A Content Warning

Cats, Evil, Gothic, Silhouette, Angry, Sit, Three, Red
from Pixabay

Recently, I’ve seen a few of these on books. They’re usually associated with the same types of warnings on movies and TV. Contains violence, rape, incest, etc. Sometimes, they give a minimum age requirement. Most are in the genres of crime, horror, psychological-based thrillers with gruesome criminal acts.

I write mainly in dark urban fantasy (I add the horror tag for the fear factor), so is the concept of content warnings suitable to transfer to [my] books?

When I opened discussion about Trigger Warnings for books (part 1, part 2), the general consensus was that the cover, title, and genre is enough to warn a reader of the contents. Of course, that assumes that the writer does these three things well enough, and that the story has all three completed (not the case for critiquing, or some early readers). It also assumes that there is a generality to a genre (funny that), but I’ve found a wide variance within a specific genre when comparing what lies within.

Censorship, Banned, Forbidden, Transparent, Isolated
from Pixabay

Maybe the big genre labels are too broad. Fantasy comes under SFF and F, a huge umbrella. Horror and Urban Fantasy come in under that, too, so I’d use it. But below these broad categories are hundreds, although the author can only use two, sometimes three.

For Diaballein (my darkest urban fantasy) these are the genre fields:
Suspense, Horror fiction, Dark fantasy (although I think on ‘zon, it’s Horror, Dark Fantasy, Suspense in terms of order, but I can’t see it unless I log in as the author — why isn’t the list of genres visible to the perusing reader?).

The next story won’t be as dark. Okay, it will be, but still different enough. It’s about facing fears, entering the places (internal and external) that scare the main character, and finding ways to work through. However, it is also a form of psychological suspense. The things she goes through could terrify … I did write it that way. Being afraid and moving forward despite the fear is part of life, I think. And I’ve experienced enough fear and terror to know what it feels like to the marrow in my bones.

And as for putting these dark elements in a story, this is what I wrote for others when attempting to help with new storytellers:

Why will a reader connect to this person in your story? Whatโ€™s special about them? Is it clear that something needs to change? What is the journey they need to undertake to learn through doing?
The big question is this: Why Do We Care About This Person?
Finding the emotional link that joins the reader to the character is the first step to getting the reader to keep reading. They invest in the outcome of the character. They want to live this life for a while so they can learn the same lesson, but with no risks.

Storyteller’s Guild Book No. 1

It’s the final two words that make the difference. No risks. The reader undergoes emotional ups and downs as they read, but because it’s a story, they can step back from the contents or put the book down. If it gets too much, they can leave the story behind.

No risk.

That statement could be wrong, though. If a person is highly sensitive to the elements of the story, there could be risk to their psychological state. I don’t want to do that, or have that happen.

Intel, Hacker, Attack, Processor, Internet, Anonymous
from Pixabay

If I put contents warnings on Diaballein, I’m not sure what I’d write. I might need to research psychological labels, and I hate using those terms. Labels don’t always fit different people the same way. It could mean an ill-fitting definition is used, the most generic term, because nothing else fits nor can it be tailored. Or I could change the story to ensure one of the labels would work. (No, I won’t do that; once published, it’s there, and even though I might go back one day if big issues are raised, it’s not likely at this stage.)

However, the problem for me is that I’m not a spring chicken (more like a dry-roasted old duck, in fact), so I may not be in tune with the needs of a more modern society.

I might need help with this, but until there are clear directions, or I write something that includes the types of violence or other stuff that needs a content warning, I won’t be using it.

However, I will be adding a line to the blurb: the list of genres. I want to ensure that a reader will not enter the story unknowing of what lies within.

Would that be enough?

Sign, Road, Road Sign, Traffic, Road Signs, Signpost
from Pixabay

43 thoughts on “A Content Warning

  1. Goodness me. I’m still processing all of this content warning stuff. Partly, I think writers being held to account for a possible negative reaction in a reader is bullshit and just one more barrier to being able to write freely, using imagination without restrictions. The other part? I’ll have to think more on the subject. I don’t know, I just don’t know. Are we being too cautious as a society? Surely it’s the reader’s responsibility to deal with whatever comes from reading? ๐Ÿคทโ€โ™€๏ธ

    Liked by 2 people

      • I don’t know, but I’m leaning towards no flags other than cues provided by cover image and back blurb. I read A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara some years back and I sobbed inconsolably through the last 300 or so pages. I don’t hold the author accountable for the lack of sleep I suffered after such an emotional response to the content. Again, I just don’t know here…it’s a big, tough question ๐Ÿ˜€

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  2. Such interesting things to think about. I write quite psychological things too, but isn’t that what we are doing in fiction, exploring imaginary events and our reactions to them? But I see the need for warnings when something could trigger a powerful response through PTSD etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    • On doing some reading about the matter, I found out that 20% of American adults suffer from high-level anxiety. Childhood anxiety is examined through the prescriptions written for anxiety meds and looks like it could be as high as 40%. Maybe we need more of the horrific mythic tales, as Red Riding Hood originally was written, to ensure the younger generation know how the risks of and how to deal with the big bad world? Worth a thought.


  3. If a book contains graphic sex and/or violence, it’s probably a good idea to say so on the cover or in the description. But if it’s creepy or disturbing or intended to induce shudders without those elements, I wouldn’t bother with a warning. Of course, any specific reader may encounter some sort of trigger in a book, but I don’t think authors can be held responsible for everyone’s personal reactions. It might be an idea to ask anyone who reads the book pre-pub about this. More than one person; if all 3, say, agree that a warning is needed, it probably is.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree – but for me it’s if two readers say the same thing, whether a plot hole or any other issue. If two readers notice something, that something is worth reconsideration from the ground up.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Cover and blurb should be enough, why have we become so precious about everything but then I was a kid who grew up reading what ever they wanted and no one stopped me, not parents, not librarians when I took out books totally unsuited to my age. It is probably debatable how much harm that may have done, certainly had nightmares about some of the stuff I read.

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  5. I have been fascinated by this subject Cage and all the comments from other bloggers on your posts discussing warnings.

    I think when it comes to genre, some people steer clear of an entire genre because they don’t want to read it. Some people would never dream of reading anything that clearly stated it was literotica genre for example. I am selective in my reading. There are subjects I avoid like the plague.

    I am in a pickle at the moment because I bought a book another blogger published and it had no warnings on it. The genre was not clear. There was book description that made it made it sound like an adventure…five chapters in and there have been countless violent deaths and combat scenes…I am not enjoying it one bit. I promised to review the book for them. It is probably well written for a reader who enjoys that genre, but it is upsetting me and I can’t bear to carry on reading it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Maybe you can ask if you can pass it on to someone who reads in that genre because it’s not a genre you read? A lot of people don’t respond at all if they’re in your position, or they can’t like the story, so I think it’s less cruel to say something rather than leave them hanging. But we never know how someone will react.
      There are many I don’t read, including romance (in almost any form), but also child abuse/murder type stories. Not for me.
      It may be worth mentioning that the genre needs to be specific. That’s also something I need to be more careful with, both pre-publication and post.
      Good luck.


  6. Interesting topic, Cage,

    I think that I want to feed my inner artist like Julie Carmon suggests. At the same time, I sense a bit of responsibility on my end. If I also wish to release something, and I have feelings of how it would affect the community as a whole, I might want to think about it. Unless, of course, if I’m doing it for my own sake, then it’s okay.

    Thank you,
    Vye – Concept Artist

    Liked by 1 person

      • I write first for myself (because I can’t not do it), but I also can’t dismiss the outer context of the world beyond myself. I can be myself and allow others to be the same, but as I won’t know every person who reads one of my books, it would show some respect to let them make a decision informed by my introduction to it. I hope — there may be a lot of readers, but there are many, many, many times more books than readers, and I’d like a few readers, but not the wrong readers.
        I hope that makes sense.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Wrong readers means the readers who won’t like or won’t read that type of story. If the wrong reader comments on the story, it’s going to be a bad or low review. These are the readers who will not enjoy the story, and I want to ensure my impression/cover/blurb won’t give them the bum steer.

        I think I got the impression that the context of ‘type of person [I’m] willing to be for this world’ may have led me astray.


  7. I think we’ve all read books that did not live up to our expectations. Sometimes we soldier on and keep reading. Most of the time we stop reading and move on to something more to our taste. /Our/ taste. Trigger warnings that go beyond ‘this is a book in XX genre and is not suitable for children under the age of YY’ encroach upon the reader’s ability to choose what to read and what to stay away from.

    When I upload a book to Amazon I always tick the checkbox about suitable age. I believe that is not only appropriate and responsible, but necessary. Beyond that though, everything I write is part of the human condition. Pretending that it doesn’t exist, or that we can avoid it forever is…unhealthy. A large part of becoming an adult is seeing the world as it is and learning to survive in it.

    Reading allows us to put ourselves into situations of danger so we can learn how to a) not get into them in the first place or b) get out of them in one piece. Reading should make us think and feel, it should challenge us. Otherwise, what’s the point of reading at all?

    Liked by 1 person

    • As a kid, we didn’t have books in the house. I didn’t even see a book until we moved to a town. Then I found the library. But before that, it was all oral storytelling (me doing the fibbing, ribbing and frightening, of course). When I found the stories in books, it was a whole new world that opened up, one I could choose for myself. I chose (and still do) to read every book in that small library (200 or so) and then went searching for more and wider ranges of new worlds.
      Not once did I consider the idea of a warning (there were some), but found I didn’t like some stories because they didn’t appeal to the way I preferred to travel (I don’t like historical European, but love historical Asian, don’t like religious, but love spiritual, etc.). I found my path through life in the pages of multiple books of both fiction and non-fiction and I’m still travelling — only now I can add to the pathways with my own stories!
      It was through the care of foster kids that I used stories to help them separate their past trauma (locked behind closed gates in their head) from the future that lay ahead. It wasn’t easy, and sometimes it took years for them to see the relationship, (not saying I’m stubborn or anything) but persistence usually paid off. Every one of those kids is a productive member of society, and quite a few are also foster carers now.
      That’s a story and it has scary, horrifying, beautiful moments and an outcome that’s satisfying and well-remembered.
      Oh, boy do I ramble on …

      Liked by 1 person

      • -grin- Ramble away! I’m an only child but my parents took on some foster kids as I was growing up. They’re my ‘brothers’. Our paths in life diverged, especially after Mum, then Dad, died. But we still keep in touch and I know the value of fostering. Not just for them but for me too.
        Mum read magazines [her English wasn’t the best]. Dad read mainly technical things [engineer], but I was given age appropriate books by…someone? Anyway, I discovered reading fiction at age 8 and have been reading voraciously ever since. Like you, my local lending library just shrugged when I took out Crime & Punishment at age 12. I guess the librarian thought I’d read the first page and give up. I didn’t and that story was pivotal in my fascination with both psychology and social justice.
        Then there were the second hand book shops… ๐Ÿ™‚
        I don’t know whether we were more resilient back then or what, but forays into horror made me decide that horror was not for me. Scifi and fantasy, however, opened new worlds in which my imagination could play.
        I understand the desire to protect children, but adults? I care for people who have suffered some kind of physical or emotional trauma. I will help where I can, if I can, but hobbling books? That leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Maybe ‘hobbling’ is too far from where I started on this quest.
        I’d like to ensure the reader doesn’t get a shock from what’s inside, but not sure if that’s the way to go and leave it to only the cover, genre and blurb, or to give a more defined warning.
        Also, for beta readers who may not see the cover, read the blurb, or know the genre …
        Or maybe I don’t give the story to anyone until it’s at publication stage? To me, that seems to diminish the purpose of beta readers, because I’d be less inclined to want to go back, way back, to the revise stage.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I only send an ‘almost-ready-for-publication ‘ story to betas I trust completely. I don’t pull any punches so there’s no way I’d send to someone who’s easily offended!
        Having read a lot of your stories, I can’t see how anyone would be offended. Then again, I’m not that easily offended myself so perhaps I can’t judge.
        Do what you think is right. You can’t second guess every single person who may read your book. ๐Ÿ™‚

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I put a content warning on one of my books because there’s a brutal rape even though it’s “off screen.” I figured it wouldn’t hurt. I don’t worry about plain old violence, sex, or obscene language – goodness that stuff is all over the television. But graphic rape and child abuse would get a warning from me.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Strange that they wouldn’t list the genres to perusing readers… You would think that would be a big plus for us! Content warnings are a tough one because you never know what is going to trigger someone. Obviously, there are some things that people may find disturbing without delving too deep. But, as someone in a customer service industry, I know that there is always something you will never think of that people will complain about. It’s a tough call… And, sometimes these things drive the story in a way that may not bother people as much as they usually would. So, do you want to dissuade these people so they won’t even attempt to read your novel?? I don’t envy your choices…

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  10. I’m very opposed to over regulating, especially trying to prefigure reactions to books (but also CDs, streaming, music) I think for the faint-hearted a minimal warning would be more than enough, but after that I think we’re managing the population and who needs that responsibility.

    I think the only warning I’d like to see on books is: “As an adult we invite you to take seriously that you may find adult concepts challenging when you purchase and read this book.” ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Thoroughly qualitive topical post Cage, a fascinating read from both yourself and the comments of the readers.

    It’s a troubling world we live in – we have to be so mindful all the time of this, that and the other as well as the other others to others. People have become so very sensitive and special and as someone above also wrote ‘precious’ .. oh my goodness, there wasn’t enough warning, this is too much like life, oh my, l think l may be triggered to react!

    Yet as writers we have a responsibility at times if not all times, because our readerships most of the time here are demographically orientated to our specific genres and yet occasionally some venture in and are or could be offended perhaps too easily by some things which are not even designed to be upsetting … and because of this we find ourselves as bloggers [not writers that is seperate] but writers in blogs having to put up disclaimers, or write behind passwords so as to not upset sensitive readers – now OK – l don’t have a problem with that …….. but with books, l don’t think we should have to cover them in social taboo medals and icons of the content – why can it not just be simpler – Adult contain – may contain nuts, oh no my bad that’s something else, or is it?

    Are adults not able to determine by the cover, the foreward, the title – l mean pick up an erotica or a soft adult porn, pretty much l guess there is going to be sexual content to it, pick up a horror, sci-fi, fantasy is it all a bit unrealistic to imagine that readers will no what that means? But then am l being ageist? Maybe l am – just because l know what a genre covers, am l rude to suggest everyone else does and maybe some readers now need little icons and medals to assist their reading?

    Good topic Cage.

    Liked by 1 person

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