What is this, you ask? Well, from my discussions in the field and with writers, readers, and other reviewers, a big thing that people come back to is a wish that they could be better prepared for stories without being spoiled about them. Content warnings play a necessary role in this, and I am firmly for such efforts both from reviewers and from publishers. But content warnings are broad, and don’t give a lot of context to how those elements are used within the story. Most pressing, many people have conveyed to me a desire for some way of signaling the relative grimness of a piece to accompany any content warnings. And so that’s what I’m going to try to do.
How? Well, for me, grimness is multifaceted. It’s not just the atmosphere, the optimism versus nihilism, the inclusion of potentially upsetting elements. It’s...all of that. So approaching quantifying grimness is complex. For me, the goal is to try to provide guidance in this area without commenting on the quality of the writing. Basically, I went looking for ways to try and simply signal the relative levels of grimness in a text, not how well I feel that grimness is used to arrive at meaning or impact. For me, that means breaking grimness out into parts, and two specifically. What I will call the Grimness of Content and the Grimness of Tone.
Why two aspects, but not more? First, because I don’t want to make this so complicated it stops being useful. Even two separate scales of grimness might cause some people to nope out. And that’s fine! Your milage might vary, and if this isn’t your thing I encourage you to just skip the numbers at the end of each microreview. Second, though, I do think that these two aspects of grimness cover most of what people are looking for when they want to have a scale of grimness.
THE GRIMNESS OF CONTENT SCALE
Content for me refers to the plot, setting, and character elements of a story. Does the piece feature war or casual violence? Does it include depictions of rape or assault? Are there instances of bigoted language or actions?
I am not passing a moral judgment on any story for including elements that people might find difficult, upsetting, or triggering. But I do feel that it’s important to try and clue readers into these elements. Further, quantifying this attempts to make meaningful distinctions that will give potential readers tools to make more informed decisions about what to read. The scale is as follows:
There is technically room to add at least one or two more numbers, but at that point I feel the point of the scale is lost, at that point there’s enough of a advisement that any further distinction is likely unnecessary.
- Few if any elements that are likely to receive content warnings, and a lack of focus on any of them.
- Few elements that are likely to receive content warnings, but with a slight focus on any of them.
- Either few elements that are likely to receive content warnings but with a focus on some of them, or a greater number of elements that are likely to receive content warnings, but with a slight focus on any of them.
- Few elements that are likely to receive content warnings, but a strong focus on them; or, a greater number of elements that are likely to receive content warnings, with a focus on some of them; or, a pervasive amount of elements that are likely to receive content warnings, with a slight focus on some of them.
- A greater number of elements that are likely to receive content warnings, with a strong focus on some of them; or, a pervasive amount of elements that are likely to receive content warnings, with a focus on some of them; or, anything more than that.
THE GRIMNESS OF TONE SCALE
Tone is a different creature. Tone is about feel. In that, I’m a bit intimidating trying to quantify it, because there will always be the bias of the individual. But I still want to try, because another way to talk about tone is to talk about the psychological intensity of the work. The way that the grimness is delivered either in a way that lingers or doesn’t on the weight of the content.
And unlike content, tone is something that isn’t about just the amount or focus on the potentially upsetting material. Rather, it’s the overall intensity of the reading experience. And that means it’s...complicated. In the scale I’m including the elements that will help me make the call. Not all of them are necessarily going to match, but will rather be part of the decision-making process I use to assign a rating. It’s difficult because this is so subjective but so is reviewing as a whole, so I’ll do the best I can.
- The story maintains a light tension and/or sense of danger/violation; the overall impact is optimistic with an unreserved happy ending.
- The story maintains a moderate tension and/or sense of danger/violation; the overall impact is more optimistic than nihilistic and there is a happy ending even if negative/mixed elements remain.
- The story maintains a moderate tension and/or sense of danger/violation with moments of increased intensity; the overall impact mixes nihilism and optimism without showing a clear outcome or is bleak but with some respite.
- The story maintains an intense tension and/or sense of danger/violation; the overall impact leans nihilistic or quite bleak with only slight respite.
- The story maintains an intense tension and/or sense of danger/violation with moments of increased intensity; the overall impact is nihilistic or incredibly bleak without respite.
Again, there’s probably more room given the state of publishing to add numbers on the high end rather than the low end, but again, I don’t see the point of breaking things down after a certain point.
MY PERMISSION/MY HOPES
First off, I want to invite other people to adopt and/or modify this in whatever way is going to be useful for you. I do recognize the limitations of this system and know that it will vary in implementation from person to person. But then, that’s what reviews are, too. Just opinions, cast out into the world. I would ask, or I hope that people will find this useful and invite any conversation on the matter.
Further, I give my explicit permission to any reviewer wanting to use this system to go right ahead. Feel free to modify the scales as you wish. Feel free to link back to this page if you want to use the system without writing your own explanation or definitions. I’d urge those using the system to add context about the system, to maybe link to my or your own explanation of what the numbers/scale/axes you use are. Yes, this can be made into a kind of XY chart moving from -2 to 2 in both directions. However you want to do it!
It is possible that over time I will alter or change this system. I will keep a last modified date at the top of the page so that you can see when that’s been done last, and I encourage then if you are linking to this page that you check in periodically to make sure it’s still what you want. Thanks so much! I have no idea if this is going to be a successful or useful experiment, but I am excited to see how it goes!
And finally, the notation for the scales will come after the keywords and content warnings for each story, bracketed, and will look like: [c# t#]. As I do more of these, I will pull some examples of every rating level and drop them below for a general "guide" to how I'm using this. Cheers!