I bought the book, I wasted my money because I more than likely won't be able to finish reading it.

That isn’t to say that trigger warnings should contain spoilers. It’s enough to state in general terms, as we do for movies, the elements present in the story that may adversely affect us readers so we can prepare ourselves for it mentally before making our selection. It’s true that readers may decide not to read the book at all, but I think that risk is better than inadvertently causing someone to relive past trauma or causing them to suffer stress because the work disturbed them in other ways. There’s no possible way to cover all our bases in what might disturb someone (some people can’t stand alliteration), but at least the common triggers, like those listed for movies, should be mentioned. It goes a long way and it can actually benefit writers, too, during the review process. I know that when I come across triggering content for which there was no warning, it lowers my subjective rating for the story as a whole because I couldn't prepare myself and thus didn't enjoy the story as much.

From a writer's perspective, here's another perk: I've noticed that adding trigger warnings really encourages me to think more about my work and the impact it may have on readers. In adding trigger warnings to my work, I'm forced to consider whether the content I write the warning for is even necessary. This is especially helpful since I'm always looking for ways to trim my stories down. Is that content so integral to the story that I'm willing to risk losing readers over it? Is there any way I can make the work acceptable to a wider readership? These considerations don’t constrain my writing as much as they help me refine it. I feel asking these questions helps me be a better writer by making me more conscious of my content and its relevancy.

As a friend of mine pointed out recently, trigger warnings don't usually capture the intensity of the scenes themselves. It’s one thing to read a warning and another thing to read the actual scene. Trigger warnings do still help me prepare myself, but there have been times when the scenes they warned about were so intense they still had me reaching for my panda teddy bears. Case in point: The Yulin Killer by E.H. If not for the very candid trigger warning the author included at the start of the novel about the gory descriptions of animal cruelty presented in the book, I would have shaved off a whole star for the stress it caused me. It’s rare that such graphic content bothers me, but on selecting the book, I was only considering the gore, not the sadism toward animals. I read this warning and figured I could handle it. I did handle it, but I constantly had to put the book down to watch videos of cuddly red pandas (this was before my llama-mania).

I confronted the topic of trigger warnings for literature in my Write Team column, “Warnings for books.” In this blog post, I go into a little more detail, but my message hasn’t changed. I sincerely hope that trigger warnings will become commonplace in literature. What do you think? Can you think of any other benefits trigger warnings may provide? Or do you see downsides to them that I haven’t thought of? If so, please share your thoughts below!


This is my full review of The Yulin Killer if you want to learn more about the book and are interested in checking it out.