I learned the craft of fiction writing by doing two things—tons of dedicated study and even more practice. I took classes, read how-to guides, and studied books I enjoyed reading. But it wasn’t until I dived into erotic writing that I got in the massive hours of practice. Erotica was a great excuse to not care what I wrote while practicing the craft. Erotica was the gateway to stop taking myself seriously.
Through the years of writing erotica, I’ve found the key ingredients of the genre are the same as for any other fiction genre. The art of storytelling remains a mind control experiment regardless of the tropes or settings used. The trick a writer must do is to make the reader deny reality for a moment. The writer leads the reader across an invisible bridge while making her believe she’s on solid ground. The craft of fiction writing bursts with a thousand techniques for doing exactly that.
The obvious key ingredient of erotica is very definition of the genre. Erotica depicts a sexual act. Whether the characters even touch each other is moot. In my opinion, the act should be sexy and fun, although that’s maybe not necessary. Sticking with sexy and fun will probably gain you more readers.
Besides that, below are five things that I think go a long ways towards creating great erotic fiction. No particular order. The first three are iron-clad basics of fiction, the other two are suggestions.
Character. You’d have to be writing something pretty outlandish to not have any human characters in a sexy story. But even if you’re writing “The Flying Spaghetti Monster Does Cthulhu,” you still need to establish the characters in the reader’s mind.
People have opinions and emotions. They like some things, abhor other things. They have sexual preferences, unique ways of speaking, and quirky mannerisms. All of those things should go towards creating a fictional character, even if only in small ways.
Opinions can be shown through a point-of-view character’s thoughts about the other characters and settings. What does he think of the woman’s pink polka dot dress and sunshine yellow heels? Is she impressed by the candlelight dinner on the patio, but notices the ketchup stain on the necktie she gave him for his birthday?
Emotions tie in with opinions, and are so very important for the genre. Sometimes it’s okay to come out and tell the reader what the character is feeling. Other times, you can show emotions through the character’s body (beating heart, wobbly knees, sweaty palms are all obvious). And then you can show emotion through dialog and action. The character feels something about the person she’s about to sleep with, otherwise the story isn’t particularly sexy.
Setting. The story takes place somewhere. Beginning writers (myself included) often don’t go far enough with the setting. With no setting, the story is about two floating heads yacking at each other. Or two cardboard cut-outs fucking in a white room.
Done properly, a setting embellishes the character’s opinions and emotions. You don’t walk into a room without having some reaction to what you’re seeing, good or bad.
Done wrong, the setting can become a laundry list of items. There was a coffee table, a couch, a TV, a remote control, a shaggy green carpet with a mysterious stain, et cetera ad nauseam.
Setting helps give the character voice, and the character in turn helps set the place where she’s living. Above all, the setting should matter to the character. She notices the world around her and interacts with it in some way.
Use all 5 senses. Sensory depth is the glue that keeps character and setting together.
First, begin the story with 400 words or more of just sensory detail from the character’s point-of-view. Sight, sound, smell, taste, touch. Don’t worry about the plot in the opening words. Just establish the character with all five of her senses. When you do this, you’ll bring the reader deeper into the character’s head. The character will feel like a complete person to the reader.
This is also a nifty trick to show the character had a life before page one. Perhaps she can still taste the orange soda in her mouth that she drank an hour ago. And her back hurts from sitting in an uncomfortable seat. The outside light is too bright for her, because she’s been in a dark movie theater. I don’t have to show her watching the movie, I can give the sensory details of walking out of the theater to tell you what she was doing a moment before the story began.
As the story progresses, continue to use sensory details. A good idea is to use all of the five senses at least once every 500 words. This way you keep the reader grounded in the character.
The Lester Dent formula. The master plot formula was originally intended for pulp, mystery, and men’s action stories, but can be used for any modern genre. You can read the formula here, it’s a quick read.
What the Lester Dent formula does for erotica is to give the story a sense of structure and pacing. It’s the main reason why my short stories are divided into chapters. The 1500 word length Dent suggested works well for a chapter or a scene, because that’s a length readers feel comfortable with in a short sitting. Having four 1500 words sections is not absolutely necessary for a short story, and the 1500 word length is not absolute either.
For longer works, novels and novellas, you simply have more scenes but it’s the same basic structure.
The key with the master plot formula is simple… The character faces a problem (he’s horny) and then he tries to solve the problem but fails somehow (the woman makes him chase her). Try/fail cycles are great for erotica, even when down in the weeds of the climatic sex scene.
Don’t endlessly polish your words. I’ll piss off somebody with this, but it needs to be said. Rewriting four or more drafts is something you did in school. Are you writing erotica for your high school teacher? Rewriting has its place. Scientific writing must be accurate and concise. Erotica ain’t scientific.
Storytelling has little to do with creating grammatically correct and beautifully perfect sentences. The words are just code for controlling the reader’s mind, and should only serve that purpose. Once you have the story written, perhaps you need to add or subtract something, but be careful to do so in creative mode. Rewriting invites criticism into the process. Too much rewriting results in pretty sentences trapped in unreadable stories.
Fix spelling and typos. Hire a copyeditor to fix typos, if you can afford it. Trust your storytelling process. If your first reader enjoyed the story, then its good enough to send to the market.
Few of my stories receive much of a rewrite. “The Sexy Umbrella of Doom” got a literal rewrite, meaning I threw out 3,000 words that didn’t fit the opening I created, and took the story in a slightly different direction than originally planned. I trust my gut when writing stories, and try not to over-think the process. Second drafts for me are for turning on the spelling and grammar checker. I ignore most of the things the grammar check flags. Maybe, after reading the story for the last time, I’ll add another scene to flesh out the story, or delete a scene if necessary.
Your mileage will vary.
Like I said, this section will anger people. I don’t care. I believe the best way to learn fiction is to write lots of it. Rewriting endlessly teaches very little about what makes a story readable.
Erotica is a surprisingly difficult genre to write. The basics I covered here are just the basics. Not even getting into voice, pacing, building suspense, etc. This was just to point out some things for people to study and work on.
Erotica is also rewarding personally.
And incredibly fun.