Monday, December 11, 2017

Writing About Emotional Trauma Without Triggering Readers

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 them. 

Here are a few ideas on how to handle potentially triggering content. 

Use 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 coming.

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. 

Vary 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).

Weave In Facts (Telling) To Give a Break From Showing

Show, 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 Helping 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.


Ann Bennett said...

I know bad things happen. Nevertheless, I do not like reading gore. Too much gore and I am reading a different book. I never thought about scenes triggering past trauma. When you write a story, it takes a life after it's creation. This is good information to consider.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

It's a fin line to walk when writing. Thanks for the tips, Angela!

Natalie Aguirre said...

Great tips, Angela. And so true that people who have had a huge loss or trauma in life can have triggering events. I do and different things set it off. As much as I've come back from grief, I think it's a life-long process. And I definitely wouldn't read a book that I thought wasn't sensitive enough about triggering things for me.

Juneta key said...

Great information. Thank you. I know I have had movies hit triggers before not so much books in the genre I read most. However, I can see how it can happen and I have heard others comment on that happening to them. Enjoyed the post.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Pulling back is a good idea. You don't want to emotionally exhaust the reader.

Pat Hatt said...

Have to find that balance indeed. If it is not needed and just slows things down, no need to go all Hollyweird and shove it in for special effect. And yeah, gotta love how many think it is all show all the time.

Barbara said...

Gosh I don’t envy writers. I had no idea you had to consider such things. I always read the book blurb which usually gives a very good idea of what to expect from the story and will put a book back on the shelf if I think it might be upsetting.

Angela Ackerman said...

@Ann, I agree. I had more of a stomach for it when I was younger, but now, not so much. But anything I think can be done well if the description truly adds tot he story. And this is the key for all description, including gore. Is it just there for shock factor, or is it actually building impact, showing stakes, or something else? If we challenge ourselves on any provocative description, we are doing our readers (and our books) a huge service, because ultimately the read will be tighter and more powerful.

@alex, Thanks for having me here today! It was great to be able to post about this topic, because it is an area where many are wary and unsure of what to do.

@Natalie, This is why we do need to think of readers...people come from different experiences and trauma. If we treat everything with respect, readers will always know WHY something is included because it makes sense within the story, and so even if it is a difficult bit to read, they will appreciate that it wasn't just for shock value, but had reasons for being there.

@Juneta, this is true--movies can be very triggering for some because there's a strong visual to what happens. I think the music really primes the pump also.

@L. Diane, Emotional exhaustion is definitely something for us to watch for. Too much means they probably won't join us for a second book.

@Pat, love that term. Hollyweird!

@Barbara, lol, there are so many things to juggle. I am amazed that most of us keep our sanity!

Christine Rains said...

Excellent tips. Giving a few details, the reader's imagination then fills the rest in, and I think that's a great way to get balance when dealing with dark situations.

Angela Ackerman said...

I think if writers understand exactly how much to show and why, then they will better find the balance between "what is too much" and "what is perfect and gut-wrenching." ;)

cleemckenzie said...

These are great tips, Angela. I like and read contemporary, realistic fiction, so I expect some "uncomfortable" situations in the stories I choose. I'm not big into graphic gore, but I am into good storytelling, and your tips encourage just that.

Roland Clarke said...

I'm hoping that I avoided the trauma problem with my debut novel as I had a protagonist with PTSD. He had to describe why later in the book, but hopefully, by then the readers were already set up. I will tread carefully in future. Thanks, Angela.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

Good points. I hear a lot of people talk about being triggered. I can't stand to read about the death of a child, and I'm sure there are many who find that too disturbing. But if I know ahead of time, I can avoid the book or at least be prepared.

Tyrean Martinson said...

Excellent points! I really appreciate your sensitivity to readers.
As a reader, there are definitely scenes that trigger some responses in me, and so I tread carefully if a book's content may involve certain types of violence or graphic scenes. I try to carefully read a book's back cover to find out if it's okay for me, so I think that's a key point. Plus, I like the idea of foreshadowing ahead of time and pulling in and out of close range on the POV. I remember that scene from The Hunger Games and it was a tough read (I was bit on the face when I was 2 - so I don't remember it, but it's still there in my memory somewhere).
With my action-fantasy-adventure writing, I have stumbled into accidentally writing scenes that were too much for some readers and I realized afterwards that they had a point. I need to make sure the tone is right when entering a scene like that and I need to let readers know beforehand. If I'm writing a sword-fighting scene, I need to know when to look away from the actual violence because sword-fighting can actually end up gory, if it isn't handled right. (BTW, I had readers who wanted "more" and readers who wanted "less" so that was a bit confusing for me as a writer.)

nashvillecats2 said...

It all comes down to putting things into perspective I suppose.
Great read Alex and thanks .



Great advice. Thanks.

H.R. Bennett said...

I think I'll need to bookmark this. I tend not to think in terms of the reader but rather in terms of the story. That said, I think most of my readers know I tend to be very hard R (although I try not to be needlessly gratuitous). Gonna have to read this a FEW times.

Mirka Breen said...

Excellent post, and thorough like all of Angela Ackerman's. Timely for my R&R, too.

Angela Ackerman said...

Lee, I think it is good for us to be exposed to things that are discomforting as readers. We need to see the truth in the world that stands beyond our own experiences--this is how we grow. If writers take care, then this becomes a moment of growth, so it's important we do think about how to show difficult things when on this side of the desk, and to do so in a way that is authentic yet not overboard. Always good to challenge ourselves on how best to show what we need to and stay true to the story. ;)

Roland, PTSD is a tough one because many people have a form of it. I think in these cases, we want to make sure we stay true to the account of symptoms and what it feels like to experience it, and in that way, our attention to accurate detail helps us when it comes to showing the stimulus of what causes it. If you are thinking about it, and it sounds like you are, my guess is you are doing your best to treat readers respectfully. :) Keep at it :)

Susan, the death of a child is a tough one for me as a mother. I know when my kids were young especially, that was a "no-go" for me. I would not read books with that content.

@Tyrean, I agree, the back cover is a valuable place to allude to what the book contains without spoiling anything too big about the story itself. And some scenes will naturally be more violent than others, and we should shy from it, provided that violence is important to the story. And, good judgement as to how much to show is always in our control. We want readers to experience what the characters do, but we don't need to go overboard in graphic detail either. The genre will have a lot to do with this as well.

@nashvillecats2, thanks for your visit!
@Jennifer, thanks - glad this was helpful. :)
@Robert, it is good that you are thinking of the story - that's what we always want to stay true to. :)
@Mirka, glad this came at a good time for you, and thanks for the sweet words. :)

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

I worried about doing just this while writing the opening scenes to my last novel. It took months of editing to find the balance you speak of. The reaction from my readers has been positive. No one has yet mentioned the scene, only to say the book was gripping. I solved my own reluctance by writing during the day, so once I put the ms aside the rest of day kept the impact of what I was writing at bay. Thanks for a very informative and constructive post, Angela.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Angela - what a great post from you that Alex has shared with us. I'm sure your book is a wonderful resource ... and trauma in a book needs a build up - it can't be thrust unsuspectingly at us ... as perhaps the tv can do with the build up of appropriate music.

But I'd agree we learn so much from other bloggers re emotional insights, trauma, accidents and how we cope - I've used ideas I've read about in dealing with incidents or being able to talk to others about things ...

Cheers Hilary

Angela Ackerman said...

Joylene, Sounds like all that hard work was worth it!

สุรวัฒน์ ทองค้ำฟ้า, Happy to help!

Hilary, Yes, and reading fiction too - seeing how other writers handle trauma is an excellent way to learn. :)

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