Trigger warnings are often debated in the
writing world. Some opine that readers should be warned if something
potentially harmful is included in a book, and others feel the audience
shouldn’t be bubble-wrapped and need to chin up if they want to read fiction. Like
most things, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle.
It can be easy to scoff away the idea of “being
triggered” if one has never experienced damaging trauma, or if they have, they
were able to process it in a healthy way. The reality is that dealing with emotional
trauma is 100% personal. Even people experiencing the exact same event will cope
with it differently based on their personality, age, support system, past
experiences, education, and a host of other factors. So, assuming everyone
should react the same way is ill-informed.
Where does this leave us, the authors?
Ironically, in the same place had the trigger debate never occurred: we do our
best to respect our readers, and use good judgement as we write.
No matter how dark and gritty our fiction
is, we should never be gratuitous, meaning we should only show what we need to, not more. Genres will vary, but even if
writing a torture scene, there’s no need to slap every scream, sensation, and
sweat drop onto the page. Overdone description will kill the pace and the
impact will be lost under a wall of sensory words. Just like any other scene,
our description should be balanced, pulling readers in without overwhelming
are a few ideas on how to handle potentially triggering content.
Symbolism and Mood to Seed Hints
The back jacket copy should indicate some
of what will unfold in the story and perhaps even allude to trauma your
character experienced in the past. But, you will still need to show a scene (or
several), that portray these wounding experiences. If you are worried about triggering,
then don’t have this event slam into the reader out of nowhere. Lay a few clues
so they can put emotional safeguards up if they need to.
Mood, for example, is an excellent way to steer
reader emotion. Weather, light and shadow, and universal symbolism can all
help you nudge the reader toward the dark content about to be shown. Personal
symbolism tied to the POV character can also lay the groundwork that
something hurtful may be about to unfold: a sound, a smell, an object, a
texture, a place that has specific meaning for the character. Including something
that triggers their memory can help foreshadow something uncomfortable may be
For example, if your character is about to be assaulted behind the restaurant
where she works, take a moment to show
her reluctance to take the garbage out. Maybe it’s because of the lack of alley
lighting, or a memory surfaces of being surprised by a ranting homeless man who
was digging in the trash another time she performed this chore. You could have her ease the door open and try
and listen for hidden noises before venturing out to the bin. Or have an
unpleasant odor hit her as she enters the dark. Symbolism and mood not only
increase tension, they can give a subtle heads up that something significant is
about to happen.
Your Narrative Distance
Deep POV is all the rage these days, but
there are times when we shouldn’t use it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not
suggesting that emotionally difficult scenes should be reported rather than
experienced from within the character’s shoes. I’m suggesting that you can pull
readers in using deep POV to feel the intimate sensations and horror of the
moment for a while and then zoom out to give them a break. A bit of filtering
language (she thought, she smelled,
he reached, he felt, it seemed, etc.) can achieve this as it adds distance.
Or you could occasionally choose to name an emotion rather than show it in
depth (NOTE: be careful with these techniques—always have a reason for using
them or it will come across as lazy writing).
In Facts (Telling) To Give a Break From Showing
Don’t Tell implies “all or nothing,” but really
this rule is meant to convey that writers should knowing WHAT to show (and
when), and WHAT to tell. Deeply emotional scenes work best when there’s a good
mix of show AND tell. Breaking up painful emotion and sensory detail with a few
factual statements creates a balance, and if you need it to, will slide in
a touch of distance so readers aren’t overwhelmed.
A good example of this is the Hunger Games,
when Peeta and Katniss are on the Cornucopia as a fellow tribute is being torn
apart by genetically engineered dogs. Susanne Collins doesn’t describe every gore
spray and tear although she could have (the book states this goes on for over
an hour, because of course the game makers are all about putting on a show).
Describing such a horrific scene in full would be gratuitous and most would stop
reading. As someone attacked by a dog as a child and dragged around in the snow,
helpless, I know I would have. But Collins handled it well, using narrative
distance, selective show and tell, and information to get the horror across
without overdoing it.
Only you can decide how close and personal
you want to get with emotionally traumatic situations. It’s your story, your
art. If you can justify to yourself what you need to show and why, you are
respecting readers. It will feel authentic, not gratuitous, and they should respect
your storytelling style in turn.
How do you handle difficult scenes?
Let me know in the comments!
Angela Ackerman is a writing coach,
international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus, as well as five
others (including The
Emotional Wound Thesaurus). Her books are available in six
languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists,
screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. Angela is also the
co-founder of the popular site Writers
as well as One Stop for Writers, an powerful online
library built to help writers elevate their storytelling. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.