The Content Warning Debate

The Content Warning Debate

This is a trigger fish, apparently: Image by Brigitte Werner from Pixabay

Good afterevenmorn!

In an effort to try and get myself “out there,” so to speak, and figure out what marketing tricks I can use that don’t feel horrendously icky to me in order to try and inch towards making a living from my writing, I spend a lot of time on TikTok. I sometimes attempt to get my books out there, but those videos never get any views. When I’m just fooling around with the various filters they have, I often get far more views; in the hundreds or thousands. I don’t understand it. I don’t understand the algorithm, or how to take advantage of it. I am terrible at marketing. Still, I try. And I’ll keep trying. Maybe I’ll have it work out randomly. Mostly, I just waste hours of my life scrolling through my feed, which currently consists of international news, Hozier (I watched two videos and TikTok has decided I’m obsessed), and a lot of book content. As is usually the case in BookTok, there is a debate raging right now regarding content/trigger warning appearing at the front of the book.

It’s quite an interesting debate.

Readers on BookTok are less militant about their opinions. While there are a couple, very few readers I’ve come across have ever said the absolutely will not pick up a book if content warnings aren’t present. Many expressed their desire and appreciation for them, but few draw a hard red line at their absence. It’s writers that have the strongest opinions, and the fact that it’s so hotly debated is endlessly fascinating.

For the record, I have not previously included content warnings in my works before this. It’s not because I don’t care about the mental health of my readers. I just didn’t really give it much thought. It’s a new thing for books, and they were never included in any books that I can remember reading when I was younger. They’re in none of the books that I’ve read now as an adult, either. But just because it’s just not done™ or is rare doesn’t make it inherently a bad idea. So let’s look into the arguments surrounding content warnings.

Image by Gaertringen from Pixabay

First, what is a content warning? It’s essentially a mention at the beginning of books of events, themes or ideas that could be a little too challenging for people who may find those things too much for their current headspace. These are usually very heavy things; rape, suicide, child death… that kind of thing. While reading about them in books can offer a way to explore these difficult topics with the safety of some distance between the reader and the event, human imaginations can often be so visceral that safety is less safe than we might first assume. PTSD is no joke, and anything that can set if off should be handled with care.

There are plenty of arguments writers have used to justify — if that’s even the right word — their reasons for not including a content or trigger warning in their books. Here are some common ones I’ve seen:

1. It is Impossible to Cater to Everyone

The argument here is that there are so many phobias and potential triggers. Is the writer supposed to be aware of and list every single one. What if someone has a phobia of defenestration? Should it be listed just to spare that one person? To be honest, I find these kinds of defenses a little silly. I don’t think anyone expects a writer to accommodate everyone, or mention every obscure thing that may or may not be a trigger. The list is entirely up to the discretion of the writer, as is the decision to include one at all. Personally, defenestration is such a fun word, I’d definitely add it to any list I made. Facetiousness aside, the slippery slope argument here is assuming expectations that no one actually has, in my experience. A person who is afraid of glass is probably very well aware that there will be very few folks terrified of glass. They would, no doubt, be surprised and incredibly grateful if it was mentioned, but I don’t think that even that person would make it a hardline expectation.

2. It Shouldn’t be About Feelings Over Substance

Dancing around individual feelings will destroy the integrity of the story or plot, comes the cry. There is nothing false in and of that statement alone. In fact, it’s very true. Writers should tell the stories they want or need to tell, without worrying about how much it would upset one particular reader. Trying to twist oneself up in knots in order to be as inoffensive as possible to as many people as possible will absolutely neuter the story and its potential impact.

However, near as I can see, no one on the other side is demanding that the stories change for their benefit. They’re not clamouring for the removal of difficult scenes or events from the narrative. All I can see from the other side is that they’re just given a quick heads-up so they can decide if they’re up for reading whatever it is, or given the chance to mentally brace for something that they might find incredibly disturbing. I can sympathize here. I have read scenes that have left me absolutely nauseated; so much so that I’ve had to put the book aside and have been unable to return to it for months (when I was in a better headspace). I’ve been given nightmares from scenes in books. It might seems silly for people who have never experienced this, but it does happen.

Image by Gerald Friedrich from Pixabay

3. Self-Defeating, Much?

If something is triggering, wouldn’t the mention of it in the content warnings trigger someone?

Okay, while have no strong feelings either way, even I had to roll my eyes at this. The mention of a thing is rarely the problem. The issue is in the detail… The Devil, if you will. If a writer is good at their job, the reader will be drawn in. The events will be quite visceral for the reader. That’s, by and large, where the issue will lie. The word of the thing is generally not the issue. It’s the experience of it that is. And for people who maybe went through something similar, the experiential effect that writing can have might be a bit too much.

4. Spoiler Alert

Listing events or tropes at the top of the story will spoil the plot twists or what have you in the story. Now this carries some validation. It’s incredibly hard if you want an emotional hit for a story about, for example, a woman seeking a love who has vanished and one of the content warning events listed is ‘death of a loved one.’ Yeah, it might give it away. And that can suck.

A counter to this, I remember seeing, is that if you’re relying on surprise to deliver emotionality, then that might be a skill issue. I’m not sure I agree with this, as surprise can be a very effective tool, like any other kind of narrative device, if used well. Similarly, though, if it’s used as a crutch to deliver a kind of narrative sucker punch, then perhaps. There are certainly ways to make emotional beats hit hard even if the reader knows it’s coming. In fact, sometimes a spoiler can help increase reader enjoyment (depending on the story, the reader and the spoiler, I suppose). I often reread stories, and it’s a bad day indeed if I ever stop crying at all the spots that made me cry the first time (same for movies, to be frank). A story done well will survive spoilers.

Still, being spoiled really does suck for those who don’t want it, and the risk for spoilers is very high when offering content warnings. I should note, though, that no one is forcing anyone to read the content warnings. They’re not usually on the same page as the first chapter, from what I’ve seen (which, granted, is very little).

When it comes to the inclusion of content warnings, I’m of no particular preference as either a writer or a reader. Since the discourse has come up, though, I think I will be including them in the future. They’re skippable and don’t really do much harm. They do, however, let people take control of their own mental health and avoid something that might send them spiralling or, at the very least, brace themselves for what’s to come. I would hope that my writing is strong enough that any surprise lost by the warning would matter little; that I have skill enough to still deliver the emotions I want from any scene I write.

But I don’t particularly feel strongly about it either way. What about you? Where do you fall on the argument?

When S.M. Carrière isn’t brutally killing your favorite characters, she spends her time teaching martial arts, live streaming video games, and cuddling her cat. In other words, she spends her time teaching others to kill, streaming her digital kills, and a cuddling furry murderer. Her most recent titles include Daughters of BritainSkylark and Human.

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Joe H.

I guess for me as a reader it’s one of those things where I don’t feel a particular need for them myself, but their presence certainly doesn’t bother me in the slightest.

Thomas Parker

It seems to me that a lot of people these days want a work of art to be a mirror rather than a window. That’s their privilege, of course. Me? I have a mirror in my bathroom.

K. Jespersen

I’ve heard argument 1 before, but always took it as an overstatement not because of anticipation of unrealistic expectations, but because a lot of writers where trigger warnings are becoming fashionable live in highly litigious societies. By even starting with trigger warnings, the author opens the gateway to being sued for traumatizing someone by forgetting a warning. It hasn’t happened yet, but there are some courts where the lawsuit would have an unreasonable chance of succeeding. Even if the lawsuit doesn’t succeed, having been sued for trauma could materially damage the author’s chances of selling the next book.

Personally, I think trigger warnings are going to become a mark of an era, something by which future generations will judge ours with rolled eyes. Let’s consider what would have happened if trigger warnings were in English-speaking society about 100 years ago: they would have ended up including such tags as “interracial relationships,” “Austro-Hungarian characters,” “factory conditions,” “family members with mental health problems” (though, likely in language that we would object to today), and “gothic themes.” Who knows what will happen with trauma resilience regimes that will change how future readers will interpret trigger warnings? “How dare the author decide I should spend my whole time reading this book in dread of the moment I come across the death of a loved one!”

I do worry about trigger warnings as a chilling effect. The education system is pursuing providing safe spaces for the admirable reason of preventing trauma and showing love to those who are vulnerable, whether or not safe spaces are actually a wise thing. But what will that mean for required reading? If traumatized kids are excused from reading books based on trigger warnings, who will read “Heart of Darkness,” “Bless Me, Ultima,” “Cold Sassy Tree,” “God of Small Things,” “Animal Farm,” and “A Modest Proposal?” The salutary effects of reading, considering, and confronting the other themes in them than the triggering events and themes will be lost. Baby, bathwater. Instead of being given the opportunity to practice coping mechanisms, the kids will be taught the solution is avoidance, and the breadth of education will become narrower for it. That scares me for coming generations.

K. Jespersen

OK, that’s a fair point. I will meet you half-way on it: the scenario would not be possible without both the mainstreaming of trigger warnings and the current educational policy. Both are equally in play when it starts happening.

If we could remove either one or the other, it wouldn’t be able to happen.


IMO labels and content warnings are a foothold to not just censorship but limiting the very genre of fiction itself. It’s bad enough the “Genres” are being so soldified the expectations probably make most authors thing ten times before any breakign the mold on anything they are serious about. Exhibit A is the MPAA which defined movies and genres. Most notably the huge cliff between R and X and what an X rated movie is and should be. It not only diminished the power of some movies with the threat of the real world block from 95% of the market the rating(rather non rating) would bring, but it got movies tailored to fit. Not just to avoid an X rating for content (Robocop, hand blown apart with shotgun) but to GET a harder rating to be taken seriously…G-to PG/13/R…

Seriously I think it got kids to see more nudity in movies, especially 80s to 90s than they would have otherwise. Living then – there were lots of “Action” films that had these “Brief Nudity” scenes that looked forced in. Actor had a haircut, tan, different watch. They were inserted in panic when they got a “G” rating. MPAA “Yes, Blood Enforcers part 3 is G rated, I just got done rating Cheerleader strippers vs Mutoids from Mars part 5 – your movie is good guys vs bad guys…” etc. And so they called Hef, got Ms Month to appear topless or in a shower. Action and comedies were the biggest users of this – insert nudity, sex scene, have playboy centerfold…

Won’t even start on how crippling and monopoly aiding the comics code was, I’d type for days. However the call for content warnings should be fought against with extreme vigor. Exceptions to every rule such as the Claymation adaptation of Equis by an amateur filmmaker H. Simpson. Now it’s a lost film and some say there was one reel that got burnt in the riot that caused one of the many Azteca theater fires. But the outrage was they thought it was a Children’s film due to the use of friendly Claymation and no one knowing about or reading much classic literature. Likewise there will probably be a lawsuit from Pixar because their style in cartoon 3D is used for “Two girls one cup” and “Caligula” animation adaptations – you know all those AI posters that are more creative than most movies today. I’m for making gory, serious stuff using cute cartoon animation but THEN and only THEN I’d make the cover/label “NOT for KIDS”. IRL I saw a video rental store manager assaulted when “La Blue Girl” had a vanilla cover vs explicit and got placed in the children’s section… But again exception vs rule.


Why is this even a discussion? Just read the back cover of the book to decide whether it’s for you or not.

Ethan B.

What is it that’s getting triggered anyway? Epilepsy warnings, I get. Saying something’s not for kids, I get. Other stuff like anxiety, PTSD etc. are really awful things to go through but by the time you get to Barnes and Noble you’ve already exposed yourself to potentially triggering content! Cars, crowds, spiders, wide open spaces, and loud noises could happen at any time and are worse triggers than anything that’s been put in words. I don’t mean to sound like a dick, but if you’re mentally ill enough that reading a book comes with an actual risk of something bad happening, then you shouldn’t be in public unsupervised. I guess some people just want books to be “safe” meaning absolutely zero chance of being uncomfortable, but (again, not trying to be mean) I think that’s from mental illness, it’s a mindset that’s self defeating and turns you into a shut-in.

Artists have a right to be shocking, disturbing, or gross. Exercising that right is what made society as progressive and inclusive as it is in the first place. People with crippling anxiety and stuff need help, but treating triggering content as if it’s dangerous reinforces the idea that it is dangerous, and I don’t know of any scientific evidence that it helps anybody. There is no evidence that triggering content is ever harmful, the fear of it is irrational (and anxiety is irrational by definition), and there is no way to actually identify it. So hell no, trigger warnings are not fair or healthy to creators or fans.

K. Jespersen

The more I think about this, the more I see room for rampant misuse and unintended consequences with the inclusion of trigger warnings as mainstream authorial practice.

–In the McCarthyist era, librarians were accosted with records demands for people who read particular books. Thankfully, most librarians were willing to lay it on the line to refuse those requests. But librarians in public service are a shrinking breed, now, and most database administrators won’t blink before turning over the keyboard to a LEO with a warrant. It would be very easy to run a search of trigger-tagged books against patron lending records to generate evidence of troubling fascination.

–Along the same line, since kids in schools are now sent to counselors and administrators for evaluation for showing any interest in weaponry, why not set a flag on if a kid reads a certain number of books trigger-tagged for “rape,” to evaluate for either evidence of abuse or signs of threatening ideation?

–If horror authors end up caused to allot space for all the various triggers that the genre includes, publishing costs will begin to mount.

–When triggered readers demand the right to read books even when they contain the triggers, the next step will be shaming authors away from the “lazy” inclusion of trigger warnings only at the front of the book, rather than at the start of each chapter

No. I don’t think mainstreaming of trigger warnings is a good idea. If trigger warnings do get mainstreamed, authors need to be able to draw a line in the sand about them. “This far and no further. I have provided you ample warning, and at this point you are responsible for your own choice to read.” And there also need to be legal definitions for how trigger warning information can be used, so that it does not impinge on freedoms to read and reasonable rights to privacy. “Probable cause standards must be met prior to authorization of a search using trigger warnings, and such a search may only be performed on authorized names and aliases.”

Eugene R.

On a practical level, I appreciate the option of having trigger warnings. I had recommended Tananarive Due’s collection, Ghost Summer: Stories to my monthly sf/f reading group. It is one of my favorite collections of fantasy/horror/sf. The first story, “The Lake” is a horror tale that uses a not-at-all-subtle metaphor for sexual predation by a school teacher. Alas, it was triggering for about half of the group, each of whom just quit reading, even as they admitted how well-written it was and how it succeeded in being disturbing without being the least bit explicitly gory. Could they have skipped that story, they would have been rewarded with even more fantastic works throughout the rest of the book.

Neil Houlton

This was tried in the late 1950 with horror films, it made no difference then cant see it making a difference now. The world can be a big bad place, we all deal with things in our own way but I dont want trigger warnings. At 70 it all seems a bit late for me.

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