To put content warnings in books, or not to put content warnings in books? That is the question.

Let’s take a stab at the answer.

closed red curtain blocking a stage's contents
Image credit to Barry Weatherall on Unsplash.

Content Warning: content warnings

If you’ve ever looked up a movie online before going to the theater (you know, back in the day), you probably saw a rating: G for “General,” “PG13 for “Parental guidance suggested for kids under 13,” and so on. Those ratings may also be accompanied by a word or two telling you why the movie is rated that way (for example, rated R for violence). The rating is a quick way to say “hey, this movie is best for [age range] and contains [this element] which may not be appealing to all viewers.”

Content Warnings in Books

In the last few years, I’ve seen an increase in content or “trigger” warnings in books. What are these? They are similar to the movie rating system above but with more detail. Content warnings (which I’ll refer to only as this to avoid having to type content/trigger warnings every time) warn readers about, well, content. More specifically, content that may trigger a traumatic response for people who have lived certain experiences that left them struggling somehow. It’s a quick way to say “hey, this book contains XYZ in case that’s an issue for you and you wish to know ahead of time so you can skip it.” At this level, it’s a pretty nice thing for authors to do. It shows concern for readers, even if it means losing a sale.

When Does a Book Need a Content Warning?

Your answer may vary widely. I’ve seen everything from “all books need them” to “never—people should deal with their issues!” Regardless of where you fall on this spectrum, the decision to include a content warning is an author-by-author choice (at least if you’re self-publishing). I’ve also seen readers post reviews or discussion posts about books that include content warnings. In this case, the reader has read the book and thinks anyone looking at their post should know what’s coming. This is a reader-by-reader choice, and different people may supply different content warnings for the same book.

What Should a Content Warning Contain?

And here’s where we get into a good question. If you prescribe to the movie rating system, the content warning for a book should offer one or two words (Content Warning: violence). Much of the time, though, content warnings in books go into much deeper detail than the movies. Rather than just stating “violence,” there’s a list of types of violence. I’ve seen movie ratings come with “for adult language,” and I’ve seen books take this a step further and list out things like “use of f-bomb.” I’m not sure why books go into more detail like this. Perhaps because books can be a more immersive experience than a movie, one where the reader is privy to the inner workings of a character’s mind. Maybe because books go into more detail than movies do. The question is an open-ended one.

Benefits of Content Warnings

As I said above, content warnings can be a nice gesture on the author’s part. Letting your reader know XYZ is coming gives each person the ability to make a choice based on their own experience. If a book sounds interesting but the content warning puts up a red flag, readers can either drop the book off their to-read list, do more research, or outright choose to read anyway. As to content warnings from readers, this isn’t too different from ye olden days when we hung out with people at bars/restaurants and chatted. Books might come up. Someone would talk about this great book they just read and add “but it had a scene about X, just so you know.” In a way, it’s like the author is chatting with the reader, saying you might like this but be aware of the following.

Cons of Content Warnings

In theory, there don’t have to be cons. If you stick to the above “violence” or “hey, so you know” models, there’s a strong argument for letting readers know what they might be getting into. But with how detailed I’ve seen some book’s content warnings get, I really wonder why the author chose to include it. By putting “Content Warning: [very specific traumatic situation],” the warning practically becomes a trigger. If a content warning offers enough detail that it is triggering, rather than informative, it has failed at its job.

What to Consider When Deciding on Content Warnings

To content warning or not to content warning? That is the question.

I have a few ideas for you to consider in this section, so I’ll break them into subheadings (look at me, getting all organized).

Consideration 1: Anticipatory Fear

The classroom where I spent my fourth-grade year was beside the main office of the school. The classroom windows looked out onto the front of the building, the driveway where busses pulled up in the mornings and afternoons, and a large empty field where my class, along with many others, only ever went during a fire drill. The front of the building was also where the fire truck would idle whenever we would have one of said fire drills.

The four previous years at that school, fire drills took me by surprise. I sat in class, minding my own business, listening to my teacher (or maybe daydreaming I was a Power Ranger, but I digress). Then, without warning, the horrifically loud buzzing of the fire drill would assault my ears, and it was up, out, and to safety.

red Power Rangers in a park
Image credit to Fran on Unsplash.

I hated fire drills while they were happening. They were loud and chaotic. Afterward, they were something I could tell my parents about when I got home, and before, they were that thing the school made us do three or four times a year that I hardly gave any thought to on days they weren’t happening.

But fourth grade…fourth grade was different.

For the first time in four years, I was aware of an impending fire drill. I’d hear the truck’s diesel engine pull up and stop. The truck was left on while the firefighters entered the school to confer with the principle and set off the alarm.

And from the second I heard the truck pull up to the moment the alarm went off, I was an absolute mess.

I panicked for a solid five to ten minutes while I anxiously waited, dreading the onset of the loud noise. This led to the teacher getting irritated and me paying exactly 0 attention to anything that went on between the fire truck’s arrival and the alarm.

Unsurprisingly, when I got to fifth grade and moved across the hall, my “sudden fire drill onsetitis” vanished. I no longer knew when a firetruck arrived, and the alarm’s sudden, blaring presence once more became that thing that happened three or four times a year.

The anticipation was what did it. I was so worried about the noise. In fact, the worry was worse than the noise, far more disruptive, and lasted a lot longer than my time in the building with the alarm blasting. Having advanced warning made everything so much worse. It magnified my fear until I had this image of fire drills as this horrific experience that would leave me deaf and unable to speak. In reality, it was a fire alarm, nothing more. Heck, the noise became more terrifying than the idea of the building being on fire.

Remember that childhood game of “set the ants on fire with a magnifying glass?” Even if you never played, you’ve probably heard of kids doing this. That magnifying glass is fear, and the fire is what can happen if fear rains unchecked. Knowing something we dread is coming allows it to stew in our minds. We build up and build up this fear response until we feel sick with worry or even start having physical signs of distress.

Then the thing happens and we often go back to our lives thinking “that wasn’t so bad.”

Now, I’m not saying warnings don’t have their uses. Warning a child not to touch a hot stove can prevent a lot of crying and burns and a possible trip to the hospital (that is assuming the child listens, but that’s a whole different post). But if you warn the child before you even turn on the stove “don’t touch that,” you could end up with an adult who’s afraid of going near a stove for years.

To apply this to content warnings in books, if a reader is on the fence about a warning but decides to read anyway, the knowledge that the content is coming could color their entire experience. They might spend the entire book waiting, watching…where is it? Where is it? I have to see it coming so I can be ready for it… And before they know it, the book is over, and they missed the content because it was nowhere near as bad as they thought. And they have no idea what happened in the story because they were too busy looking for the scene with the content. End Result: “That was…meh. *rates 3 stars on Goodreads and moves on to another author*”

Consideration 2: Spoilers

I recently came across a book that included a long list of content warnings. Among these were “death of secondary characters.”

Yes, I’m really not kidding. “Death of secondary characters.”

That is not a content warning. That is a spoiler.

Everyone reads for a different reason, but even if that reason is “to expand your horizons,” do you really want to know up-front that characters are going to die? Doesn’t that kind of take away from the adventure of the story? And to link this to consideration 1, it keeps you on alert. Secondary Character 1 walks in, and you think “is he the one who gets it?” then Secondary Character 2 comes into the bar, and you’re like “oh wait, maybe it’s them.”

Hello, not paying attention to the story.

Goodbye, ability to get lost in the narrative flow. This would be like someone coming up to you and saying “If you step in front of that moving bus, you’ll get badly hurt, possibly die. Oh, spoilers, sorry.” It would sound ridiculous, not to mention obvious (unless you’re target audience is someone who needs to understand that busses are not to be stepped in front of). But someone who’s spent a lifetime in a part of the world where busses/automobiles in general are a normal part of daily life and who understands the potential danger? The spoilers aren’t necessary. Ditto for content warnings that spoil the story.

Consideration 3: Lack of Interest from Readers

This is a cumulative consideration that comes as a result of the first two. Think of content warnings as a medication with “itching” as a side effect. This is the rash you get from scratching, which is why the medication also has “rash” as a side effect.

If you have a real strong and compelling reason to include a content warning in your book and you think it’s necessary, follow your gut. But if you put in too many, and many of them look like the spoiler in the above section, your book could end up sounding like one of those drugs they advertise on MeTV.

Side effects may include shortness of breath, dry cough, irregular heartbeat, chest pains, nausea, vomiting, swollen glands, constipation, numbness, tingling, temporary blindness, and even death!

Wow, that’s…not a book I want to read, thanks.

To be blunt for a second, a list of content warnings like that would make me think “this isn’t the author warning the reader. This is the author covering their butt.”

What to Do Instead of Content Warnings

So you’ve decided that, while your book has some potentially traumatizing content, you don’t wish to include content warnings. But you do want to make it clear that the book isn’t all sunshine and rainbows (and unicorns, because unicorns). There are a few things that can be done to make sure your book reaches the readers who won’t have an issue with anything in the story.

unicorn mural representing a book that doesn't need content warnings
Image credit to Karen Powers on Unsplash.

Proper Categorizing of Your Book: I get that Amazon can make this tough. Authors need to do whatever it takes to get their books seen before they obtain a sizable following, and sometimes that means choosing categories that aren’t an exact match because those categories have fewer books and offer a greater chance of a book being noticed.

If you go from something like “dark shifter paranormal romance” to “shifter paranormal romance,” the difference may not be too bad. But if you go too far afield, such as “dark shifter paranormal romance” to “clean shifter paranormal romance,” then you’re putting your book in front of an audience who may not even be looking for what you write—readers who are expecting a different level of romantic heat and conflict than your book contains. Best case, you find readers who were looking for something different and happened across your book, which they ended up liking. Worst case, people loudly yell about how you didn’t warn them, both in reviews and on social media.

Writing Effective Book Copy: Authors have far more control over this than they do over Amazon’s algorithms. Changing a word or two can go a long way in making the tone and contents of your book clear without the need to warn readers about potentially disturbing content. Consider the difference between the following two snippets.

~After a traumatic experience in her past left her emotionally distant
~After the loss of a dear childhood friend left her unable to form lasting bonds with anyone

There’s probably little that would require a content warning here, but that’s not the point. The first example is rather vague. A “traumatic experience” could be many things and could leave potential readers wondering just what happened to this character and what that traumatic event will translate to in terms of on-page triggers. The second version gives a much clearer idea of what’s going on. It speaks to the exact “trauma,” and the latter part of the sentence gives a better idea of what that event means for the protagonist than “emotionally distanced” does.

Pro Tip: This is good advice for query letters and book blurbs in general. I can find a million stories about “when tragedy strikes,” and I pass many of them by because they sound generic. That tragedy could be the most original and interesting idea ever, but if I don’t at least have an inkling of how unique it is, there’s nothing to hook me as a reader.

A Few Other Thoughts on Content Warnings

At the end of the day, whether you include content warnings in your book or not is up to you. Like with many other aspects of writing, there’s no “one size fits all” solution and no right or wrong answer. If you feel strongly that your book needs warnings, include them in whichever fashion you’d like—either the simplistic “violence” or the more detailed “violent depictions of [insert images here].” If you don’t feel your book needs them or don’t wish to use them, that’s your call, and I’ll leave you with one final perspective to consider.

I’m going to get very personal here for a moment, folks. From the time I was 16 or so until a few years ago, I had a boundless fear of throwing up. I hadn’t thrown up since I was 6 years old, but that didn’t matter. I was absolutely terrified, paralyzed by just thinking of the words “throwing up.” I remember nights in my late teens where I felt nauseous and couldn’t eat until something snapped into place and finally gave me that courage to take a bite. A lot of the time, eating helped (meaning I was likely just hungry and subconsciously shifting that to nausea somehow), but my scared brain didn’t make that connection until much later.

It just so happens that my road to dealing with this involves some tough love from my boyfriend, meaning that having someone else around isn’t necessary for overcoming a fear. When he and I met, I was much improved from my late teen years, but I would still have crazy panic attacks whenever someone mentioned throwing up or if I felt the least bit woozy. He held my hand through these for a while before finally giving me the kick in the butt I needed by offering the idea that by avoiding my fear, I was giving it power over my mind and body. I resisted this for a long time—I had a problem, and it wasn’t that simple to fix it. As time went on, he repeated himself like a broken record, and I got tired of losing so much time and energy to freaking out about something that never came to pass, I started to feel differently. Maybe this wasn’t a problem I couldn’t at least work toward fixing. Maybe he was right, and I needed to take a good, hard look at where this fear came from.

Long story short, I did, and it took some searching, but I finally nailed down the problem as being a fear of not being able to deal with it if I got sick. I’d only ever gotten sick as a child, and I thought of the experience in terms of “somebody help me!” I was 6. I didn’t know any differently then, but now, as an adult, I had the tools to take care of myself. If the time came where I had to throw up, I’d do it, and it would be done. Even as I write this, the idea still feels a bit uncomfortable, but rather than a panic attack and a lost hour of coming back to myself, it’s a moment of “don’t love that idea” and onward to the next thing.

So where am I going with this? The idea that we’re all responsible for ourselves. I had help getting to the place where I could start to face my issues, but that help only went so far. If I hadn’t finally decided it was time to do something, who knows where I’d be now. The tough love nudged me in the right direction, but I had to want to start the journey.

Everyone is different, and every experience of trauma or triggers has a different effect. I’m not saying “drop your issues right now because they aren’t real.” I’m not saying that at all. I am saying that even the darkest, most troubling things from the past can be overcome and that once we really face them, they may not be so dark and troubling from the other side.

So, some parting messages.

Authors: Don’t feel like you must include content warnings in your books to keep readers from triggering. Everyone has lived a different life, and you never know what might trigger someone. The most harmless-seeming thing in your story could do it, and if you’re going to include warnings for any potential little thing, your list might start to sound like those side effects above. You can’t plan for everyone.

Readers: Don’t blame authors for choosing not to include content warnings. This may sound harsh, but it isn’t their job to clear a path for anyone. If they choose to do so and that works out for you, appreciate the gesture. If they don’t and reading their book brings up something, see if it can be an opportunity for growth. I don’t seek out scenes of people throwing up, but when I come across them, I approach them from an angle of “it’s just a bodily process, if an unpleasant one. Reading about it can’t harm me.” And believe it or not, doing so has helped along my journey.

If you do choose to include content warnings, keep the following in mind.

  • Don’t make the warning so detailed that it becomes a trigger on its own. Consider stating that the book has content warnings at the front and then list the warnings at the end of the book.
  • Do be specific enough that the trigger makes sense (for example, don’t use “violence” if the real issue is “torture.” Torture may contain violence, but it may also be psychological.)
  • Think about your book’s category and keywords, as well as the blurb as ways to more subtly warn readers.
  • Don’t use warnings that are poorly disguised spoilers.
  • If a book needs a MeTV-ish list of warnings, consider whether it’s time to reevaluate the story. Are all those triggering situations necessary to the plot and character growth? Are you including some triggering situations for the shock value only? If so, which ones, and can those scenes/story elements be restructured without compromising your authorial message?

This post is part of the Writing Tips Collection. Hop on over for more about the business and craft of authorship.

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