01 Jul How To Write Erotica: Writing A Compelling Plot Part II
As has been said before, it’s a common practice to start a story in medias res – in the middle of things. A novel will begin with an action scene where characters are involved in a scene, or those characters are engaged in a scene that hooks our interest. It’s only in a subsequent chapter where the author reveals the motives and desires that were fuelling that scene through the use of backstory. But there are some points that need to be remembered about backstory.
- Backstory needs to fit seamlessly into the story.
- Backstory should still be presented to the reader through showing – not telling.
- Backstory doesn’t have to slow the pace of a story.
There’s an art to writing backstory so that it forges an appropriate balance between showing and telling. In the passage below from Named and Shamed, Janine Ashbless has achieved that balance by demonstrating that Tansy, the central character in this adult fairy tale, has taken a manuscript from a collector.
I didn’t mean to steal the poem, I swear. I just wanted to copy it, and show it
to a friend of mine at the university library who knows Victorian
Manuscripts. So she could tell me whether it was for real, you understand.
There were details in the poem . . . It could be important. I didn’t mean to
get Edmund Blakey into trouble.
They call it TWOC-ing in legal circles, don’t they: Taking Without Owner’s
Consent. Not theft. Theft means you don’t plan to return it. I had no interest
in the monetary value of the manuscript. And I had every intention of
getting it back to Edmund Blakey before midnight, when the ogre returned.
Ashbless, J., Named and Shamed
Notice how Ashbless delivers this backstory from Tansy’s point of view. This is not an invisible narrator telling the reader what’s happened. This is the central character fretting because she made a wrong decision and she’s about to suffer negative consequences. Notice also how this passage develops Tansy’s character.
- We come away from this aware that Tansy is honest: I didn’t mean to steal the poem/I had every intention of getting it back . . .
- We come away from this passage having learnt that she is intelligent: she has friends at the university and she discusses legal jargon with obvious knowledge.
- We come away from this passage having discovered that Tansy bridges a world between our own substantial world of universities, manuscripts and legalities and the fairy tale world of ogres.
This is a lot of detail to include in a short passage and it enriches the story by developing character as well as building essential backstory. The following passage shows how backstory is handled by Gwen Masters:
She wandered through her little apartment and thought about him, about
what it would be like to have him in the hallway, right here. How broad
would his shoulders look between the walls? How tall would he be? Though
she knew Ronaldo, she had never met him. She had seen pictures of him, but
that was nothing like seeing him in the flesh.
A chance meeting over the Internet brought them together. He was
struggling. So was she. They found a common thread on a message board,
then even more commonality when they began to talk one-on-one. They
discovered oddly parallel lives, the trials and the same joys, two thousand
miles away from each other.
She found herself spending more time on the computer than she should
have, because just beyond that screen, Ronaldo was there.
Masters, G., ‘Better than Brazil’
In the two paragraphs of this passage, Gwen Masters tells us about the history between the central character and Ronaldo. We get the impression of the trust building through their online romance and the narrator’s obvious investment in this fledgling relationship. Masters brushes over insignificant details such as the browser the character used, or the website where they made that first accidental encounter. These details are extraneous and would dilute the impact of the story being told. Instead, Masters writes as though the reader understands technology as complex as message boards and is already aware of the unspoken dangers of internet relationships.
Passage of time
Readers want to explore a full and vivid storyworld and share all the excitement being experienced by the characters they’ve met in your story. They don’t want to be bored by tedious and irrelevant scenes or uninspiring minutiae. Sometimes, even when a character is doing exciting things, it can
be useful to show the swift passage of time to prevent readers from growing weary of irrelevant or repetitive scenes.
Alfred Hitchcock observed that good drama was ‘‘life with the dull bits cut out’’. As maxims go, it’s a useful one to observe when writing the middle section of any piece of fiction.
The following, from Justine Elyot’s Game, shows how it’s possible to touch on the passage of time without detailing every narrative moment. Elyot’s story is character driven but this brief focus on the cause and effect of the developing plot demonstrates how a writer can maintain an overview of
what’s occurring in the story without allowing the details to overpower the reader or without letting the narrative become dull or repetitive.
Day four involves a butt plug. On day five I’m tied to the bed and tickled
with feather dusters until I scream.
But what really worries me is day six.
On day six he does nothing at all.
I wake up in his bed on day seven insouciant and breezy.
‘Almost there,’ I crow, ignoring my morning fog of lust and jumping out of
‘Almost,’ says Lloyd, watching me from the bed. ‘Not quite.’
‘What have you got planned? I can’t believe you didn’t try anything on
yesterday. You must have some kind of massive finale prepared.’
‘You know me too well.’ He’s quiet for a moment, watching me scoop my
shower things out of my overnight bag. He’s told me thousands of times I
should keep some on his shelf, but I’ve never got round to it. ‘I’ve invited
some friends round for dinner.’
I stand straight, watching his face for a moment. ‘Oh?’
‘Rachael and O from the club.’
‘Yeah. It’s our day off. Thought they could come round in the afternoon and
‘And by hang out, you mean . . . ?’
Elyot, J., Game
This passage allows the reader to see that four days of Sophie’s week-long sexual obligation to Martin have passed, without allowing the reader to grow tired by the repetitiveness of the ordeal. This passage maintains the focus on sexual variety and endurance, introduces the promise of a ménage episode, and all without letting the reader become bored.
In the end
Theorists used to discuss the Greek unities or Aristotle’s unities. It’s since been realised that these ‘unities’ are a neoclassical conceit only loosely based on a misinterpretation of Aristotle’s Poetics. Nevertheless, it’s worth considering them as they apply to endings because they can be a useful tool for anyone working to the discipline of a plot.
Unity of time
A story should take place over no more than 24 hours. This condition made sense during the days when fiction was performed on stage. Although it now seems to have fallen out of fashion, there is something comforting about stories that are compartmentalised into the events of a year, a season, a month, a day or a single afternoon.
Unity of place
A story should start and finish in the same geographical location. This one was important during Aristotle’s days, particularly when plays were being performed on stages that didn’t have scenery or any way of conveying a change of location. However, novels do not require this particular unity.
Nevertheless, in Lisette Ashton’s erotic novel Beyond Temptation, the story begins with a scene where a cuckolded husband is walking up the stairs of his home, about to walk in on his wife with her lover. The story ends in a different house several hundred miles away from this starting point, but with that same husband walking up a set of stairs on the brink of catching his wife involved in another illicit encounter. To a great extent it could be argued that this story’s beginning and ending fulfil the requirements of unity of place.
Unity of action
A story should have one main action with no or few subplots. It makes sense to have a story focus on one particular character but it’s difficult to imagine any contemporary story of length without subplots. Subplots can help to show contrasting reactions to a particular situation. Subplots can help to relieve any build up of tension or can be used to show facets of a story that would be otherwise unknown to the reader. When concluding a story, it’s always wisest to have the conclusion of the main story – the main action – as the final detail.
Regardless of whether a writer is trying to apply these unities, the end of a story should always be complete and satisfying. It should always leave the reader sure that:
- they know what will immediately happen to the characters;
- there is no more story to be told;
- the majority of important questions raised at the beginning have now been addressed.
It’s always possible to leave an opportunity for a sequel, or a series of follow-up titles. But this should never be done at the expense of a conclusive ending.
Outline your plot in note form to begin with. Follow existing templates of stories but always make sure you give the narrative your own distinctive spin.
- On writing beginnings:
- Experiment with detailed, expository beginnings.
- Experiment with attention-grabbing beginnings.
- Experiment by starting a story in medias res.
- Experiment with other styles of openings until you find one that suits your style and complements the story you want to tell.
- On writing middles:
- Remember that plots are built through a process of action and reaction.
- Use the middle of a narrative to feed backstory to your reader.
- Use the middle of a narrative to show the swift passage of time when this is necessary to avoid showing repetition.
- Remember Hitchcock’s words: Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.
- On writing endings:
- Aspire to follow the Greek unities if they apply to your writing.
- Feel free to ignore the Greek unities if they don’t apply.
- It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing a happy ending or a tragic conclusion – as long as that final scene satisfies your reader so they know there is no more story to be told this time.
NOTE: Be aware that plotting and outlining can stifle creativity in some writers. If plotting doesn’t work for you as a writer, tell the story in a way that does work for you without resorting to these tactics. If plotting does work for you, don’t neglect this vital step in the process of getting your work written.