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Spoiler: Content Warnings Aren’t Spoilers

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Here’s a question I don’t think we, as authors, ask enough. Do you care about your readers?

If the answer is yes, but only for their money, I think we need to re-evaluate our appreciation of our audiences.
These days, readers build relationships with authors—sometimes very deep and intense ones, thanks to social media. And, even when we didn’t have social media, readers still formed connections to works and, by extension, authors. That’s how we end up with fans.

A person holds an empty pink suede wallet.
Empty?! Get lost, reader. (Robert Bogdan / Pexels.com)

When we only think of our fans as wallets—and when we only care about them for their money—we inevitably set ourselves upon a course where we’re going to hurt and betray them. And, in that scenario, we lose everything—even their wallets.

I think, in many ways, we should care more for our readers. We want them to be more than wallets. While we don’t necessarily want to cross a line of propriety and suggest every reader is our BFF or something, we should probably care a little bit more about them as people.

And one thing we can do is give them content warnings.

What Are Content Warnings?

A content warning is an itty-bitty action an author can take to tell their readers about what a book contains. They’re sometimes referred to as “trigger warnings.” I’m avoiding that language here for a couple of reasons.

First, trigger is a legitimate psychological term for anything that “triggers” a change in the patient’s state of mind. Something triggering usually causes distress, flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, and anxiety. It can induce dissociation or a panic attack.

The problem with saying “trigger warning” is that triggers are highly specific to individuals. It’s actually impossible to warn for them in most cases, because they’re such highly specific stimuli. They can be unpredictable, even for the person with the trigger.

So, what we’re offering is often not a trigger warning. A content warning is more of a blanket statement that suggests the work has particular kinds of content. It might deal with certain plot points or situations, or it may have themes that some people find unsettling or disturbing.

The other reason I’ve avoided “trigger warning” is that the term has been co-opted, along with others hollowing out the very valid concept of a psychological trigger. I don’t take this shit lightly, folks. Triggers are quite real, and the psychological fallout is quite unpleasant, even if you’re only dealing with it vicariously.

Suffice to say if you know what triggers someone else, you’d want to avoid it. If you don’t, you’re a pretty callous prick.

Wait, Aren’t Content Warnings Spoilers?

Ah, some people would have you think that! Content warnings are not necessarily spoilers. In fact, good content warnings often don’t even come close to “spoiling” anything.

Think about how often you’ve seen warnings preceding TV shows or movies. “This film contains scenes of violence.” Or they’ll warn about sexual content and nudity. Or maybe it’s “bad language.”

Video games do this—often warning about “cartoon violence,” which is separate from graphic violence. Even music gets labeled, warning about “explicit language,” “explicit content,” or “explicit lyrics.”

Why are books the only thing that’s exempt from a warning (or rating) system like this? All our other media comes prefaced with these warnings. Why are we so concerned that if we do it with books, it somehow hollows out the experience or “spoils” the reader?

Is that a spoiler?

Not necessarily. If I’ve just cracked the book open, I don’t know what’s going to happen yet. I don’t know much about this scenario, except it’s a rape and it happens on these particular pages.

Often, it’s impossible to give such specific warnings. For example, if I tried to include a warning about PTSD for Riding the Dragon, I’d pretty much have to label very large swaths of the book as “dealing with symptoms of PTSD.” That’s … not necessarily helpful, because the reader can’t really skip that much of the book.

The cover for Riding the Dragon, a book that definitely needs content warnings.
Warning: This is WEIRD.

Now, those are relatively vague, blanket statements. Content warnings in books are sometimes more specific. For example, an author might tell readers that they can skip certain pages if they don’t want to read a depiction of rape.

So, blanket warnings are often still useful, even if some people would prefer more specific warnings.

Content Warnings Give Your Readers Agency

Far from spoiling anything, the blanket statement lets your readers make an informed decision about what’s right for them in the moment. Are they feeling mentally up to reading graphic depictions of violence right then and there? No? They can set the book aside for later.

In some cases, content warnings allow people to entirely avoid books that they aren’t mentally and emotionally ready to handle. (A note here that avoidance is a coping mechanism that tends to maintain psychological stress, so it’s not necessarily a good idea to avoid this media forever. At the same point, we all avoid unpleasant stimuli to some degree, and forced exposure before a person is ready could be as unhelpful as avoidance.)

And this where we get people pooh-poohing the content warning as “babying” people, not forcing them to “tough it out.”

Trauma is not fun to deal with. I deal with residual trauma from a course I took on trauma literature. When I signed up, I was informed the material I would be looking at was traumatic; I did not directly experience the trauma. Yet I experienced vicarious trauma through this material, and I still have moments where it’s difficult to remember what I saw.

For that reason, I can’t watch Netflix’s Chernobyl. Some of the material we looked at involved photographs of the fallout of that incident. Even now, I can clearly recall them, and thinking about them makes me feel vaguely ill. That’s trauma response bubbling up to the surface.

I’d prefer not to rehash all of that, dredge it all up to the surface. I didn’t sleep for days after viewing the material, and I’d like to get some sleep tonight.

Now imagine someone who had direct experience of a situation. How do they feel after they’ve encountered the content without any warning at all? Some people may come out fine, sure, but others may not be very pleased.

Just as a TV rating system includes content warnings that lets the viewer decide if this is right for them, so too does a content warning prepare the reader.

You Have to Let Readers Decide

I’ve seen at least one author say they didn’t want to put any content warnings in their book, on account of “spoilers.” Instead, they want readers to reach out to them so they could work together to decide if the book was “appropriate” or not.

I’m an adult and I get to make my own decisions. If you refuse to give me the necessary information to make an informed one, I’m just going to walk away. I’m not reaching out to you. You’ve already marked yourself as “unsafe” or “uncaring.” At the very least, you seem to think I can’t be trusted with the information, and that’s … disheartening.

Who are you to make decisions about what content is appropriate for me? Why are you forcing me to jump through an extra hoop to get the information I need to make that informed decision?

What about “Emotional Impact”?

But what about this idea that “spoilers ruin everything”? A lot of people arguing against content warnings fall back on this. They don’t want the reader to have any “foreknowledge.” They think this keeps people from experiencing the “full emotional impact” of something.

There are a few things we do want to experience in full the first time. Mystery novels are a good example. People might not want to be spoiled, because they want to experience the rush of discovering “whodunnit.”

A Black man in a fedora and suit sits at a desk, jotting notes under the light of an old-style lamp. Maybe he's solving a mystery.
We’re all the detective now. (cottonbro / Pexels.com)

Have you ever noticed that once you hit the big reveal, your brain goes back through all the clues in the story? If you guessed right, you’re excited that you picked up on all these “hints.” If you were wrong or don’t understand the outcome, then you’re trying to sift through the “evidence.”

Sometimes, this makes re-reading a mystery novel better. With a masterful mystery, every line seems to support the outcome, and you delight in picking up on those details the second time around. The first time, since you didn’t know the outcome, you couldn’t possibly notice them!

Scientific studies suggest we actually enjoy media more when we’ve been given spoilers! That’s because we’re able to engage more deeply (and critically) with the little details versus the big plot points. The first time around, we’re too engaged with “what will happen” to notice the minuscule details that make something an utter joy to behold as all the details come together.

If your work isn’t doing that … then I hate to break it to you, but you’re a bad writer. If your work relies solely on the “first time through” experience, then people can’t go back and reread your work.

Most “Triggering” Content Is Not Appropriate as Shock and Awe

These writers employ “shock-and-awe.” The first time through, you are rapt with the novel because it’s a big, showy production. Everything leaves you shocked or awed, giving you big jolts of emotion.

These writers rely on those big emotional hits to make up for a lack of nuance and finesse in their writing. Big twists often do this, as do scenes of gratuitous violence or rape; they shock the viewer or reader so much that they gloss over how shabby the rest of the narrative is. They get so wrapped up in the “big emotions” these kinds of situations evoke that they’re numb to anything else.

Once that wears off, you begin to notice those little details—or the lack thereof. So, novelty is the only appeal of these kinds of works; once it’s no longer new, it just kind of … sucks.

And yet these authors argue this line, that if they give any advance warning, then readers won’t get the “full emotional impact.” That suggests that the events that would need to be warned about aren’t properly dealt with in the narrative—they’re not entwined. Instead, they’ve been stapled on for their shock value.

To suggest that “spoiling” the existence of these kinds of events in the narrative would ruin the “emotional impact” means you’re just not dealing with it in the narrative.

So, when you refuse to give content warnings with this flimsy excuse, you’re really just trying to cover your own poor writing and sensationalism.

Give Your Readers the Agency They Deserve

If you’re writing nuanced explorations of harrowing events, then you shouldn’t be concerned about your work losing emotional impact because someone “spoiled” the “surprise” of a traumatic experience for one of your characters. If it does lose emotional impact, then it’s likely that you’ve employed shock-and-awe, and you should rethink its place in your work. Does it really belong there if you’re not going to deal with it properly?

If you are dealing with it properly, then it won’t lose emotional impact. In fact, it might be even more meaningful for your readers. And that’s why you should always give them the tools they need to make informed decisions for themselves. You ought to care more about their mental health than whether or not your work fucks them up for days or weeks or months on end, because of the “surprise” it included.

Treat your readers with care. They are, after all, only human beings—but they are smart, capable human beings who can make good decisions about what content to consume, when, so long as we’re willing to give them the tools. Content warnings are an excellent start.

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By Cherry

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