When you queue up a TV show, movie, or even video game, you’re usually prompted with some kind of rating system or potentially even a warning. The rating might be something like “M for Mature” or “This show contains content that some viewers may find disturbing. Viewer discretion is advised.”
These warnings and ratings help consumers gauge their comfort level engaging with that content. If someone is particularly squeamish, for example, they might choose to skip an episode of a show that warns viewers about the amount of violence.
Slowly but surely, authors are including similar warnings for their books. Even book reviewers are starting to add these warnings to their reviews to clue readers into what they might expect.
Should your novel(s) include a trigger or content warning? Maybe! Let’s explore this more together.
Why You Might Include a Content Warning
Content warnings and trigger warnings sometimes get a bad reputation on the internet. Some people put down even the idea that these warnings can help readers make informed decisions about what they consume. Luckily, more and more readers and writers are seeing the importance of these warnings.
The question many authors ask themselves is if their book needs such a preface. They might wonder where they ‘draw the line’ and stop providing warnings. While you can’t possibly anticipate everything that might be a sensitive topic to readers—we are all different with different life experiences—you can evaluate your manuscript for potentially sensitive/upsetting content.
If you write about difficult topics or dark themes, definitely consider adding a warning. Examples of these include, but are not limited to:
- Violence, even in a fantasy or sci-fi book
- Abuse or assault
- War, imperialism, etc.
- Mental health topics such as panic attacks, PTSD, depression, etc.
- Homophobia, racism, religious trauma, etc.
That is by no means an extensive list of potential triggers. And it doesn’t mean you can’t write about those things; they are part of the human experience. It just means you might consider giving readers a heads up.
Readers may be more discerning about what they consume for any number of reasons. When you include a warning that such a theme shows up in your book, they can decide if they want to go on that journey with your characters or not.
Giving the reader the power to make this educated decision not only helps them protect themselves, but it also signals to readers who might like those themes that the book would be of interest. Instead of seeing trigger warnings as some kind of spoiler (they are not!), think of them as another way to flag your book for your ideal readers.
For example, some people are really interested in fantasy novels with magic and war, so highlighting those can help enthusiastic readers find you. If a reader struggles with anxiety and wants to read about characters with similar experiences, a content warning that mentions anxiety might actually persuade them to buy your novel! And on the flip side, if you market your book as a rom com (light, fun, cute) but include heavy trauma without a warning, readers who are there for the lightheartedness of the genre may be really disappointed and even leave you a bad review.
If and when you work with beta readers or a critique partner, it’s also a great idea to give them a heads up about these themes.
Where to Include Content Warnings for Your Book
Part of including content warnings is putting them someplace readers will see them. This doesn’t mean you have to plaster warnings all over your book, but you have some options. You can include:
- A “Note to the Reader” at the beginning of your book
- Warnings in your book blurb (especially if you’re self-publishing)
- Warnings on your website or social media
You might even do all three if you want to cover your bases. Some of your darker themes might even show up naturally in your book’s blurb and description if they’re a key part of your character’s journey and the plot.
Including Warnings Without Spoilers
Let’s say you’ve decided to include some content warnings in your book. Great! How can you do that without spoiling the plot?
While you want to warn readers so they can make an empowered choice, you also don’t want to give away all of your plot, right?
You can approach content warnings the way TV shows and movies do with their rating system. They simply name the theme without going into detail.
In a book, for example, those might look something like:
“This book contains references to alcohol consumption, violence using fantasy magic, and panic attacks.”
“This book explores themes around generational trauma and addiction.”
These don’t spoil anything about how those themes show up in your book, what your characters (or which characters) go through. They simply lets readers know those things will show up in some capacity at some point.
If you’re posting this warning on your website or social media, you could even write something like, “CW: alcohol consumption, fantasy world violence, panic attacks” somewhere. For social media, that might be the comments or caption. For your website, that might be listed at the end of your book synopsis.
Key words—like war, crime, battle, heartbreak, etc.—that fit into your book blurb can also serve as a soft warning for readers.
Deciding When to Use Content Warnings
While there is no requirement to put these kinds of content and trigger warnings on your books, more and more readers are voicing their appreciation for this kind of heads up from the author. It can show you care about the reader’s experience and help you reach your ideal audience.
If you aren’t sure if you need a warning like this, you might ask your beta readers, CP, or editor once they’ve read the manuscript. Research common trigger and content warnings to see if there’s anything in your book that might need to be flagged.
It’s ultimately your decision as the author whether or not you want to include some kind of content warning. Consider your novel and feedback you receive from your team, then decide how you want to proceed.
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