30 Jun How To Write Erotica: Writing A Compelling Plot Part I
GETTING TO GRIPS WITH PLOTS AND OUTLINES
Plotting is not popular among some writers. They argue that:
- The mechanics of plotting are not really creative.
- Working to the templates of predefined outlines is not being creative.
- Writing within the parameters of what has previously worked for other writers and readers is not really being creative.
But it has to be acknowledged that the idea of using tried-and-tested methods for telling a convincing story is a useful facility for any writer to have at their disposal.
One of the criticisms often levelled at plotting is that it spoils the personal level of intrigue some writers need in order to maintain interest in a project. Once a writer knows how a story will develop, he or she no longer has any interest in working on the story. The action of writing down an outline (rather than writing the story itself) destroys the writer’s enthusiasm for the project.
This is a fair criticism for some. We all approach writing differently and it’s likely true for many writers. However, for those who are able to plot, the discipline of outlining a story can offer many rewards.
There have been lots of pages written about plots. Various authors have tried to identify the limited number of plots:
- 36: Georges Polti, 36 Dramatic Situations;
- 20: Ronald Tobias, 20 Master Plots;
- seven: The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker;
- three: The Basic Patterns of Plot, William Foster-Harris;
- two: the suggestion that all Hollywood films can be broken down into stories about ‘someone leaving home’ or stories about ‘a stranger coming to town’;
- one: Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
While this is a fascinating area of study it’s too broad to be considered here with any depth. Also, for the majority of writers, the only practical value this information gives is that we shouldn’t worry about a perceived lack of originality in the structure of our storytelling because every story has been told before. However, it’s worth reflecting on the following archetypes:
- A romance will typically be a story of two characters meeting, overcoming obstacles, and finally getting together (or not).
- A horror story will typically show a hero discovering, battling and then vanquishing a monster.
- A western most often shows a single good man bringing order and justice to a scene of chaos and anarchy.
Because these stories have a similar shape this does not mean that they are unoriginal. It only means that there is a typical structure that supports stories within these genres. Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice and Fifty Shades of Grey could all be perceived as following the typical outline for a romance – yet we’re all aware that the three stories are drastically different from each other.
BREAKING DOWN A BASIC STRUCTURE
Aristotle identified that fiction is made up of a beginning, a middle and anend. While this comes across as a simplistic way of breaking down a story, it’s a useful reminder of what needs to go where.
- In the beginning
Here we introduce the important characters and the basic conflict they are going to face throughout the remainder of the story. Beginnings are of vital importance to writers and readers, grabbing interest and setting the tone for what’s to come.
- In the middle
The characters go through the escalating process of encountering conflicts and trying to resolve their difficulties.
- In the end
Having resolved the conflict, or having learnt to live with an unresolved conflict, the story concludes.
The conclusion to a story is as important as the beginning or the middle. Mickey Spillane, the successful crime writer, said, ‘‘The first page sells the book. The last page sells the next book.’’ He’s right to point out that the last part of the story is what a reader will remember when they’re looking for the next novel they want to enjoy. Over the next few pages we’re going to consider each of these various elements in greater detail.
In the beginning
Character and situation
There are several ways of starting a story. One of the most straightforward
is to simply begin by introducing the central character and their situation.
It’s an expository style of storytelling that doesn’t suit everyone but it is an
efficient way of getting the reader to understand what’s happening within
the story world.
Seven years of her life gone, wasted.
But that wasn’t exactly true. She had been doing a lot more with her time
than just being in love with a person she never wants to see again. How
these things happen is a mystery millions of men and women have pondered
throughout the ages, yet Sofia always believed herself magically immune to
such protracted catastrophes. She scarcely noticed the mileage
accumulating, the years flowing by before the crash, when she suddenly
realized the promising love she had wholeheartedly bought into had
degenerated into a routine shell not worth fixing.
Pita, M. I., Moonlight’s Edge
This expository opening gives us a detailed overview of Sofia’s situation at the start of the story.
- It’s clear from this passage that Sofia is intent on making a new start.
- It’s obvious that this new start will form the basis of the story we’re about to read.
- In short, this is an effective introduction to the story’s central character and the change that affects her current situation.
Equally expository is Stan Kent’s opening to his short story, ‘Aisle Seat’.
I’d decided to burn up all the frequent-flyer miles that I’d accumulated over
the years of jetting here and there and splurge on a business class seat to
Rome for a long weekend in the Eternal City. After some frustrating ordeals
dealing with airline websites and operators protected from human contact
by a maze of phone options, I was able to score a seat on an Alitalia 747
from Los Angeles to Rome. The only problem was that I couldn’t get a
window seat. I don’t like aisle seats because it never fails that just after I’ve
fallen asleep the person next to me decides to go to the bathroom, and even
in the relative spaciousness of business class, it still disturbs my hardfought-
for slumber, and then there’s no way I can get back to sleep. I wind
up staying up all night reading or writing or watching some movies I really
don’t want to watch.
Kent, S., ‘Aisle Seat’
Kent’s narrator explains a lot of things in this short passage:
- He explains how he has ended up on the plane.
- We know where he’s going and how he’s been able to afford it.
- The narrator gives us some details about the frustration of ordering airline tickets.
- He also mentions the nuisance of not being able to get the right seat.
However, while these openings are expository, and only appear to be telling us facts about each character’s life and existence, they’re also revealing important backstory that will become relevant later in the tale. As soon as these openings are concluded, the reader knows they will be comfortably immersed in a narrative where they understand the main characters and have a grasp of the situations that are likely to impact on them.
One of the most common methods of starting a story is in medias res – in the middle of things. The opening lines to any story are essential for grabbing and holding reader interest. Starting in the middle of an engaging, intriguing or erotic scene ensures the reader will be engrossed in events, making them want to read more to get to know the characters in your fiction.
This example comes from the Perks and Mullins short story, ‘Underneath.’
They coughed between kisses, sucking in the mold-ridden air as sex-lust
quickened their needs. The man leaned down to enter her mouth, his body
mimicking the curve of the ceiling. His hand pushed and slid to part her as
the metal gods roared their approval. In, tight and holding, both thrilled
further by the vibrations of the tunnels around them. The searing singing!
Ah, so good! Just a wall beyond there were people chatting about West End
shows, something about Britney Spears. They were going home, easing the
day away. But the real underground was here, where life was deadened. It
was sealed disharmony, a jerking cock-in-the-mouth, a secret world where
fugitives took a mystery trip to the unconscious.
Perks and Mullins, ‘Underneath’
Immediately here, because Perks and Mullins have started this story in the middle of a sex scene, the reader should be compelled to continue. The sexual tension is made explicit in the opening line and it continues throughout this passage and into the remainder of the story. More than that, the authors of this passage have given the encounter an unusual twist in that their characters are having sex in an unusual location.
In medias res is a common device that’s used across genres but it’s a particularly useful device in erotica. Some readers turn to erotic fiction looking solely for graphic descriptions of sex and intimacy. If the reader finds those erotic descriptions in the opening lines of the story, they’re more likely to continue reading.
Not that the subject of an effective in medias res opening always needs to be sexual. This point is illustrated below in the start to Mathilde Madden’s novella-length story, ‘Under Her Skin’.
She’s running down the corridor. She hasn’t stopped running since the letter
came this morning. Running, running, running, running on adrenaline.
She tried to go to the library. The one here and the one at her parents’
house, but she was so damned jumpy that the words wouldn’t lie still on the
pages of each book she tried to read.
But that doesn’t matter. She doesn’t need to read up on vampires now. She’s
known about such monsters since before she could talk.
Madden, M., ‘Under Her Skin’
Madden here introduces us to her central character, Merle, and shows us that Merle lives in a world of monstrous vampires. In this scene we see that Merle is nervous, jumpy and running to somewhere or from something. This might not be an opening that captures every reader’s attention. Those with no interest in vampires will probably put this story aside. But by this early stage in the story, the rest of us should be anxious to know how Merle’s story develops.
One of the most popular methods of opening a story is the hook. The hook is a narrative device that:
- offers a compelling beginning;
- instantly captures the reader’s attention;
- drags the reader into the story.
Consider the following example from Cheyenne Blue:
It started when I kidnapped her dog.
I didn’t exactly tie him up and hold him for ransom. He simply preferred me
– at least he did in the daytime when my neighbour, Karen was at work. He
was a small black-and-tan terrier; the scruffy sort that is excellent
company. He’d tactfully stay next door until Karen’s car had disappeared
down the driveway, then his ears would prick, and he’d wait for my call.
Blue, C., ‘The Hairy Matchmaker’
The opening line here is a wonderful attention-grabber. Kidnapping any creature, human or animal, is harsh and unconscionable behaviour.
However, before we decide that Blue’s character is advocating such cruelty, the statement is revised and we read on. Before we know it, Blue has introduced two central characters (who are both animal-lovers), a dog and the potential conflict that will come when the terrier’s ownership is inevitably called into question.
- It’s an effective and concise opening to a story.
- It grabs the reader’s attention.
- It makes us want to read on.
Megan Clark provides a more thoughtful (but no less effective) opening to her erotic novel, Seduce Me.
When a person speaks the name of a lover, much is revealed. Too much,
because the tone of voice and the expression in the eyes as the name is
spoken will lay bare the depth of that person’s love. So that the name itself
becomes an emblem of the person’s vulnerability, of the degree to which
that person’s heart is exposed. Not another word need be said. The name is
‘Carissa,’ he says, pointedly, as if to prove he remembers her name. He
looks up at her, eyes hungry. His voice is strong, but devoid of affection,
‘Oh, a goddess you are.’
Clark, M., Seduce Me
This is another attention-grabbing opening to a story. The narrator tells us that much can be revealed from the way a lover speaks a person’s name. It’s an insight that most of us will speculate might be applied to our own lives.
This passage also works on other levels.
We’re told that much is revealed when a person speaks the name of a lover. And then, when Carissa’s name is spoken by her lover, his voice is devoid of affection. It’s an intelligent beginning to a story that encourages the reader to explore the layers of meaning being presented.
The key to writing an effective hook is to remember the acronym SIR. An effective hook should be:
If the opening lines are short, the reader is drawn in by the ease of the writing. If there is intrigue, the reader will want to know more. And, obviously, the passage needs to be relevant to the rest of the story.
Kristina Lloyd is equally gifted at providing an attention-grabbing opener as she shows here in her delightful short story, ‘All My Lovers in One Room’.
Yeah, that’s right: all my lovers, past and present, and it’s not a big room
either. This could be a horror story, and maybe it is because I can’t see the
ending from here. There are thirty-seven men and two women, but even
without counting, I know someone is missing.
Fancy him being late for my deathbed!
Lloyd, K., ‘All My Lovers in One Room’
In this opening passage we are immediately intrigued by the unusual situation of so many people being crowded into a room with one person – all of whom are cited as former lovers of the central character. It’s an opening worthy of Kafka for its surreal quality.
- We’re given a suggestion of promiscuity because there are 40 characters in the room including the first person narrator.
- There are echoes of sexual ambiguity because there are men and women in the room.
- Lloyd has immediately hooked the reader into wanting to read more in the quest to find out what is going on in this story.
In the middle
Plot, at its most basic level, can be seen as the relationship between action and reaction. A character, faced with a decision, makes a choice. The consequences of that choice (and the next one and the next one) are what make the story we find so compelling.
Newton’s third law of motion tells us that: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. This applies just as much to characters in fiction as it does to physics. Every time a character makes a decision, the consequences of that decision will impact on the character and help develop a compelling story.
We can see the importance of choice and consequences in the following exchange between the exotic dancer, Brittany, and the narrator, Professor Marcum, in Michelle Houston’s short story.
‘I’ll make you a deal, Professor.’
I arched an eyebrow at her, trying to mold my face in my stern look,
knowing it failed miserably. Three margaritas tended to make me mellow.
Since this was my career on the line, I would have thought my body would
be a bit more cooperative. Knowing I wasn’t going to be able to stare her
down, I settled for waiting to hear her ultimatum. She had earned an A in
‘Dance with me, and I won’t tell a soul that I saw you here tonight or any
other night you care to come back.’
Houston, M., ‘Tempted’
Brittany could have asked Professor Marcum to do many things. Her innocent request for a dance makes it deceptively easy for the narrator to acquiesce. But what will be the consequences of this action? The Professor is already in a compromising situation by this stage of the story. Will a dance help the character avoid further consequences? Or are there likely to be more repercussions?
‘There’s a tap on my back. It’s Shirley. I have no fear now. ‘Leave me
alone!’ I shout.
‘Oh Debra, calm down! I’m sorry if I upset you.’
‘I dropped my fucking keys, so just leave me alone! Please just leave me
‘You dropped your keys?’
‘Yes! Down the fucking shaft. I can’t get into my house or my car now!
Dave went to work, and to make matters worse, I left my phone at home.’
‘I don’t own a cell phone, but come with me. You can wait at my house until
Dave can fetch you.’
‘No! Dave will come get me here. I don’t need any help from you!’
‘Are you sure? It’s awful cold out.’
‘Yes!’ I march back into the post office and then look in my purse for a
quarter to use in their pay phone, but I don’t have one. Shirley is still
standing outside, staring at me though the window. Why won’t she fucking
leave? She motions for me to follow her to her car.
I have two choices: beg to use somebody’s phone or get in Shirley’s car. I
choose Shirley’s car. I don’t know why. Maybe because it’s so damned cold
Du Pré, J., ‘Before the Move’
In this piece we can see that Debra has a choice: either ignore Shirley’s offer of help or accept assistance from someone she despises. Debra is wedged firmly between a rock and a hard place. She doesn’t want to be beholden to Shirley but she needs to get home. All her other options for an acceptable resolution to this problem have been whittled away by Du Pré’s clever storytelling. And so she’s left having to accept Shirley’s invitation. Is this a decision that she’s going to regret? Du Pré leaves the reader wondering what will be the consequences of this action.
In the following piece from ‘A Quiet Evening at Home’, a short story by Lisabet Sarai, the central character, Alexandra, discovers her boyfriend has been seeing another woman: Lucia. Along with the other woman, Alexandra hatches a plot to exact a revenge on Michael.
Painfully confused, Michael looked from one of us to the other. His hands
clenched in indecision. ‘No, I didn’t mean that . . . I don’t know. I want you
both.’ His voice took on a pleading quality. ‘Please. I don’t know what to
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Then we will tell you. If you obey, then maybe one of us will
decide to stay with you. Maybe even both of us. But if you resist, baby,
we’re gone. Out the door. And out of your life forever. Got it?’
Sarai, L., ‘A Quiet Evening at Home’
It sounds here as though Alexandra has already made Michael’s decision for him. But in reality this is one of those moments where the reader needs to continue with the story to find out which decision a character has made. Is Michael going to submit to whatever Alexandra and Lucia have planned? Or does Michael have ideas of his own?