Monday, June 21, 2021

Trigger warnings: do we need them?


I've been meaning to talk about trigger warnings for a while and kept putting it off. Then I saw a post in a book group discussing the topic, which reminded me that it is something I want to discuss.... so here we are...

I've been reading for a long time. I mean, a long, long time. Back in the day of old skool 80s romance and before that, a lot of high fantasy. Back in the day, before consent, before female agency, before a whole host of things, stuff happened in books. I think I'm still a throwback to my early reading days because a lot of things I loved back then, I love now. As to the things that were a bit more taboo topics, my teenage self never noticed them enough to get triggered or offended by them, and I gobbled up all the romance I could get my hands on. Some of them probably would be considered offensive in today's times, and I know there have been discussions in other places about how awful some of it is in today's context.

All that said, I think my reading tastes have changed as well, and what didn't bother me back then, because of what I know now, may bother me now. I know there are topics that I am sensitive towards now, and I do not read books that contain them. The two major things for me are cheating and other woman drama (where another woman tries to get between the hero and heroine and causes trouble for the couple). I also don't read dark romance in general, but I think it has more to do with the degree of how extreme taboo topics are portrayed rather than the topics themselves. This is very subjective because I've read books that talk about sex and child trafficking and have been okay with it when it's not graphic and violent in its portrayal. Me not reading dark romance is a whole other topic in itself.

Girl with dictionary

So trigger warnings. What is a trigger warning, you ask? Well, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, it is "a statement cautioning that content (as in a text, video, or class) may be disturbing or upsetting." Trigger warnings are a recent thing. I saw them popping up a few years ago, and they have now become quite prevalent. I remember when I first started this blog, I was sent a book to read and review that contained domestic abuse. There was no trigger warning in the book. The author used the book (a romance) as a platform to talk about domestic abuse, and it was slightly biographical in nature as she talked about her heroine's experience with an abusive ex. Was I disturbed by it? No, but I can see where if a person has a past with domestic abuse, this might be difficult to read.

In another instance, a book I read contained the heroine losing her baby in a miscarriage after an accident. For me, it was just another plot point in the story, and I took it in stride as I read it. For another reader, it was the breaking point. She commented in the author's reader group that the story tore her apart because she had a miscarriage and lost her baby. Reading that scene in the book caused her to break down and triggered a bad case of anxiety for her.

Those are just a few specific examples. Triggers are different for everyone, and they are as varied as the people who get triggered by them. There has been much debate over the years since trigger warnings started making an appearance as to whether they are necessary or if they would ruin a story for the reader. That's subjective and depends entirely on the reader and what they are sensitive to.


I've seen trigger warnings range from generic "this book may contain certain topics that are sensitive for readers" to "this book contains graphic scenes of rape, abuse, and violence." Opinions on how detailed a trigger warning should be varies too. A lot of people feel that a generic trigger warning is enough, but for others who have specific triggers, details are required. Many people feel that trigger warnings are spoilery, and they would rather there be no trigger warning at all, and they get to find out what's happening as they read. This would, of course, not work for those people who need trigger warnings on specific topics.

One reader said that she has no triggers and despises how much trigger warnings ruin books with warnings of every little thing, but makes the proviso that she does realise they have their place for people who need them. On the other hand, another reader said that she would like to see a place where all books have all the triggers listed so that she would know if the book had a cliffhanger, a happy for now ending, a duet or a trilogy, or anything else so that she knows exactly what she is buying to read because too often she has been caught out buying a book only to be shocked or disappointed by it.

Crossed feet

There is a publisher who specialises in dark erotic romance, and all their books contain a publisher's note or warning. In the description of all their books, something like this or a variation thereof is included: "Publisher's Note: This book includes spankings and rough, intense sexual scenes. If such material offends you, please don't buy this book." Most of their books tend to be varying degrees of dark, too, often with dubious consent or no consent, so I think the warning is helpful.

One author said that she does a blanket content warning at the beginning of her book and then includes a link to a chapter by chapter list of trigger warnings that they can click on to go read in more detail. She feels that the general warning is enough for people who need to protect their mental health and the detailed list is available for those who want or need it. For this author, the response to her approach has generally been positive.

Trigger warning
Image used with permission by Van D Vicious.

Another author mentions that there are possible triggers in her book then directs the reader to the list on her website rather than including it in the book description on Amazon or wherever the book is sold. Another author includes a brief warning in the book description that gives a general sense of what the book will be like. One of her books have this warning at the bottom of the book description: "A complete stand-alone, 72k word dark mafia romance with no om/ow drama and a HEA." I've noticed that a lot of authors include "guaranteed HEA" as a note at the bottom of their book description because I assume a lot of people want to know if the book ends with a HEA (happy ever after) or not. Helpful note: a book is not a romance if it does not include either a HEA or a HFN (happy for now).

I think that there will always be varying opinions on trigger warnings and how brief or detailed they should be or even if they are necessary at all. It comes down to individual preference and personal sensitivity on topics that are included in books.

Caution tape

Personally, I don't mind a brief trigger warning. I don't think it's too spoilery to mention that a book may contain rape or child abuse. I like to know if a book is dark because I will stay away from them, and if there's cheating or other woman drama. I can tolerate most triggers so long as they are not described in a graphic manner and there isn't excessive abuse or violence on the book. I read a lot of romantic suspense and those tend to deal with a lot of topics like sex trafficking, child trafficking, drug abuse, etc., as part of their plots.

If I am uncertain about a book, then I will either ask in a book group I'm in or check reviews for spoilers with the information I'm looking for. If, as a reader, you are uncertain about a book, you have options. Of course, you can choose not to read the book, or alternatively, you can research the book to find out if the content will trigger you. This will invariably lead to spoilers to some degree, so you need to be prepared for that to happen. This may or may not be a good thing, but it is what it is.

One reader said that she doesn't really care about trigger warnings because she doesn't have any triggers, but she would like a heads up on the darkness level of the story even though that's a subjective matter. This is different for everyone, so she reads one-star book reviews and recommendations by people to decide if she wants to read the book or not. She also thinks that triggers and warnings should be each individual's responsibility, and if they have triggers, they should do their own research on the book to protect themselves. She also made a funny comment about "back in the day" before Amazon when there was only the back cover blurb to rely on and SURPRISE!!! And they all survived. Then she laughed about how old she is. I can relate. I was reading way back then too.

Back of book

For the most part, in today's world, I think trigger warnings are mostly helpful to varying degrees. I also think that they are here to stay as readers become more selective, more savvy, and more importantly, potentially more sensitive. There are as many people with triggers as there are those without, so it's important to be as inclusive as possible.

And on that note, here's one final thought from another reader who said it's good to list trigger warnings. It does spoil the plot, but mental health is more important. I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment. If reading something causes you distress and anxiety, then it's better to know about it so you can either avoid it or forge on at your own risk. Trigger warnings are usually not particularly detailed. A little spoiling might be better than a severe panic attack or falling into depression.

So tell me, do you have any triggers (you don't need to go into detail), and do you seek out trigger warnings for the books you read?

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  1. Like you I have been reading for many years and those bodice rippers from the 80's might these days need trigger warnings for some people, for me I am not into dark romance either and life happens and if the author has use respect and caring while writing things that are tough then I can cope with them, I don't think there is a lot that sets me off I don't like things happening to children and animals but again if it is done well and with caring and a part of the story all good.

    Have un


    1. Yeah, definitely agree that children and animals would require trigger warnings if they do anything drastic or graphic to them.

  2. Great blog Deanna.
    I don't really have any triggers, although I dont like animal cruelty or child abuse, but if it's off page or part of a suspense plot, then for me that's ok. Although I do want to be told, and of course different folk have different mileage. I definitely would not want to research every book before purchase, I just want to read a book, and that would take far too much time. It also seems a bit blaming the reader if they find something upsetting. It's not too much to expect a few short lines from the author.
    As for the old style bodice rippers, well they just annoy me personally nowadays but, again, different mileage. I also think that saying "we all survived" is somewhat alarming, as how does she know. Just because she did, doesn't mean everyone else did!

    1. I think it's how it's handled and if it's off the page, as you say, or if it's graphic and on the page. That makes all the difference.

  3. I think general trigger warnings are helpful. And as you noted, readers can do their own research if they have a particular trigger.
    For me, it depends on my mood and the writing if something will upset me. I’ve dnf’d a few books because they were going somewhere I didn’t want to follow.
    The In Death series is one that has been hard at times to press through as Eve and Roarke have worked through issues, but I have learned some things about how people’s experiences shape their world view that I may not have otherwise, just because of the way it was written.
    I think being descriptive such as dark mafia or bully, is helpful. I tend to stay away from those, having read a few.
    And I absolutely hate cliffhangers! If I go in to it knowing it’s a series with an overarching plot, that’s one thing, but a sudden ending is not.

    1. Interesting you say that about the In Death series. Yes, it does go to some dark places, but I've never seen any trigger warnings on her books. I'm guessing its because they are trad published.

    2. Julie, very interesting what you say about the In Death books. Yes, parts of Eve and Roarke's past, particularly Eve's past is very traumatic. I don't remember thinking they were too dark or that they needed a trigger warning though. Some of it was a little disturbing.

    3. Gill, they were published so long ago too. Back then, trigger warnings were not a thing. I don't think trad pubs do them even now.