I spoke about trigger warnings in a post last year, that you can find here. Why am I writing about it again? Because it's important. Because it's one of those things that every author has to account for. It's a responsibility that we possess, as writers. It's our duty to our readers to provide them.
So let's discuss, by evaluating the biggest questions that surround trigger warnings:
Are trigger warnings plot spoilers?
NO! And this is one argument that really rubs me up the wrong way. Books nowadays come with notes/warnings such as: cliffhanger, HEA, HFN and so much more. Why do authors believe that those are not plot spoilers but a trigger warning is? The whole point of HEA and cliffhanger warnings is to warn readers who don't like those things - who want a perfect, clear ending, who don't want to pick up a book that has a cliffhanger etc.
Who does it harm when a reader picks up a book without a cliffhanger warning?
No one. Sure, a reader might be frustrated or annoyed by the lack of a warning. A reader might even downgrade a story/book/novel because they brought expectations to the book, believing it was a completed story, only to find that it's not. Either the story continues in another book or the ending is rounded off but not all the way complete because the plot continues in the next issue/edition/episode or novel. That's a personal thing and nothing that will seriously hurt anyone's feelings.
Who does it hurt when a reader picks up a book without a trigger warning?
Wow...so many answers to this. To properly answer this, we need to evaluate what a trigger warning is and what it should do. But, the general idea is that a trigger warning is a clear indicator of plot arcs or content that could be detrimental to a person's physical or mental health.
Here's the literal description, if you type 'trigger warning definition' into Google:
a statement at the start of a piece of writing, video, etc. alerting the reader or viewer to the fact that it contains potentially distressing material.
"there probably should be a trigger warning for people dealing with grief"
There it is, in a nutshell. "Potentially distressing material." Which brings up to defining what that is.
What subjects require a trigger warning?
This can vary, according to personal ideas, but I generally think the accepted terms are that rape, child abuse, domestic abuse, and suicide should be given a trigger warning. Personally, I would also add in cancer (as someone who has had it, gone through chemo, and doesn't always like the way it's represented in books), certain mental health issues (such as schizophrenia or self-harm and depression) as well as cheating. These are things that most people in life have experienced at some point, so a lot of authors wouldn't agree they should have a trigger warning, but having talked to countless readers and authors, I disagree.
I've spoken to a reader recently who was traumatised by a book recommended to her, as "light relief" while she was undergoing a difficult time at home, because someone recommended a book and didn't warn her that it had a cancer storyline. Not just a cancer storyline, but a particularly brutal one, in a lot of detail. Which was the last thing she wanted, because she was trying to escape the trauma and emotional chaos of a close family member going through chemo. I, myself, have undergone chemo and don't like the way some authors portray it. To some it's a death sentence and there's no hope, their characters reject treatment, while others go the opposite route and make it a plot-toy that is mentioned but is never actually explored with any dignity or respect.
I also know readers who have suffered through being cheated on in marriage or in a relationship, who were devastated and unable to trust for a long time after. They're the kind of readers who hope for and need a trigger warning for cheating in books.
But, most importantly of all, there are the people who need trigger warnings for rape, assault, domestic abuse and more. People who have PTSD for military reasons, from an assault, from homophobic or racist hate crimes, people who have nightmares, flashbacks, and still cannot move past what was done to them or what they experienced. People who are struggling to get through from day-to-day. These are the people who desperately NEED a trigger warning.
Where should a trigger warning be placed?
No matter the extent of the content, as long as it's in there, or implied, it needs to be included in a warning. Whether this is in the front matter, a small note in the blurb, or used in the promo material with a single line of warning, it needs to be SOMEWHERE. Somewhere people will see it and can make a well informed judgment about whether they are able to read that book, whether it will be harmful to them to read it, or whether they can cope with the content.
Most importantly, there is ONE reason to use trigger warnings:
It is THEIR choice, not ours.
As authors, we write the stories that speak to us, but we have no right to force people to read our stories if it's going to be harmful to them or detrimental to their mental or physical health.
I've seen a friend suffer flashbacks, anxiety attacks, nightmares, and who had to make an emergency visit to their psychologist to get help to overcome the effects of reading a book that detailed what he had gone through in his own life, because there was NO warning. He was the kind of reader who was very careful never to place himself in a position to read books that could relate to his own experiences and life, who knew what reading those kind of books could do to him. But there was no warning and he ended up in severe mental distress, with physical and mental symptoms and suicidal thoughts, all because of a book.
Words have power. Authors sometimes forget that. We forget that we try to write realistic characters and, sometimes, we hit the mark far too well. We hit a nerve with people. That's the point of being an author, to touch a nerve, to strike an emotion, to make people feel something.
A trigger warning has nothing to do with ruining the plot, with exposing a huge plot point, or revealing too much. A trigger warning isn't a spoiler that will stop people from reading the book. In fact, it can draw readers to an author, because they knew that author cares, that they are open about the content in their books. A reader who doesn't need or want a trigger warning can skim it, if they want to. A reader who needs that warning can go into the book with their eyes open, knowing what to expect, or they can choose not to take the risk.
The truth is this: a trigger warning provides context, preparation, a chance for the reader to give their conscious consent to read about an issue that may affect them. The lack of a trigger warning cannot be undone. An author who doesn't provide a trigger warning for a book that should have it and doesn't, will NEVER be able to undo the damage done to a reader who desperately needed that warning. They will lose no readers for a trigger warning in a blurb, but they will lose a reader for books with no trigger warning when it's needed.
Which is why I'm such a devoted advocate of trigger warnings.
Trigger warnings are there for when we hit the mark. When we get it right. Because, a well placed trigger warning can save a life. And, to me, that's all that matters.