It's Wednesday, six days from Halloween, so what better time than to have Wednesday Lee Friday guest post about Trigger Warnings?
The Horror of Trigger Warnings
Hey writers! Horror person here. Any horror writer can tell you there’s a ton of heated debate about Trigger Warnings in our community. The HWA (Horror Writers Association) page bursts into flames when the topic comes up. Cries of everything from censorship to apathy to “woke madness” (whatever THAT is) bring all-caps ire from every side.
Do you need to have a stance on TWs as a writer? Maybe not. At least not until you’re prepared to publish. When that time comes, you’ll absolutely want to have an informed opinion.
What is a Trigger Warning?
A Trigger Warning is a sentence or short list letting readers know what kind of content they’ll find in the text. We already have these for movies, TV shows, videogames, and music. TWs might include warnings about sexual assaults, war and combat, child abuse, domestic violence, terrorism, torture, or other heavy topics that readers might want to avoid reading about unawares. TWs allow readers to make informed decisions about when or if they’ll consume a particular bit of content.
What is a Trigger?
There are some misconceptions about this, so let’s be clear. Triggers refer to topics, images, or specific words that can elicit a PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) response in someone with past trauma. This response can include shaking, sweating, extreme nervousness, panic attacks, or loss of consciousness.
Triggers are not synonymous with being offended, angry, sad, or irritated. A Trigger Warning is an accommodation for a type of disability—no different than a wheelchair ramp or a braille menu.
Trauma may be job-related, as in the case of first responders, soldiers, emergency-room personnel, or anyone who routinely comes in contact with violence at work. Trauma can also stem from an incident like robbery, shootings, terrorist attacks, or an assault. In short, TWs are for people who are living with the lasting damage of having suffered due to violence.
How do Trigger Warnings Help?
Ever hear of that website, Does the Dog Die? It answers that question for popular books, films, and TV shows. Why? Because some people simply never want to watch content where the dog dies. It may not be specifically triggering, but it’s unpleasant and they’d rather avoid it. Or, maybe their dog just died and they’d rather wait before reliving it. If a topic is still raw, maybe they’d rather read about it alone at home rather than the office break room. TWs help them decide.
Should you use Trigger Warnings as an Author?
I use them when I submit work to publishers or editors as a courtesy. I’ve been advised not to do this because people “against” Trigger Warnings might reject me for using them. I see it as erring on the side of kindness. I honestly don’t want to work with someone who would punish me or reject my work because I was kind.
Should you use Trigger Warnings as a Publisher?
When I was rebranding eHorror as Under the Bed magazine in 2012, I did use Trigger Warnings. Some of our content was extreme, giving me pause about where the boundaries of good taste and decorum should be. Ultimately I decided that using TWs gave me a wider berth to publish all the disturbing, grotesque, and boundary-breaking horror I wanted.
Because hey, I warned ya!
I like to think we took full advantage.
I feel strongly that TWs should be adopted as an industry standard for all applicable genres. Might, for example, romance readers want to avoid rape scenes (which are more common than I knew)? Books like White Oleander or The Lovely Bones, while not horror, have the sort of content people with trauma often need to avoid or time carefully.
But . . . it’s horror.
The horror community does face a conundrum with regard to TWs. We want readers to shudder, to feel fear, for hearts to pound, and eyes to widen in shock. In short, we want discomfort. But there’s a difference between scaring people, which is awesome, and hurting them, which isn’t. TWs allow us to do one with aplomb without doing the other due to accident or ignorance.
Why would anyone be against Trigger Warnings?
Clearly, I have a pro-stance on TWs. That said, I hear the same arguments against them all the time. I’d like to debunk them here:
Assertion: Horror is supposed to be scary. If you don’t want to be scared, don’t read horror.
Telling anyone not to read your entire genre seems like a counterproductive marketing strategy.
The other, larger problem with that assertion is that the horror genre is a haven for writers and readers who have a history of trauma. People who have been put through the ringer by life often write, read, or watch horror to experience feelings associated with trauma in an environment they can control. Horror can be healing—life saving, even. Telling people to "just avoid it if they can’t handle it" is a terrible disservice. It’s also mean on a basic human level.
Assertion: Trigger Warnings are inherent spoilers.
Yes, this is valid. It’s not a great idea to force readers to know what’s going to happen in a story if they don’t want to know in advance. This is why an industry standard would be helpful. If readers knew to flip (or avoid flipping) to the back page where TWs could be located, that could work for everyone. In eBooks, TWs could be accessible with a link readers could click if they choose, and scroll past if they prefer.
Assertion: People shouldn’t have to be protected from reality! No Censorship!
The edgelords you’ll hear this from are missing a very basic point: If it’s fiction, it’s not reality. Rating it or applying warnings doesn’t change the content, it merely describes it. Even now, ratings are more about demographics and marketing than censoring anything.
We know from existing ratings on movies and music that if anything, artists may strive to amp up their content to be sure warnings are necessary. Warnings can be a strong marketing tool.
We’d all like to think our writing is so important that humanity itself will suffer if our literary brilliance is restrained in any way. But in reality, your books, my books, most of our books, are passionate but fleeting missives in a roiling sea of others in that same vein. No story is important enough to hurt an innocent bystander, reader, or viewer on purpose or out of carelessness.
With that in mind, Trigger Warnings are taking responsibility for the work we do and the power it has. If we believe our work is powerful enough to impact people, we must own the possibility that it might hurt them. And if it might, then we should care enough to help them make a choice regarding that risk. We can’t protect everyone from everything, but we absolutely have the opportunity to ensure that we take ownership of what happens once our terrifying work is loosed on the world.
If you’ve read this far and wonder how this philosophy translates to my own horror stories and those I publish, check out: Sometimes Hilarious Horror, available by the issue or with a subscription to our Patreon.
Wednesday Lee Friday is a novelist and sex writer from the great state of Michigan. She has a BA in theatre and broadcasting from Olivet College, and is not so objectionable once you get to know her.
She is the author of Kiss Me Like You Love Me, The Finster Effect, A Stabbing for Sadie, the the horror collection Creepy, Stabby, and Mentally Odd, all available now. Friday’s sex writing has appeared in places like Kinkly, Women’s Health Interactive, Lora DiCarlo Blog, Medium, and Alternet. She is the editor-in-chief of Sometimes Hilarious Horror. It’s rad.
Wednesday Lee Friday eats true crime for breakfast, keeps a tank of prolific lesbian lizards, and is likely to tap dance on a dare. Find Wednesday Lee Friday on the internets in all the places normal people hang out:
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