23 Jun How To Write Erotica: The Basics 101
THE STORYTELLER AND THE READER
An alarm was beeping and lights were flashing.
Vanessa jerked awake. She’d been dreaming that she and Kashika had been
racing as girl ponies. They’d just won the Grand National and the Queen
had been about to pin rosettes on their breasts . . .
The bedroom screen was flashing an urgent red and sounding the alarm.
She fumbled for the bedside light switch. The glowing numerals of her clock
radio showed it was twenty past five.
She found the remote and pointed it at the screen. An image appeared of a
slender woman, perhaps in her mid-fifties, with a strong straight nose and a
narrow intelligent unlined face. Her bright blue eyes were keen and
‘Sorry to wake you, Vanessa, but this is urgent,’ the woman said.
Arden, A., The Girlflesh Captives
Using the right point of view is vital for telling a story. Handled properly, point of view becomes virtually invisible. Used effectively it can add new layers to a story. And, handled badly, it can be intrusive, spoil the mood of a piece and stop the reader from enjoying an otherwise entertaining tale.
Point of view involves little more than knowing which characters are telling a story. Well-crafted point of view only involves being sure the story is told from a consistent perspective.
Imagine you are going to rewrite the Grimm Brothers’ 1812 story of Little Snow-White as an erotic fairy tale. This is the story on which the animated film was based but there are substantial differences. In the original story….
- We aren’t given character names for the dwarves.
- The villain is Little Snow-White’s mother (referred to as her godless mother) and not her stepmother.
- Little Snow-White is revived from a deathlike stupor when a servant of the prince smacks her on the back and dislodges the lump of poisoned apple that was stuck in her throat.
We’ll worry about the erotic content later. For now we want to concentrate on point of view and perspective. Consequently the following points need to be considered.
- Do you write the story from Little Snow-White’s perspective?
- Little Snow-White is the central character. It would make sense to see events from her point of view as we are telling her story.
- Could you write the story from the perspective of one of the dwarves? It will be a unique approach and will allow the narration to continue even while Little Snow-White is lying unconscious in her glass coffin.
- Would it be possible to write the story from the point of view of the prince? The prince only appears in the final act of this story, so it might be difficult to see the whole story from his perspective.
- Could you give the story a dark twist and tell it from the point of view of Little Snow-White’s godless mother? This character’s perspective would certainly be exciting and innovative.
All of these points of view, and more, are possible. But a writer needs to carefully select point of view to effectively tell the right story. By considering different narrators, even if the events of the story are identical, the focus of the story being told will change in many subtle and different ways.
Told from Little Snow-White’s point of view we’re going to experience all the highs and lows of the story as she is exiled, helped by the dwarves, and then wins the heart of a prince and triumphs over her godless mother. But there will be a missing part in the final third of the story where Little Snow-
White is in a coma.
Told from the point of view of the godless mother, the story will have a sad ending and will be narrated by a very different character from the pure and innocent Little Snow-White. In the ending to the Grimm version of the fairy tale, iron shoes are heated on a fire until they glow. The godless mother is then forced to wear the heated shoes, which burn her feet, and she then has to dance herself to death.
Many readers are surprised by the gruesome and grisly developments within original fairy stories. Because we associate these tales so strongly with children’s stories we forget that the original material was not dedicated to a specific audience of minors. They include scenes of horrific cruelty and brutality.
Point of view should remain single and consistent whenever possible. If a story starts from Little Snow-White’s point of view, it needs to continue being narrated from that perspective. If the narrative voice has to change – if the reader needs to see what’s happening at the prince’s castle, or if the storyteller wants us to watch the godless mother talking to her mirror – then a chapter break is needed so the reader isn’t confused by the shift in perspectives. Typically point of view is divided into four traditional perspectives:
- first person;
- second person;
- third person;
Of these four perspectives the commonest nowadays are first person and third person but examples of all four are considered on the following pages.
I shrugged. Rebecca didn’t date. She lived behind her camera lens, taking
pictures and making judgements. And if that was enough for her, then I
wished her well. But I needed more in my world. I needed Marlon to fuck
me while patrons watched Sid and Nancy or Last Tango in Paris, or any one
of the many mostly depressing second-run movies that we played. Then, I
needed Jarred to take me again, in the morning, when we were fresh faced
and Ivory scented and ready for Sunday brunch and walks in Griffith Park.
I wanted different things from my different men. Couldn’t Rebecca
Tyler, A., ‘Some Like it Hot’
In the first person point of view, the narrator talks directly to the reader. In the example above the narrator tells her story straight to the reader. We are left in no doubt as to who is the central character here. And we can be confident that everything that happens will be related to this narrator/character in some way.
- The passage opens with a reference to the narrator’s physical actions: I shrugged.
- The reader is given the narrator’s opinion of Rebecca.
- The narrator reveals her explicit desires for Marlon and Jarred.
- The reader is never in any doubt about who is telling this story as the narrator explains her wants, her needs and her desires.
There are advantages and disadvantages to using first person point of view. It’s worth weighing their potential benefits before beginning any writing project.
- There is an immediacy to a first-person narration.
- Readers are taken directly into the story world with the central character.
- Readers enjoy all the story’s experiences alongside that central character.
These features can be quite compelling in erotica. The reader is being told explicit details by a character who is actively involved in the intimacy of the story. It’s almost as though the fictional character is sharing his or her secrets with the reader.
- First person is a restricted point of view. The narrator can only reveal information that is known to the central character.
- The narrator needs to have a voice that the reader finds sympathetic.
- If a reader has no empathy with the narrator, the story will not be engaging.
Many of my writing students shy away from first person because they dislike repeating the word ‘I’. Repeating any word seems like bad writing and repeating the word ‘I’ can come across as clumsy. But the word ‘I’ doesn’t need to be repeated to excess in first-person point of view. Consider the following first person narration and look how long it takes for the narrator to use ‘I’.
It was after three in the morning when the show was over. We packed up our
instruments, content that we had done our best, earned our bread. The
owner of the Club Nutty, a speakeasy on the city’s swanky shore, invited us
back to his penthouse place overlooking the ships and the glittering lake.
We knew better than to refuse his offer. Flanked by his gunmen, he told us
that he had some people over there, and that we could pick up some more
cash if we stuck around.
One of Mr Danton’s bodyguards, with his gun in plain view, slung the girl
into our sedan, a female with the colour of a dark plum. She smiled at me
and started going through her purse. The hood shoved two more girls on
top of us, cursed at them and slammed the door.
It was hot as hell. The kind of heat that made your skin stick to your clothes.
I was burning up.
Riley, C., ‘It’s Tight Like That’
In this passage Riley’s narrator refers to we, us and our as the story begins, talking about the members of a band of speakeasy musicians. Again, it’s hard for the writer to get away from personal pronouns. But this story is not repeatedly using the word ‘I’. And, as readers, we’re treated to a personal story from the perspective of a character intimately involved with the events. Who could ask for more than that with an erotic story?
The second book had been even more extreme than the first, and the
pictures in it acted on her system like a drug. A powerful aphrodisiac to be
exact. The more she looked at naked, punished bottoms, complicated
systems of bondage and perverted unnatural penetrations, the more the pit
of her belly ached and the wetter and wetter her sex became. It was lust in a
way she’d never felt before; certainly not a bit like the mild tingle she’d
occasionally felt when she fancied a handsome man. Although she did
admit that when she’d ogled that photo spread of Lukas, he’d definitely had
an effect on her. When she’d thought about Roger, there’d never even been
a twinge . . .
Starr, D., Designed for Sin
In third person the narrator describes the world as it is seen by the central character. But the narrator is not the central character. The narrator never says, ‘I thought this’ or ‘we did that’. Instead the narrator consistently refers to the central character as ‘he’ or ‘she’ or by their name.
To some extent this point of view lacks the intimacy of first-person perspectives. It is also restricted by the same limits of only showing us what that central character can perceive.
In classes, I refer to third person as parrot perspective. This is a story that could be narrated by a parrot sitting on the central character’s shoulder. We’re not being told the story by the central character. We’re only being told the story from the perspective of the character. It’s a subtle but important difference.
Although third person lacks the immediacy and intimacy of first person, it has lots of advantages.
- Because the narrator of a third-person perspective is not a character, it’s possible for the reader to be told more about a character.
- The narrator can describe all characters from an objective perspective.
- The central character can come across as natural rather than an obsessive
intent on cataloging every detail that’s relevant to the story. Third-person perspective remains the most popular point of view in contemporary fiction so it’s not to be overlooked.
Here you are: nervous, waiting for her to arrive, wearing the evening dress,
thong and stockings that she has sent; crossing and re-crossing your legs.
You have turned off most of the lights in your small flat preferring darkness.
All you know is that she has told you that the two of you will be going out
tonight. You do not know where. She will pick you up at the appropriate
time. You are trying not to think too hard about the night ahead; you recall
the last time she picked you up and took you out in London at night. That
was the time with the blindfold so you didn’t see much of where you were in
the city or how you got there. But every time you remember a part of that
night your stomach clenches. She shamed you.
Grey, V., ‘Shame Game’
After discussing first-and third-person perspectives, students often ask about second person. Second person is possibly the most intimate of all perspectives because the reader is the central character. However, because it’s such an unusual way of writing (and reading), it’s not particularly common in contemporary fiction. When it’s used effectively, second person can be far more powerful than any other point of view.
The narrator in the second person constantly refers to ‘you’ in this story – you the central character. The narrator does not use any first-person forms of address because the narrator is not in this story. Instead, the narrator simply tells a character (you) what you did in this story and how much you enjoyed it.
It’s one of the most difficult points of view for any writer to approach because it’s such an unnatural way of telling a story. If I was writing a story about how ‘you’ had enjoyed an adventure it wouldn’t seem right for me to tell you what you did. I would assume that you already knew what you’d done, so the story seems somewhat redundant.
Also, because second-person narratives are so uncommon, it’s difficult for a reader to approach the text without being distracted by the way the story is being told.
Second person is more commonly associated with writing recipes, giving road directions and playing interactive adventure games.
Second person also becomes confusing because it raises issues about perspective and the relationship between the reader and the text.
- Am I really the central character in this story?
Obviously not because the writer is describing events that I don’t recall experiencing.
- Am I reading a story that is a retelling of events that happened to some other intended reader?
That’s a possibility. And, if that’s the case, then the author has moved the narrative onto a new level of discourse.
- If the central character in the story is a different gender from the reader,
will this make the story more or less exciting?
Second person is not common in fiction. When it has been used it’s often been associated with experimental writing. However, it can be particularly dramatic and effective when used within erotica because it’s incorporating the reader directly into the centre of the action. If you enjoy writing in second person, keep experimenting with it. If you don’t like second person, you will not be the first writer to decide to give it a miss.
There were two sisters very unlike each other. The elder, Juliette, was not yet sixteen, but
already was as worldly-wise and sly as a woman of thirty. Moreover, she was inordinately vain,
and frivolous and bold. Her firm supple figure and fine dark eyes lent her an attractiveness
which was too soon brought to her own attention, and she had all the makings of a
consummate coquette. On the other hand, Justine, her younger sister, was a modest, timid and
ingenuous young creature; and just as Juliet was gay, wanton and unprincipled, so Justine
was serious, melancholy and profuse with fine upright sentiments. But Justine was far less
precocious; and her artless simplicity led her into many snares and pitfalls.
Marquis de Sade, Justine
In the passage above we are told that the two sisters are very unlike each other. We are…
- Given subjective judgements on Juliette’s absence of morality and Justine’s virtue.
- Told that Juliette is: as sly as a woman of thirty.
- Told Juliette is: inordinately vain and frivolous and bold.
All of this comes from the story’s omniscient narrator who is telling the story to prove a point.
This style of narration, from a narrator who appears to know everything, makes it very difficult for the reader to empathise with any particular character. More commonly it is now associated with an old-fashioned style of storytelling that has long since gone out of vogue.
Carrie was being sent to Paris to complete her education. She was not pure
Cuban, as there was a lot of Yankee blood on her father’s side, but she had
great, lustrous Spanish eyes, which gleamed as they fixed on the naked
apparition of Hony. At the hotel, Lady Tittle having run down to Newport
for the night, Hony and Carrie had shared a bed for company’s sake – well .
. . to continue.
Carrie was very dark and very slight. Her figure was really too slim to be
good, but there was a feline grace in it which was very tempting. Her face
lacked good features but her very full red lips, her glorious eyes, and her
abundance of raven hair made up for any defects. She was a striking
contrast to the pink and white beauty of golden-haired Hony.
Anon., Pleasure Bound: Afloat
In this passage we’re told:
- Carrie’s figure was really too slim to be good.
- It’s suggested that: Her face lacked good features.
- Some features, lips, eyes and hair, made up for any defects.
- Her figure has a feline grace which was very tempting.
These judgements are given as facts, even though they’re obviously the opinions of the anonymous omniscient narrator. We’re not told who has decided that Carrie’s face lacks good features. We are not told how her lips, eyes and hair make up for any defects. We’re not told who it is who thinks her feline grace is tempting. We are simply told that these things are and asked to believe them.
The omniscient narrator has fallen out of fashion over the past few decades. This is possibly because this style of narration is more commonly
associated with the traits of telling a story rather than showing detail. The omniscient narrator has a godlike knowledge of everyone and everything related to the story.
In both of these passages, the omniscient narrator gives the information to the reader, rather than trusting the reader to understand layers of subtext.
Fashions in writing come and go, so it’s unlikely that the omniscient or the second person narrator will disappear forever. However, at the moment, neither is particularly common on the erotica bookshelves.
- Choose your narrative point of view wisely.
- Show details to your reader: don’t tell them the story.
- Make sure your narrator will engage your reader.
- Don’t change narrators halfway through a scene.
Whether a writer is using first person, second person or third person, the point of view should always be from the same character’s perspective. If a different viewpoint is needed, a writer should start a new chapter from the perspective of a different character. Within a chapter, or within any unbroken passage of text, a shift in point of view will confuse the reader.