What PG-13 Means in Books

When I was little, I used to interpret the movie rating systems as follows:


PG–Pretty Good

PG-13–Pretty good for Thirteen-Year-Olds


And I still don’t care for R-rated films. Most of what I watch falls under PG-13 criteria (or well under), and most of what I read follows suit. I just don’t care for the language, violence, creepiness, and such that can be found in a R-rated work.

moon by cooee

But what does it mean for a book to be PG-13?

First, what it doesn’t mean:

  • It doesn’t mean the target audience is only kids. When I say I read PG-13 books, it doesn’t mean they have to be Young Adult in their focus or characters. It just means young adults could read it, if they wanted to, without finding content their parents would consider objectionable.
  • It doesn’t mean there can be no sex or language. Romeo and Juliet is typically a PG-13 movie, and One Night with the King is PG, but it’s  quite obvious what’s happening on their “wedding night.” We just aren’t there, in the moment, to witness what is going on.

And PG-13 allows for a smattering of language, including one, non-sexual use of the f-word. So some strong language isn’t an instant disqualifier (and in my book reviews, I’m willing to overlook a few more instances than that, on occasion).

  • And it doesn’t mean everyone must talk, the whole time through.  The Lord of the Rings was PG-13, along with Star Wars and even the recent 007 film, Skyfall. So there can be some descriptions of violence, battles, and gore in a PG-13 book.

Now, for what it does mean:

  • Adult themes should not include adult content. You can explore sexuality, for example, as long as you are creative in your narration and don’t include explicit scenes. You can address rape as long as the focus is more on the aftermath than the criminal moment. You can include violence as long as we aren’t forced to prop our eyes up and soak in every minute detail.
  • There should be less crudity. This might not be true of the entire novel, or even the entire cast of characters, but overall, one’s inner ear shouldn’t be cringing with a steady stream of crude references, sexual or otherwise.
  • The “Showing” is more creative rather than inclusive. Since PG-13 requires less violence, sex, and language on the printed page, you have to  let your reader know what’s happening without including every scene and showing us everything. But you can still “show” what happens, rather than “tell” it to us, by showing it in other ways.

For example, you could show that two characters had sex by the way the characters now act. You could show some of their actions leading up to the moment, and then pull out and let the reader conclude what happened after the page “faded to white.” 🙂

  • Life should still be “real,” just with a filter. Characters will still die, and people will still suffer, but the focus isn’t on presenting the world in its exact details as we would find it in real life. You shouldn’t be trying to give us all the gore, all the violence, all the cruelty and crudity and expletives we might experience if we were really there, but a choice sampling of that reality.
  • The reader is left with a choice. When we read, we all add things to the narration. With a PG-13 novel, we have the narration without all the details, so we can embroider in the ones we’re missing, if we want. If the novel hints at a sex scene, we can elaborate it in our heads…or leave it alone. We can turn our full focus on the events that happened off page, or we can move on, much as in real life.

When things happen around us, we aren’t usually forced to watch. We can close the bedroom door, turn our faces from the crime scene, or walk away from the battlefield. And that’s why I prefer PG-13 novels. The story is bigger than the sum of its violence, gore, and sex, so we aren’t saturated with those details every few pages. The narration focuses more on the rest of the story–what’s being said, or left unsaid, and how the violence, or sex, or language affects the characters involved.

Because ultimately, that’s why I read books–not to find out what nasty or graphic stuff looks and feels like, but to find out what other people do in response to life, in all its expressions and colors. And I can find this out just as easily when you say “he swore” and move on to the other character’s response, as I can when you give me every syllable he uttered.


Copyright 2015 Andrea Lundgren

Photo by cooee, Creative Commons

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