The Sliding Scale of Story Information

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Title: The Sliding Scale of Story Information
Creator: Lucy Gillam
Date(s): June 16, 2003
Medium: online
Topic: Fanfiction, Warnings
External Links: The Sliding Scale of Story Information, Archived version
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The Sliding Scale of Story Information is an essay by Lucy Gillam.

It is part of the Fanfic Symposium series.

This essay was originally written April 1, 2003 and posted to cereta's LiveJournal with the title "The Sliding Scale of Story Information, or Labels and Warnings and Spoilers, Oh My!." It was there that cereta asked for input and presumably tweaked it for publication at "Fanfic Symposium." See The Sliding Scale of Story Information, or Labels and Warnings and Spoilers, Oh My!; archive link.

Some Topics Discussed

  • "One thing that I think is worth pointing out: we tend to think of "warnings" (and often by extension "labels") as things that people use to avoid stories. However, certain information is just as often used by readers to seek out certain stories."
  • "fandom, uber-genre, and character information are what I would consider fairly basic story information, and information that is often apparent from context. From here we move into a gray area between "labels" and "warnings," between what some people consider reasonable information and others consider spoilers."
  • the differences between warnings and labels
  • MPAA ratings on fanworks as confusing, and US-centric


Ask anyone what the most overdone topics in fandom are, and I bet "story warnings" will come in near the top of the list. Personally, I'm as sick of the argument over whether to warn in general as anyone else.

So why am I adding to it? Well, really, I'm not.

In the most recent round of story warning debates on FCA-L, it occurred to me that one of the reasons the debates are so frustrating (besides the fact that we keep having them when a dozen compromises exist) is that the terminology is imprecise. The first problem is the preponderance of the term "warning" to cover any and all story information. The very term implies that this information will be used to help people avoid the stories. However, the reality is that certain labels that are commonly identified as "warnings" are just as often used to help readers seek out stories. In a number of these conversations, the term "marketing" has come up, and I think it's a good one, and one reason why the term "warning" is unsatisfying.

Also, both "label" and "warning" are slippery terms. What does it mean to label a story? When do labels that no reasonable person would object to slide into warnings that are the subject of debate, and when do those move into minute spoilers that few reasonable people would expect? Without a mutual understanding of what kind of information we're talking about, the discussion becomes frustrating. I might find myself being seen as arguing "pro-label" when what I mean is "I want a little more information than title and author," or I find myself being seen as arguing "anti-label" when what I mean is "for heaven's sake, you don't have to warn me that the story includes the death of a character who died in canon."

All of this falls under the generic category of "story information," and it strikes me that such information exists on a sliding scale from what is reasonably expected for a reader to choose among the thousands of stories available to what is just downright silly.

Of course, everyone's scale is going to be a little different. What I propose here is based largely on my own experience, which is informed by a number of things. First, I'm a multi-fandom fan: that is, I read in quite a few fandoms. Second, I tend to be a slash fan as well. I don't read slash exclusively, but I do lean toward it, and there are fandoms in which it's pretty much all I read. When I first posted a draft of this essay on my live journal, the ways in which those factors influence this scale became very clear. Since there is no one scale which can represent every fan's experience, I'm going to go with the scale I originally proposed and present variations as I go along.

1. Fandom I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that in 99 cases out of 100, no one would consider informing the reader what fandom a story is in unreasonable. There might be the rare exception in which the fandom needs to be secret (or perhaps a crossover in which the "guest" character is meant to be a surprise), but overall, fandom is pretty basic information. In some cases, there may be additional information included, such as which media incarnation of a fandom is the primary reference – movie or book, comic or cartoon, etc....

2. Uber-genre …for lack of a better term. By this I mean the eternal trinity of slash-het-gen. Of course, it's not so eternal: some fandoms tend to divide only by slash and gen, or "adult" and gen. And of course, the terms aren't always so neat and clean, and stories can fit into multiple categories, etc, etc. However, as general information, this one's pretty basic....

3. Character Information This one's a little hard to explain. The most common interpretation of this information is "pairing." However, I think there's a larger category of information that simply involves what characters are in the story, or what characters the story focuses on....

4. Ratings Ah, yes, the old MPAA movie ratings. Ever-so-common, and for the most part, ever-so-useless....

5. Sub-genre Here's where we get into tricky territory.

Within the larger category of fanfiction are smaller genres: alternate universe, crossover, missing scene, first time, hurt/comfort, the old PWP. Specific fandoms may also have their own sub-genres that start out as informal categories and become codified into genres. The difficulty is that a fine line exists between "genre" and "warning," and an equally fine line exists between "genre" and "spoiler." "First time" is certainly a story so common that it has become its own category. It's also a type of story that people might like to search for, or information that people might use to prioritize stories. At the same time, it's a whopping amount of information, especially when accompanied with a pairing label. Now, in perspective, I'm not sure it's all that much more information than you'd get from your average book blurb, but we're still veering into spoiler territory, here....

6. "Disturbing Content" Here is where we get into what have been properly called warnings. Although readers certainly use them to find certain types of stories, the general conception seems to be to allow people to avoid things that would disturb them. Death and rape are perhaps the two that spring to mind most immediately, along with BDSM, incest, and underage characters in sexual situations. "No happy ending" pops up in some fandoms. "Angst" is another that I’ve seen. Slash stories will sometimes warn for heterosexual content.

It is within this category that about 90% of the controversy over labeling stories arises. I'm sure you've all seen the arguments, and I have no desire to rehash them here. However, once you get beyond the "readers might be traumatized"/"writers shouldn't have to coddle them" arguments, there's still that gray area between #5 and #6. Is "hurt/comfort" a genre or a warning? Lately, the archives I run into seem to eschew "warnings" in favor of "categories," but within those categories are items like "non-consensual" or "BDSM."...

Reactions and Reviews

All comments are from The Sliding Scale of Story Information, or Labels and Warnings and Spoilers, Oh My!; archive link.


Ah, yes, the old MPAA movie ratings. These tend only to be applied to "adult" stories - in other words, stories with sexual content (refraining here from a rant about the old sex-and-violence dichotomy).

And are American. Ratings in Britain are by age-appropriate (12, 15, etc.); other countries have no ratings at all. You think Americans are confused by the subjectivity of the MPAA ratings system - there are some fen who thought "NC-17" meant "overt homosexual content", because their only context for it was slash fiction ratings.

The other thing about #s4-6, for me, is that it comes back to entitlement. "You should protect me from seeing things I don't want to see" is the basis for any argument for 4-6 that I've been involved in over the years. To that I say, life sucks. Get a helmet.

The other thing about #s4-6, for me, is that it comes back to entitlement. "You should protect me from seeing things I don't want to see" is the basis for any argument for 4-6 that I've been involved in over the years. To that I say, life sucks. Get a helmet.

I don't use warnings/labels to avoid being scarred by violating my poor little eyes with something unexpected. I use them to decide which stories to read.

I don't have time to read every fic out there. I don't even have time to read the first three paragraphs of every fic out there (which is usually a good quality threshold).

So, I read the labels to filter down the quantity to a more managable level. If I see something labeled "slash, G" for example, I know I won't be interested. (I don't know what it is about G-rated slash, but I've had very poor results with that combo).

So do I think they should be required (as in, "thou mayest not post without warnings")? No. If I don't like the story, nobody's holding a gun to my head making me keep reading. But I tend not to start reading things without them, because they don't make it past the filter.


Labeling a story "Clark/Lex" doesn't tell me much beyond that the story focuses on Clark and Lex and their relationship

Mm. Disagree - there are all kinds of slash stories that don't focus on the relationship between the people being slashed. It's usually (maybe even always) a part of it, but not always the focus.
[ratcreature]: I never quite understood why MPAA ratings are so widely used in fandom. When I started reading fanfic they were just a huge source of confusion for me (because here movie ratings work differently), and you are right that they provide little information. Personally I think that a system like it's common in US comics, with a general "mature readers" and an optional "explicit content" would be better suited for rating fanfiction. At least I never had problems to understand the US comic ratings, even though they are different from the system here.

1) Many of the things you included under "sub-genre" are more important to me than what you're calling "uber-genre" (so if I were you, I'd question whether the uber is inherently uber and the sub is inherently sub). Just as an example, whether a story is canon-based or AU is going to be more relevant to my enjoyment than whether it's het or slash.

2) On whether or not "uber-genre" can be a spoiler: I personally am writing a story that I'm reluctant to label "slash" (though it is, quite clearly) because I'm afraid of giving away an important plot point. I can think of several other hypothetical examples where this would be the case. I don't want to discuss too many details here, but if you want specifics, come find me.

3) I label my stories quite willingly by character information and even pairing (if the pairing is a core part of the story), but only grumblingly by "uber-genre" or most "sub-genres". Part of that is not wanting to spoil the content, but another part of it is a matter of being contrary and thinking: "dammit, this shouldn't be important to people!"
[ellen fremedon]:

... I think that the genre/not-genre thing cuts across the whole labelling dispute.

So, for example, I never really know how to deal with a 'rape' label on a story, because I the rapefic genre-- with a few exceptions, I tend to not enjoy stories where a character's trauma and feelings of worthlessness and so on are described in great detail (and if there are months of lovingly detailed therapy afterwards, I almost always bail.)

On the other hand, though, I'm fine with stories in which someone gets raped and has to deal with it-- even if that's the main thing that happens in the story. As a (non-genre-defining) story element, it's fine. (And figuring out whether a story with a rape in is a rapefic is very subjective and I doubt I'd make the same judgements two days in a row.)

*nod* Let me be another voice in favor of adjusting your uber/subgenre categories. I find the whole het/gen/slash thing to be strikingly beside the point most of the time; it's either a well-written story with an intriguing plot, valuable insight into character dynamics, and masterful use of canon material, or... it's not. There might be some use to knowing if a fic is pairing-centered or not, and I am more likely to read otherwise unknown stories focusing on a character I especially enjoy, but unless I am reading a PWP purely for erotic purposes (in which case I have my turn-ons and turn-offs like everyone else), I fail to see the importance of what genders character pairings fall into. In my chosen fandoms, there are certainly some pairings which strike me as nigh-impossible and others which seem natural-made for fanfic, but I make that judgment on character identity and subtext, not secondary sexual characteristics.

Of course, I also think "fanfic" is a bad category term for literary (as opposed to legal) purposes, so I may be a statistical outlier. ;)

I enjoyed the warnings/lables/spoilers discussion on FCA-L, because I think I got some idea of why people flat-out object to providing certain kinds of information about their stories.

I'd always approached providing story information from the point of view of asking myself 'how can I make sure that as many as possible of the people who will enjoy these stories will decide to read them?' So on my own site I provide labels on a separate page, and I try to make them reasonably comprehensive. If my stories are archived elsewhere, then I'm happy to let the archivist put as much information as they like up front, because it's their site and there ought to be a consistent look and feel for regular readers.

However, what I got from the FCA-L discussion was that some writers have quite a different goal and simply aren't interested in having the 'custom' of certain group of readers, such as those who do or don't want warnings/ratings/spoilers. They don't care if people choose not to read their fic based on this aspect of its presentation. The motives for not wanting to cater to these readers were diverse (from wanting closer control over the reading experience to having been irritated by demands for labels) but I found the whole concept very interesting because it would never have spontaneously occurred to me
[lexcorp hope]:

I only write in one fandom, so the fandom label point is basically out the window for me, but I don't like including any kind of information with a story beyond a rating, base category (drama, humor, other) and a summary. I do actually rate for violence (which occasionally annoys people when they find an R story, and yet, there's no porn!) but unless the story is straight out smut, I don't want to label slash/het/gen, because it gets confusing. How, you say? Character X goes to a female prostitute, but his fantasy is about Male Friend Y- well, how do I accurately characterize that? Is that slash? Is that het? Is that slash and het? If the character goes to prostitutes in canon, is it now slash, het and gen? What if there's only m/m UST- is that slash? Is that gen? What if the m/f UST is canon? Is that het or gen? (Don't get me started on "pre-slash" and "pre-het," both terms make me want to yack.)

Subgenres and content warnings just plain annoy me- angstfic, darkfic, hurt/comfort, it seems like they describe writing a formula: you should expect these kinds of things to happen in this story, it has been specifically rendered to meet X and Y requirements. I don't want to write to formula, and honestly, I don't think most people do. Disturbing content warnings are, as you pointed out, basically meaningless because they're so subjective. I may find pie eating disturbing, but find twin-on-twin fisting delightful- I feel that base category, rating and summary should give an accurate depiction of what kind of story to expected (Like, "I Like Pie," R, Drama, Joey and Joe Bob's dream of winning the State Fair's pie eating contest may destroy their happy life together." - you know it ain't gonna be happy, whereas, "I Like Pie," NC-17, Other, Joey and Joe Bob's dream of winning the State Fair's pie eating contest adds a sticky, sexy kink to the bedroom." You know it's gonna be porny, etc..)

I'm frustrated by death and rape warnings- it seems to me that if a story is well written, there's no way you can add those warnings without spoiling an important element of the plot. I find non-con to be a disingenuous label because either it's truly non-consensual (in which case, it's rape, and y'oughtta just call a spade a spade) or the consent is murky, and you're treading in BDSM waters. Either way, I would prefer to find out myself- I won't read a story with a death or rape warning, not because I'm mortified by the content, but I don't see the point. I didn't bother to go see The Others after someone spoiled the ending for me either.

A while back, I just issued a blanket warning for my stories: I'm not going to put in warnings, I'm not going to categorize beyond Drama, Humor, Other (although on my website, the pure porn is on its own Erotica page, just to be fair,) and I'll always include a rating that takes not just sex, but violence and language into account, and a summary that should give some idea of what kind of story it is. I know it's not for everybody, and I understand why some people prefer extra story information, so I may lose some potential readers this way- but, while I am definitely writing for an audience, I have to write on my own terms. I don't let readers decide how my stories end, I'm not going to let them decide how they should be presented either....

I should also add that just because I don't like it doesn't mean I don't do it if a list requires me to- the only one I won't budge on is a death warning, but in that case, I just don't post my story to that list. I'm only talking about presentation as its relates to my personal archive; it would be the height of pomposity and incivility to break list rules just to suit myself.


SV is definitely murky with the slash/het line- not only do a lot of primarily slash writers produce quite a bit of pure het fiction, but this is one of the few fandoms I've been in where "only gay for X" or "suddenly, completely gay" doesn't happen a lot. Clark and Lex are being written as incredibly flexible sexually- there's very little reduction of the canon for the female objects of Clark's affection- he likes Lana, it's an unignorable fact. It happens a little more with Lex's female companions, but it's easier to because of the three we've seen, two of them were definitely bad guys, and the third seems to be shaping up that way. I've only ever been monofannish, so I don't know how multifandom might change the label field- but I got to thinking about it: my first fandom was "Homicide: Life on the Street," and it never occurred to us to have a death warning- it was pretty much assumed that somebody (main character or random day player) could bite the dust at any moment. I wonder if the "Oz" fandom uses the rape warning at all?
[zvi likes tv]:

Subgenres and content warnings just plain annoy me- angstfic, darkfic, hurt/comfort, it seems like they describe writing a formula: you should expect these kinds of things to happen in this story, it has been specifically rendered to meet X and Y requirements. I don't want to write to formula, and honestly, I don't think most people do.

Er, you object to genres? Because I can't think of a single genre (including sci-fi and fantasy) where at least 80% of the stuff published isn't written to a formula (not necessarily all 80% to the same formula, but one of a number of formulas), and lots of people dig it. Now, sometimes the formula is all about the atmosphere, and sometimes it's all about the characters you get, but a lot of people are looking for a particular kind of story, or even, point blank, a particular story (I, myself, am a sucker for Beauty & The Beast...any Beauty & The Beast, anytime, anywhere, anyplace). And some writers are perfectly happy to write that story for those readers. Other writers like to look to the formulas as something they can fuck with, using the conventions as a sort of scaffolding on which to hang their weirdass tales. A formula can't tell you if a story is good or bad, but it can tell you if it's in the neighborhood of what you're looking for.

As for using summaries rather than genres to describe stories: as a writer and a reader, summaries leave me cold. As a writer, I suck at them. I have a really hard time saying what the story is about without saying how the story ends, which is what I want to avoid. I have, in those few instances where I'm archived somewhere that require story summaries, moved towards selecting a passage from the story as the summary. This is a hit or miss proposition, as sometimes there's no lines in the story that really sum up what happened. For instance, Victoria summarized Room to Breathe (Air to Breathe Stop Motion Overdub) as "Blair Sandburg was wide awake." which won't tell a potential reader anything, but there's certainly not a better line in the story that captures the whole thing, and I can't come up with a summary of the fic other than "SenToo2 post-ep, not quite grovelfic" or "Jim doesn't say he's sorry until Blair drags it out of him, but that's not enough." Except, you know, that makes the story sound like a breakup, when really, it's a first time.

I kind of wish someone would write a guide to writing good summaries, so then I would know how to write them. Because it might be useful. At the moment, only my Farscape stories have summaries.

[...] we tend to think of "warnings" (and often by extension "labels") as things that people use to avoid stories. However, certain information is just as often used by readers to seek out certain stories.

It is so nice to see someone else saying this. The standard belief, and certainly the standard reason given, for labelling a story is that, if someone is recuperating from a traumatic experience, you should warn them if the story contains noncons.

I think of story labels as ingredient lists, and I use them for precisely this reason -- to let people know what might be in the box not so they can avoid it, but so they can go, "Ooh, I'll like this! Let me read it!" Certainly, some people might avoid it, and I don't begrudge them a desire to avoid something I might have written. But I don't think of a content label as anything really different from a pairing label or a fandom label. It lets people know, "Hey, do you like XYZ? Find it here!"

I still remember how overjoyed I was when Pam at Versaphile set aside a category of stories on the SG-1 Rec-a-thon for "Jack on the bottom." I could have buried her in rose petals when she told me she'd put that search term up.

And I think that even for people who may have traumatic experiences in their past of hangups (and who among us doesn't, really?), they're not looking to avoid things, either. They're not running from my noncons-Archie. They're on the lookout for the stuff that tweaks their knobs.

Ingredient lists are marketing tools. They attract people.