Writing a taboo subject: is it worth it?

Definitions from Oxford Languages

noun: taboo; plural noun: taboos; noun: tabu; plural noun: tabus
a social or religious custom prohibiting or forbidding discussion of a particular practice or forbidding association with a particular person, place, or thing.
"many taboos have developed around physical exposure"
a social practice that is prohibited or restricted.
"speaking about sex is a taboo in his country"

When you choose to write about a subject that people consider taboo, you’re setting yourself up from the get-go for readers not to like your work–at least, not that particular project. Incest is a big taboo subject (even today people still bring up VC Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic–a popular book wherein a brother and sister begin a sexual relationship), along with cannibalism, religion/rituals, bestiality, torture, necrophilia, among other things.

What people consider taboo will vary from person to person, and when you write about a sensitive topic, you’re taking a risk that the majority of your readers won’t mind or can get past the topic at least long enough to buy and finish the book.

Book covers take from Goodreads

I don’t find many topics off-putting. I read Flowers in the Attic when I was younger, and reading about a brother and sister having sex was wicked and thrilling (at the age I was, reading about any sex was thrilling, haha! [If you don’t know by that comment, yes, I am an GenXer]). Sometimes a book will catch me off-guard, like Nora Roberts’ Sundown where a character is kidnapped and raped repeatedly throughout her life. I love Nora Roberts and have never had a problem with any of her books. I enjoyed Sundown as well, but I don’t remember Nora being so violent on the page. Still, I wasn’t upset and finished the book, an angsty and quick read for the length it is. If you want an example of ritual animal sacrifice, you can check out her Divine Evil which opens with a little girl watching her father participate in the ritual. It’s a flashback and has to do with what the book is about when the little girl is an adult and goes back to her hometown. I had to Google for the name of it, as I read it a very long time ago. The paperback said it was published in 2009, but I wasn’t reading much then, so it may be a re-release. Yes, I looked and the original copyright is 1992–I’m not crazy after all! Good to know!

I have found while reading both indie and trad books, taboo subjects are best swallowed when they are written well and have a reason for existing. In some of the indie I’ve read, authors confuse violence and shock value with conflict and insert unnecessary violent scenes when, with better writing, they needn’t have added it at all. Alluding to and writing it explicitly on the page are two different things, and you have to decide for yourself if writing it out in gory detail will enhance the story. It may not, and referring to it can suit your purposes all the same.

I’ve only been thinking about this because my trilogy involves cheating, and that, too, is a taboo subject for some people. In doing a brief bit of research before I started my rockstar trilogy, cheating among band members is, perhaps not typical, but it can happen. I’m hoping that cheating in a rockstar romance is considered tropy and not unsavory.

What are some of the things you can do to set up your book to have a better chance sales- and review-wise?

*Warn your readers. I’ve said in the past I don’t need trigger warnings and for the most part, don’t include them in my blurbs. There are a couple reasons for that, one mainly, is the rumor that Amazon will bury your book’s discoverability if you include a trigger or content warning in your blurb. Some bigger authors can get away with that–they have a loyal fanbase and don’t depend on Amazon’s algorithms the way smaller authors do. Amazon can bury your book’s ad, too, so they get you twice if you run ads to your books. Simply saying your book includes sensitive themes may not be enough. What people consider sensitive can vary greatly and being vague in hopes of tricking Amazon may not help. What you can do is add all your triggers to your website and point your readers there in an author’s note at the beginning of all your books. That may be a better way to go.

I use Booksprout for reviews before launch, and I will definitely include a trigger for the trilogy. They are also long so I’ll add that as well.

*Have a reason for including the taboo. Most taboo subjects will have a plot reason for being in your book, but make sure that if you’re writing a rape scene or you’re going to get graphic with child violence or the inhumane treatment of animals, that there is a need for it. Is it a clue in a thriller/mystery? Does the act move the character development forward . . . or backward? Violent scenes are not filler and shouldn’t be used to manufacture conflict.

*Have your characters learn from it. Cheating is actually fun to write about. Characters feel guilty falling in love with a person who is “taken.” They can learn a lot about themselves and other characters when they explore doing something that would be considered off limits. If you’re going to write about something taboo, make sure your characters (and maybe your readers as well) learn from it. Why is it taboo, and how do they justify the act? When is it okay to do it, and when is it not okay? Where is there a line? I love a morally grey character. That’s life, and none of us are perfect. We cheat on our income taxes, don’t correct a cashier when she forgets to ring up an item, don’t return money we found on the ground. Little things that would cast someone in a bad light if someone else found out about it. It doesn’t make us bad people–we have a lot of different facets that make us who we are. A reader will have an easier time reading something like cheating if your characters learn from it, or if there is a really good reason for why it happened in the first place.

I finished watching Daisy Jones and The Six last night, and there is some cheating and some alleged cheating, in it. I don’t want to spoil the book or the show for you if you haven’t read or watched either, but at one point the question came up, if you’re married to someone but are in love with someone else, should you honor your vows? Do you stay in a relationship you don’t want to be in? You never want to be with someone if they think you’re an obligation, and Daisy Jones explored that. In book 2 of my trilogy, Eddie fell in love with his bandmate’s wife. It turns out Clarissa was being abused, and Eddie protected her. She was too scared to leave her husband, and Eddie took matters into his own hands, another piece of the plot.

I’m not sure how well my trilogy will be received, but all I can hope is I executed them well enough that while readers may not condone what my characters are doing, they can feel sympathy toward them.

I don’t have much else this week. I compared my royalties with my ad spend for March, and I came out ahead, whoo-hoo! You really gotta watch those ads. Sometimes they can take off and eat up your money faster than a kid can eat through a box of cookies. I would have to do more math, but I’m ahead by quite a bit this year already, my trilogy doing good things, and my one-night-stand standalone doing well at .99. I think I’m going to leave it at .99 for a while. The FB ad is running with some likes and shares (social proof is always a good thing) and I make page reads off it, too. It can be my “gateway” book into my library for those who aren’t Kindle Unlimited subscribers but want to try my books. People are risk-averse, especially with new-to-them authors. Even priced at $4.99 for a full-length novel, if you’re writing in a series, you’re asking a reader to spend a lot of money on you. So I’m comfortable leaving Rescue Me at .99 indefinitely, I just need to make sure my FB and Amazon ads are running at profit to that book since I only make 35% royalties off ninety-nine cents, or a 1.32 for a full read in KU.

The third book is going well. I’m 19k into it at the time of this writing, but will be farther along by the time the post publishes. I’m hoping to be done with it at the end of this month–I still have my eye on publishing the first one in August.

That’s about all I have! It’s April, and it doesn’t feel like spring, but it will be nice when the weather starts warming up. We have a lot of snow, so I’m praying that the river near our apartment building isn’t going to flood. Not like a terrible flood–it usually does a little every year, but the amount of snow we got in the past couple weeks alone is worrisome. I will keep you posted!

Have a great week, everyone!

4 thoughts on “Writing a taboo subject: is it worth it?

  1. Good article! Thanks a lot for sharing your options! I feel better about my own contemporary fantasy story now, that has a teacher-student relationship. I know a lot of readers would find that a taboo, but actually, the age difference is not much and the job is just temporary.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post and topic! I’ve been meaning to comment all day but finally got a free moment.

    The first book that came to mind reading your post was Meka James book ‘Fiendish’. It deals with domestic violence times 10. After reading that book I wondered if I was mentally twisted because I LOVED the story. Not only was it well written but there was some sort of draw towards it. Which I still find weird today.

    In the book I’m reading now, Philippa Gregory’s The White Princess has a scene where Henry VII and Elizabeth of York are alone and he refuses to marry her and crown her Queen until he knows she can produce an heir. In the show, heavily based on the book, he is essentially forcibly having sex with her. It won’t cause me to not read the books, but this is such an intriguing topic.

    I believe it was Nora Roberts who wrote a book centered on a Mass shooting at a mall. We all know how heavy that topic is today…but like you said, it’s all about how well it’s written. The examples I gave are ones I’ve enjoyed.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Hopefully more people chime in as I’d love to see other perspectives too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I read Shelter in Place! It was really good, and reading Nora helped me learn how to write the twists and turns in my books. I have Meka’s book as well (it’s around here somewhere *nervous laugh* but it’s still on my TBR list). Thanks for commenting!


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