Trigger Warnings, Content Guides and My Books

Cartoon rainbow octopusThere tends to be a lot of talk about whether books should have trigger warnings or content guides, but little talk about how to actually implement this in a useful way. Back when I first published my collection, I tried to write a content guide (I use that term because I don’t like to dismiss discomfort that isn’t at a triggering level… a reader shouldn’t need to have a panic attack before it’s accepted as a problem). I started this by writing a list of content for each story in the collection, but I ran into some problems, and didn’t end up including it on the book information page in the end.

The two big issues I found were:

  • False Grimdark Tone – By listing out every possible item for each story, it made my work sound like the grittiest grimdark ever. Certainly my short stories tend to run darker than my novels, but even the novels would come out as sounding really dark. The problem here is a longer work will often have small references to a lot of things that potentially might get a warning, but when it’s put together as a list, it seems like a huge number of things.
  • Overwhelming Lists – Providing someone with the initial story-by-story list would be overwhelming. So would a paragraph trying to summarise all those things. A content guide that’s too long will be ignored. It also means readers might not notice the items they need to notice, or assume that it’s only a small reference (like the other twenty things on the list).

I revisited this topic recently after my decision to write a cozy mystery. I picked up a bunch of free cozies from Amazon and began reading. As they were free, I didn’t check the reviews that carefully. This was a mistake. One book was branded as a cozy mystery, but it wasn’t (down to having a rape scene). It’s not that I don’t read books with darker content, but I’d not expected it from this book, so it was jarring. It’s not a surprise that some reviewers stated they’d never read a book by this author again.

Lack of accurate content information can cause issues in all directions. It can make it harder for readers to trust a new author. It can make it easier for authors to misbrand a book for sales, because they can cover over that it has content that isn’t part of a certain genre. Overall, it makes it harder for people to make informed choices. This is always the thing that baffles me when people are against discussions of book content, because it does me no favours as an author if readers pick up a book under false pretences and never want to touch my work ever again.

But on revisiting, I still didn’t have much of an idea of what to write in the content guide. There isn’t a lot out there for those who have decided that it’d be a good idea. There are guides for things like films and computer games, but those don’t always work in the context of a book. What I ended up with was a bit of a hybrid between having a content paragraph and having a content grid (listing content briefly under main categories). I discarded the idea of a general rating, as I don’t think it’s that helpful (and my book pages will make it clear when something is a work for teens or children, so that’s covered elsewhere).

The general format I decided on was this:

Tone Paragraph to get around the grimdark issue. In this paragraph, the general tone of the book is set, along with a few other issues that don’t fit in sex/violence/swearing. As this is prose, it’s easier to make it clear it doesn’t list everything. I can say it includes things like this, or a number of issues such as that and this, rather than a providing a complete list of every possible thing.

Then specific categories. The big three people tend to want to know about: sex, violence and swearing. This is a more at-a-glance summary of whether it does have these things and what sort (where appropriate).

As an example, Sunstruck became:

The novel primarily has supernatural violence, but does touch on real issues such as racial microaggressions and attitudes towards mental illness. There are bar scenes and references to alcohol.

Sex: None
Violence: Fight scenes; descriptions of dead bodies
Swearing: Some, usually from secondary characters

This still left a few issues. What exactly should be included, outside of the big things? I felt social issues were one to include in the tone paragraph, such as noting things like racism*. Alcohol was a big problem area, as technically, it’d be listed for a lot of books. But when does it reach the point of it being worth noting? A passing reference to a wine and cheese party? The main character actually drinking? In the case of Sunstruck, neither main character drinks alcohol during the novel, but there were enough bar scenes that I felt it was worth a note.

I also considered some book-specific issues. In mysteries, sometimes the dead body is described and sometimes it’s glossed over. This is an important thing to know for the mystery genre, as it helps set the level of coziness. However, this isn’t something likely to be discussed much in a content system for computer games, as they don’t match up with book genres in that way.

Finally, there was placement of the content guide. I decided to put it as the last thing on every page. It made it both easy to find (as it’s always the last thing, so always there when you scroll right down) and easy to avoid for those worried about mild spoilers (just stop reading at the title, because there’s nothing more after it).

I don’t think it’s perfect, but it’s a start. I can edit them later if they turn out not to be quite right. I also think it opens it up for people to ask me if they have an uncommon thing they want to avoid. All in all, I hope it helps people find books they’re comfortable reading.

* Some content guides include character identity, but really, if a reader has a problem with marginalised characters, they don’t want to be reading anything I write (and no one ever seems to want WARNING STRAIGHT WHITE MALE ALERT on books). That’s not really a book-by-book content statement, but an author statement. I do want to mention acts of discrimination though, as I know from personal experience that some days it can be too close to home.