Imagine this, you sit down to read a new book. You feel pretty good about this book, you think you know what it holds and boy, are you excited to go on that journey. Except, part-way through the book, you read something that reminds you of a horrific childhood memory.
Not only are you pulled out of the story but you are also reliving the trauma.
This can happen a lot. A book that is marketed as a feel-good romance, can contain a subplot about self-harm or domestic violence. Or perhaps, the book says the book has a dark theme, but the reader has a different understanding of the term dark themes than the author and thus ends up reading something that brings up traumatic experiences. Or makes them uncomfortable.
This highlights the importance of trigger warnings in books. They help readers make informed and educated choices about the material they consent to consume, enduring they do not accidentally read something that disturbs them.
Benefits of Trigger Warnings
Conscious Representation of Darker Subject Matter
Writers can often write about dark subjects. Sometimes it is integral to the story they are trying to tell- after all, could the Hunger Games have the same social commentary without the well, Hunger Games? Other times, the dark subject matter is a form of catharsis and a way to process something terrible that the writer has gone through. Yet, other times it can be a way to give voice to a subject that the writer feels is not often talked about. In all these cases, stories can take a turn that can be disturbing to people. While art exists to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable, it is a writer’s duty to inform their audience of what they are consenting to consume and inject into their mental landscape. This way, writers can write about what they feel is necessary for them to write, without negatively affecting an unsuspecting audience. While discretion during the writing process is important, it is equally important to inform the readers so they can make an educated choice and reject materials which they do not feel ready to interact with.
Representation of Mental Health
Mental health, no matter how neutrally it is represented, can take a toll on the audience. Thus, trigger warnings help readers who might be affected by such topics avoid books with these topics. Good realistic representation is important as it starts a discourse about things people might be unwilling to talk about. It is the vehicle of change in a society. However, this discourse should not come at the cost of those whom it seeks to benefits. Trigger warnings can help convey a message to a certain audience while simultaneously protecting those groups who might be unable to engage with the content.
To continue the enjoyment of books
As Daily Howl says, it is important to have trigger warnings so that everyone can enjoy reading. Reading has several benefits such as helping with sleep and increasing empathy. To get these benefits, people should not have to risk being exposed to traumatizing events without consent. Trigger warnings facilitate a way for readers from all walks of life to read and enjoy the benefits of literature.
While there are benefits to trigger warnings and informed readership, some might argue against them. They might be seen as a method to infantilize readers or stop discourse from happening by giving an escape to those who do not want to engage with a book with certain themes. Trigger warnings can also be accused of hindering plot twists from happening.
Yet, the question then comes- are these objections worth the consequence of not putting trigger warnings? Are they worth reminding someone of traumatic moments? Or worse.
We as writers carry a responsibility to our audience. To entertain and educate in a safe manner. Trigger warnings are an extension of that responsibility. Yes, perhaps trigger warnings can expose coming plot twists, but there can be ways out. A good writer can make a plot twist interesting, even if their readers know it is coming. Writers on Archive of Own have been doing that for years. In fact, the knowledge of the potential twist can be used as anticipation for those who can safely consume the content. Or perhaps you can put all the triggers contained in a story at the start, without mentioning when a trigger is about to occur. While not an approach we follow, this is also an option to keep your readers informed.
How to Add Trigger Warnings
Now that we have spoken about the importance of trigger warnings, let us take a look at how to add them to our works.
Get a Psychologist or a Trained Beta Reader
Getting a psychologist or a trained beta reader, who knows how to spot triggers, is the best way to add trigger warnings to your work. They can also help notify when your work is doing a bad job at representing mental health if that is a part of your work. A good editor, with an understanding of psychology, can help in the trigger warning department as well.
Mention Sensitive Themes Upfront
If you cannot get a beta reader or a psychological analyst, you can try and add trigger warnings on your own. Mention any disturbing themes upfront so your readers know what they are getting into. You can also ask your editors, friends, and family who read your book or brainstorm with you if they find any theme disturbing and mention them accordingly.
Ensuring you do not cause accidental harm to your readers becomes easy with trigger warnings. Imagine instead of being shocked and disturbed by the contents of a book not matching the vibe you were looking for, now you know what you are getting into. Your feel-good book warns you ahead of time if it’s not the light read you are in the mood for. Your readers know you are a writer committed to their mental well-being and thus trust you more. What writer doesn’t want that?
This mental health month, let us pledge to keep the mental well-being of our readers as a priority and give them honest representation and good trigger warnings. After all, they go through a lot, considering what we put their favourite characters through. So shouldn’t we at least let them dive in knowing what they are choosing? Let us know in the comments!
Written by- Anjali Roongta
Psychological Analyst- Naushi Mathur