Content Warnings & Trigger Warnings: Protecting Yourself and Your Readers as a Romance Novelist
*TW: Because of the discussion of trigger warnings themselves, I'll be naming topics that may be upsetting or triggering to some people. Nothing is discussed in detail.
*CW: This post includes brief discussion of various kinks and sexual play some may not be interested in or may find offending. There is no detail.
As romance and other genres are extending into darker subjects or exploring trauma, content warnings and trigger warnings are becoming a larger part of the book world. I would say these days, they’re a requirement if you’re writing in the romance genre.
While these two warnings sound similar, they focus on different topics.
A trigger warning (TW) should be used if your book is covering sensitive topics that may be upsetting to those who have experienced the situations you’re discussing or that may just be upsetting to some people. Trigger warnings should be used for topics such as sexual assault and rape, domestic violence, physical assaults, self-harm, and suicide.
A content warning (CW), on the other hand, should be included to warn your prospective readers of topics that some audiences may find offensive. These are especially important in the romance genre, and content warnings can be used regarding specific kinks (BDSM, Dom-Sub, pegging), certain types of sex play (knife play, blood play, breath play), and even certain types of relationships that may be portrayed (think toxic relationships).
Who Are These Warnings For?
Content and trigger warnings protect both readers and authors.
The main purpose they serve is to protect readers. Both from things that might upset them and things that might trigger them.
If you don’t include a content warning for a book that has BDSM, readers who aren’t into it may be unhappy with their purchase. Even more so, something like blood play may be too much for many readers–so you definitely want to give people a heads up about that.
Trigger warnings protect your readers from topics that could upset them either because they’ve experienced them themselves or because the topics are just upsetting in themselves. For instance, portrayal of cutting in a story might trigger someone with a history of self-harm and may just upset other readers because the idea of self-harming is inherently disturbing.
One example that shocked me recently was when my brother and I began watching the show Tagged on Netflix. We got really into the show (mostly because of how dumb the teenagers were), but there were a lot of disturbing themes and blatant portrayals of these topics. Though there are “warnings” in the little rating card at the top of the screen right as an episode starts, it seemed like more of a warning was probably needed. Watching on-screen self-harm and even suicide was a bit shocking. My brother and I both said we felt there should have been a more in-your-face warning.
Preparing readers for possibly upsetting and harmful topics in your book is just a compassionate thing to do.
These warnings also protect you as the author of the romance novel. Including content and trigger warnings can cut down on some bad reviews based solely on what people consider “upsetting” content.
Both surprisingly and unsurprisingly, I would say content warnings play a bigger role in protecting authors from these bad reviews. Topics considered triggering tend to get less light in bad reviews. Because domestic violence, sexual assault, and suicidal ideation are unfortunately common in our lives, people are less likely to complain about them in reviews. They’re considered part of the human experience and are topics most people can relate to. If someone doesn’t want to read about it, they’ll usually just stop reading and stay silent about it. Even though people are less likely to complain about topics like this, it’s better to err on the side of caution and include TWs to ensure the well-being of readers.
Content warnings, though, cover topics that people love to complain about. There are those who will be insulting or write bad reviews just because they don’t like the themes an author is writing about. Topics like BDSM, breath play, breeding kinks, dub-con, and voyeurism. Anything considered a kink or “dark” sexually would be a reason to use a content warning.
Will you still get a review saying something like, “Ugh! Too much crazy sex. Some of us just want romance.”? Probably… because some people suck. But CWs can help ward most of the people like this off.
Where Should You Use These Warnings?
Everywhere you can.
You should start with including trigger and content warnings as necessary on your book page on Amazon, Apple Books, and whatever other platform you use. This way, potential readers see those warnings while browsing your book. This can help to keep them from buying if they’re not interested in these topics.
I’m not completely sure if listing specific warnings like rape or torture or spanking would set off any violations on these platforms. To help avoid a possible issue because of the sensitive subjects, you could include a more vague but still cautionary line at the end of your blurb in place of the warnings. I’ve included an example TW and CW here, and you can use these lines for yourself as they are written if you’d like.
TW: This book includes discussion of themes some may find upsetting or triggering. Please don’t read if you are sensitive to such topics.
CW: This book includes sexual themes some may find unappealing or offensive. Please do not read if you do not enjoy overtly sexual writing or kink exploration.
These short lines shouldn’t say something that may be flagged (like knife play or gun play) and should ward off people who are uninterested in or unprepared for possibly offending content.
These warnings can also be included in your marketing and social media.
Author C.C. Monroe is someone I’ve seen including her content and trigger warnings in her TikToks and Instagram Reels well. I’d recommend watching some of her Reels here.
Nichole Greene has cleverly included content warnings in her captions, even though they’re displayed as tropes or, in the case of this post, “what you can expect.” It’s a way to slide in that information without having to call it a content warning.
Including these warnings in your marketing and social media content can serve two-fold. They’re a warning to stay away for those who aren’t interested and a call to come get your book for those who want all the things you wrote about.
So how can you do this?
Start or end your Reel or TikTok with a list that looks something like this:
Breath (or air puff emoji) Play
(knife emoji) Play
In a post, you can word it several different ways. You could include the content warnings in the tropes list of your book. You can weave them into your descriptions or book blurbs. You could make a list like this:
In (book name), you can expect:
Check box: reverse harem
“Touch Her and I’ll Kill You” Vibes
But when it comes to trigger warnings. I would suggest being more obvious about your inclusion of them. For instance, at the end of your post, you can include a sentence that says, “TW: SA” or “TW: portrayals of depression.”
Including trigger warnings and content warnings in your social media posts and videos can also improve the audience you're building on your accounts. You want people who want to read about these topics to follow you and those who are uninterested to leave you alone. It’s a little extra thing that can help toward building your ideal audience.
To this vein as well, you can even include CWs on your IG bio. You could include lines like “dark and kinky romance author,” or “You’ve found your place if you like spanking, choking, and getting tied up.” Or, if you are writing romances with characters who are facing trauma or struggling with their mental health, you could put a trigger warning like, “Romance writer with characters who are struggling with their mental health” or “Characters who faced the worst and are trying to heal.” It’s another way to guide yourself toward readers who are interested in these topics and turn away those who aren’t.
These warnings are for both you and your readers, which is why I heavily recommend them.
This is especially true of trigger warnings. If someone has experienced these events in their own life, reading about them can be upsetting and trigger deep emotions in them. It could bring up memories of the event and be too much for them. By including a TW, you’re being compassionate to readers to warn them away from themes that may be hard for them.
You’re also being smart to protect yourself by using content and trigger warnings. You can both find people who enjoy reading darker themes in their romance novels while gently guiding away people who don’t. What’s even better? It’s simple to do and you can start adding TWs and CWs to your blurbs and promotions today.