Just to keep it short.

One of my characters is sexually assaulted by her father. While not being descriptive of the act itself, the situation itself is quite an sad scene.

This is relevant as the character later has problems in her relationships when it comes to sex.

How should I handle this?

Add a trigger warning and say 'skip to page X' and then give a summary? or just let it be.

The novel is for adults anyway.

  • 4
    I'm guessing you have no idea of what you are writing about. If you had, you wouldn't see the need to emphasize it, or you wouldn't want to write about it.
    – NofP
    Feb 14, 2019 at 23:39

5 Answers 5


Don't give a trigger warning in a book!

Unless you're writing an actual nonfiction guide for rape survivors, a warning like that would be not just unnecessary but apt to get you ridiculed. It's simply not done.

People who are themselves survivors, or who don't want to read about violence, or kids who are reading adult books, use reviews and word-of-mouth to find out the content of a book (or movie) before reading (seeing) it.

That being said, a violent act can be very difficult for a reader, even one who doesn't limit their reading choices. Or it might be something someone wouldn't want to read on the train on the way to work, for example. Instead of warning, just drop hints that something bad is coming.

It will give the scene more impact. You don't want the impact to be the shock value; you want it to be emotional. So a bit of foreshadowing works well here. This is true whether it's murder, being beaten at school, or a tornado wiping out the town. Sometimes the shock is necessary (like a kidnapping perhaps), but usually not.

For example, your book is about someone who has difficulty in romantic relationships and maybe the focus of the book is her as an adult navigating one or more of these relationships. Eventually she tells her story to a trusted partner or friend or therapist, or she has a full-on flashback, or she confronts her father or another family member who didn't stop things.

Whatever it is, you can lead up to it. Maybe you show bits of her nightmares, or have her tell her partner vague things about why she woke up screaming. She can talk about her views on sex, which are generally a bit off in survivors (in a way readers who are survivors will recognize). You can show her in a sexual encounter (which might be as simple as kissing) and then suddenly (she is triggered) and all her desire fades and she may even be fearful.

None of these needs full descriptions. Let the reader figure it out over time. Then you can include her story. By then the reader should have an emotional connection with the character (hopefully) and will have empathy for her story, even if it is difficult to hear.


I don't think you HAVE to give a trigger warning, but if you want to give one, give it like we do on movies or television shows, up front, before the story even starts.

This fiction contains sexual scenes some people will find disturbing.

Personally, my response to the warnings about "nudity", "sexual situations" and "violence" is generally hooray!.

I think such warnings will only turn away people that truly did not want to read such a scene, and that should be regarded as a good thing. I wouldn't want to sell a book to somebody that will regret buying it. Anybody else that DOES find your scene disturbing -- Well, you warned them and they plowed ahead anyway. You need not feel responsible.

  • 1
    @Cyn As I said, I don't think the OP HAS to give a warning. But this also isn't only a rape, it is a rape of a child by her father. So pedophilia and incest are thrown in, some might even consider it child pornography. I've read as much as 1/3 of women have suffered non-consensual sex (by force, slipped drugs, or being too drunk or high to prevent it). I'd call that rape, and common enough to not need a warning. But the % raped as children by their fathers is certainly a far more unusual circumstance and therefore not expected. Many men are in jail for it, but still very unusual.
    – Amadeus
    Feb 15, 2019 at 10:59
  • @Cyn my argument is that a child being raped by her father is far, FAR less common than "rape" in general. If you don't agree, we have nothing to talk about. Because it is far more unusual than rape in general, I think it is possible it warrants different treatment than rape in general.
    – Amadeus
    Feb 15, 2019 at 15:44
  • @Cyn For you that answer is "no", you wrote your own answer. I think it is too strong a claim and wrote my own answer. Get over it, we disagree. I think you are wrong and I doubt you can say anything to convince me otherwise. And as I said, don't put it in the book, put it BEFORE the book begins, like a film or TV warning. Those very warnings prove my point, not all media professionals agree with you, and your proscription is not absolute. Some topics deserve warning. Make your arguments in your own answer, not in my comment section.
    – Amadeus
    Feb 15, 2019 at 16:04
  • My apologies, @Amadeus.
    – Cyn
    Feb 15, 2019 at 22:38

In Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane, chapter 7, the MC is seven years old, and his father attempts to drown him.

'I'll apologise,' I told him. 'I'll say sorry. I didn't mean what I said. She's not a monster. She's...she's pretty.'
He didn't say anything in response. The bath was full, and he turned the cold tap off.
Then, swiftly, he picked me up. He put his huge hands under my armpits, swung me up with ease, so I felt like I weighed nothing at all.
I looked at him, at the intent expression on his face. He had taken off his jacket before he came upstairs. He was wearing a light blue shirt and a maroon paisley tie. He pulled off his watch on its expandable strap, dropped it on to the window ledge.
The I realised what he was going to do, and I kicked out, and I flailed at him, neither of which action had any effect of any kind as he plunged me down into the cold water.
I was horrified, but it was initially the horror of something happening against the established order of things. I was fully dressed. That was wrong. I had my sandals on. That was wrong. The bath water was cold, so cold and so wrong. That was what I thought, initially, as he pushed me into the water, and then he pushed further, pushing my head and shoulders beneath the chilly water, and the horror changed its nature. I thought, I'm going to die.

There is no trigger warning. In fact, the book is marketed as YA. The scene is extremely honest, it is very much in the moment, with the child's POV, and thus it is very disturbing. It turns your stomach.

Which is how I believe such scenes should be handled. You show sensitivity by treating the scene with integrity. You present it as it is: troubling, shocking, painful. People who read about sexual assault should be shaken.

In the introduction to his short stories collection Trigger Warning, Neil Gaiman discusses his opinion of the whole concept:

What we read as adults should be read, I think, with no warnings or alerts beyond, perhaps: enter at your own risk. [...] I wonder, Are fictions safe places? And then I ask myself, Should they be safe places? [...] There are still things that profoundly upset me when I encounter them, whether it's on the Web or the word or in the world. They never get easier, never stop my heart from trip-trapping, never let me escape, this time, unscathed. But they teach me things, and they open my eyes, and if they hurt, they hurt in ways that make me think and grow and change.

I strongly agree with this. Fiction should not necessarily be a safe place. Fiction should go to places that make us think, even if those places are scary. I do not respect fiction that pulls its punches.

That means, no trigger warnings. Write it the way it is.

Just make sure it is marketed appropriately: for mature audiences.


Write the scene and be true to your characters. Adults can handle some darkness.

I have a scenario where my MC is captured by a woman in Bolivian Security and is being brought to HQ. She treats him roughly and tethers him - rendering him helpless so that she is safe. She later wonders if she could use him and trust him to assist her, so takes him to her father in-law who is a semi retired torturer extraordinaire. MC realizes he is toast - this man is not one whose ministrations one tends to survive.

Since the scene is of short duration, I let it happen and the reader is there. No ‘he was taken to the workshop and tortured’ shortcut.Because it will subtly change my MC, I describe it.

You have an event that alters your character. Depending on her age at the time, her comprehension of it might be incomplete. She might not remember it but will be distrustful and distant.

If authors put warnings of upcoming sex or violence in their novels it would be quite jarring.

Just trust your readers to make their way through as they trust that you will make the trip worth taking.


Trigger warnings are for public situations, not necessarily for private situations.

If I am reading a book and it has something uncomfortable in it, I can skip over the pages. I can put the book down. I can walk away and come back to it later. If the author is insensitive, or portrays the incident moronically – it doesn't matter if I personally identify with the content, or if the content is racially offensive or mishandles a mental illness for example, I can put the book down and choose whether or not it is worth my time to continue. I can also go online to find reviews and analysis that may or may not agree with my take, and I can read their advice on whether the book is worth finishing. It's my choice how to approach, or leave, the material.

However, in a public setting such as a classroom discussion where I will be graded and judged by my participation, there are real life consequences to walking away from an uncomfortable discussion. To make the issue worse, subjects like rape, incest, race killings, murder, suicide, and mental illness are often discussed (as here) in terms of literary metaphor, contrived plot devices, and simplistic character motivators. I saw Black film students protest a professor's insistence that Birth of a Nation is a great work of innovative film, because he failed to admit the objective fact that it was created to sow racism among white viewers. When they brought this to the attention of the class and received pushback from the older white male professor, their choice was to be silent or leave. Most found this Hobson's choice unacceptable. It wasn't the teacher whose grades suffered by walking away.

The difference between books/media/online discussions and real life

Here at WritingSE, when an ignorant man defends rapists because "the woman probably did not fight hard enough", it's reasonable to assume this man is an idiot, has never bothered to research his opinion, and has an arrogant Dunning-Kruger idea of a situation with which he has no experience. (Wow, someone is wrong on the internet.) Like reading a book with offensive content, I can choose to walk away. I can leave the website. Or, I can satisfy myself by adding an html-link to the actual definition, without personally engaging in an argument where one side is denying reality. I can simply post a relevant article (which I have done) and he will (no surprise) insult me to defend his bad opinion, dig in his heels, and become obnoxious until he burns himself out. It doesn't touch me. I can object to nonsense and defend reality without being "triggered".

In a public situation, the same ignorant jerk will take extra steps to defend his "right to offend" with his own made-up definition of rape which does not agree with logic or law, but he will "dig in his heels" all the same to make sure that the woman who challenged his authority is punished, and he will engage in bullying behavior to attempt to rally other dim-witted trolls to aid him. From a teacher's point-of-view, it is not about sensitivity for the experience of one student who may have suffered sexual assault, the problem is that they can no longer have a discussion about rape as an abstract metaphor in ancient Greek plays or whatever. The student who has actual real life experience should not have to suffer ivory tower academic abstractification just to suit a metaphorical discussion. Reality and real life experience trump metaphor every time, except now there are added power-dynamics, my academic score, potentially an entire semester wasted (or leave a job, or…).

The reason the term "trigger warning" entered the public discussion is because real life trolls who make up their own self-serving definitions of rape wanted to humiliate strawman assault victims by claiming university is too "soft" and coddles delicate students (as opposed to the Klingon deathmatch fighting arena they imagine it should be). The irony is that this position is anti-intellectual anyway and is the antithesis of educational discussion. A college literature class does not benefit from anti-intellectualism, and these trolls probably never went to uni anyway (or they went to business or law school). The media attention on trigger warnings was never about assault victims. It was always about claiming that universities are bad.

You don't need a trigger warning for your book.

There are plenty of literary methods you should be using to signal the contents of the story. The author can foreshadow events or use symbolism. The story will have an overall tone, and characters who lend themselves to serious subjects. There may be minor character who experiences an issue before the main character does, or there may be clues and messages throughout the book. The story's setting may be an obvious indicator – it's expected that a war story will see our protagonist experience painful and unfair truths about humanity.

Like every other important element in your narrative, you will build up to the important events, you will have characters who visibly show signs of distress and danger, and will need to deal with the aftermath to build their character arc. A narrative structure where important events are signaled to the reader is intrinsic to the art of writing.

You wouldn't warn readers that a clue to a murder mystery is about to occur (so skip ahead a few pages if you do not want to learn who the killer is). That's not how we read or write stories. Presumably your MC experiences a personal trauma, assault, or tragedy and it changes them. If it's important to the character then it is part of the story – but if you declare parts of the novel to be gratuitous and skippable, it's hard to imagine how the reader is expected to take the event seriously.

As NofP said in a comment, if you have experience with the subject you either wouldn't be asking this question or probably wouldn't be writing about it at all. Thank you for not indulging in Dunning-Kruger arrogance. Write the best story you can. If the traumatic scenes are unnecessary, maybe they don't belong in the story and should only be referred to or left ambiguous. A very strong psychological reaction is to suppress trauma. It might help to see this as less of a ticking character timebomb, and more as a coping mechanism to move on with your life – that alone is a good reason the MC wouldn't care to talk about it, or review the incident in any gory detail.

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