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Dynamic Tension

by | Mar 21, 2017 | General | 2 comments

By Lisabet Sarai

So what is the difference between erotica and porn?

Oh no! Not that old chestnut again! I’ve been a member of the ERWA Writers list for almost two decades. At least once or twice a year, some newcomer resurrects that question. Those of us who have been around for a while roll our eyes and grin to ourselves, already knowing how the discussion will go.

However, as I was thinking about my ERWA blog post for this month, I had an insight on this issue, which relates to writing craft.

Porn is easy. Erotica is hard.

I’m not saying that porn is easy to write. Though some people believe it’s a snap to throw together a great stroke story, I know that’s not true. Getting people hot and bothered takes talent and work, skill and imagination. This is true of erotica as well, of course, despite the disdain lavished on our genre by the literary establishment.

What I mean is that in porn, things are easy for the characters. The focus is on obtaining sexual satisfaction, the sooner the better. Readers don’t want the author to put obstacles in the way of the characters getting off. Hence, porn rarely features any significant conflict. The path from meeting to fucking is smooth and direct, with few if any stops along the way.

Erotica (and especially erotic romance), in contrast, thrives on obstruction. Erotica authors are more likely to put their characters through an emotional or physical wringer before the final consummation. Meanwhile, erotica readers tend to be more accepting of deferred gratification than readers of stroke fiction, in return for a richer and more complex narrative in which the characters overcome internal or external barriers in their journey toward release.

Conflict creates dynamic tension. It prevents the characters from rushing headlong into a sexual connection. As conflict keeps the protagonists apart—or at least denies them complete satisfaction—their level of arousal increases. When the conflict is finally resolved, the resulting experience, both for the characters and the reader, can be far more intense than the problem-free hookup in a stroke story.

Classic theory categorizes fictional conflict as man versus nature (or God, or demon – super-human forces at least), man versus man, and man versus himself. I hate the sexist terminology, but agree with the general breakdown. I’ve read (and written) erotica that used all three categories.

K.D. Grace’s recent novel In the Flesh offers a wonderful example of the first type of conflict. Her heroine Susan falls under the sway of an evil but mercilessly seductive disembodied entity who uses her natural sensuality as a route to destroy her. In fact, the perilous lure of supernatural sex is a common theme in paranormal erotica. It would be all too easy for Susan to succumb; she fights her erotic urges because she recognizes the danger.

Daddy X exploits “man versus man” (or more accurately, man versus woman) conflict in his fantastic short story “Spy versus Spy”. Nicolai and Lilya have been sexual partners for years. Their long acquaintance and shared history means each is still aroused by the other. However, neither trusts the other—for excellent reasons.

Conflict internal to the character is perhaps the most ubiquitous type found in erotica. Characters are often torn between their own deepest desires and their beliefs about what is acceptable, healthy or normal. Remittance Girl’s controversial novella Gaijin illustrates this pattern in the extreme. Kidnapped and raped by a Japanese gangster, her heroine still finds herself aroused—and hates herself for those feelings. In Cecila Tan’s Wild Licks, we meet rock star Mal Kenneally, an extreme sadist who never has sex with a woman more than once because he’s worried he’ll do serious physical or psychological damage. Uncertainty about sexual orientation or identity—religious guilt—memories of abuse —fear of losing control—struggles with fidelity—sex is an emotional mine field.

We erotica authors regularly take advantage of that fact.

How is this relevant to craft? If you’re trying to write erotica (as opposed to porn), you need to consider the question of conflict. All too often I find that stories I read in erotica anthologies are really just vignettes. They may be well-written, but ultimately they consist of sex scenes and little else. They’re not really stories. (Belinda made a related point in her Editing Corner post a few months ago.) Other readers may enjoy these tales, but I find them flat and unsatisfying. When I read erotica, I want something more complex and challenging.

Please note that I do not mean to denigrate stroke fiction. In fact, my observation about conflict can be applied to this sub-genre as well. If you want to write one-handed stories (and I’ve definitely done so), you should probably avoid conflict. Your readers very likely do not want characters who agonize over whether or not to do the deed.

Actually, it’s funny. Sometimes when I set out to write stroke fiction, I don’t completely succeed, because my characters’ motivations become too complicated. A good example is my story The Antidote. I wrote this very filthy tale in reaction to the self-censorship required by my erotic romance publisher (hence, the title). I wanted to create something full of no-holds-barred sex scenes. Instead, I ended up with an arousing but rather heavy tale about sex, society and deceit. Erotic, but not the porn I was trying for!

The distinction, of course, is not clear cut. That’s one reason we veterans sigh when someone brings up the porn/erotica debate. There’s really no black and white answer, only (please forgive me!) shades of gray.

Whichever direction your writing leans, though, you should consider the question of conflict. Are you going to give your characters what they want right away, or make them jump through hoops? Your decision makes a big difference in your readers’ experience.

About the Author Lisabet Sarai

Sex and writing. I think I’ve always been fascinated by both.

Freud was right. I definitely remember feelings that I now recognize as sexual, long before I reached puberty. I was horny before I knew what that meant. My teens and twenties I spent in a hormone-induced haze, perpetually “in love” with someone (sometimes more than one someone). I still recall the moment of enlightenment, in high school, when I realized that I could say “yes” to sexual exploration, even though society told me to say no. Despite being a shy egghead with world-class myopia who thought she was fat, I had managed to accumulate a pretty wide range of sexual experience by the time I got married. And I’m happy to report that, thanks to my husband’s open mind and naughty imagination, my sexual adventures didn’t end at that point!

Meanwhile, I was born writing. Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, though according to family apocrypha, I was talking at six months. Certainly, I started writing as soon as I learned how to form the letters. I penned my first poem when I was seven. While I was in elementary school I wrote more poetry, stories, at least two plays (one about the Beatles and one about the Goldwater-Johnson presidential contest, believe it or not), and a survival manual for Martians (really). I continued to write my way through high school, college, and grad school, mostly angst-ridden poems about love and desire, although I also remember working on a ghost story/romance novel (wish I could find that now). I’ve written song lyrics, meeting minutes, marketing copy, software manuals, research reports, a cookbook, a self-help book, and a five hundred page dissertation.

For years, I wrote erotic stories and kinky fantasies for myself and for lovers’ entertainment. I never considered trying to publish my work until I picked up a copy of Portia da Costa’s Black Lace classic Gemini Heat while sojourning in Istanbul. My first reaction was “Wow!”. It was possibly the most arousing thing I’d ever read, intelligent, articulate, diverse and wonderfully transgressive. My second reaction was, “I’ll bet I could write a book like that.” I wrote the first three chapters of Raw Silk and submitted a proposal to Black Lace, almost on a lark. I was astonished when they accepted it. The book was published in April 1999, and all at once, I was an official erotic author.

At this point, Raw Silk has been reprinted by three different publishers. The most recent version is available from Total-E-Bound and still selling well, I’m pleased to say. Since that initial release I’ve published more than fifty single author titles in erotica and erotic romance, including eight more novels, and have contributed to dozens of anthologies.

In addition to writing erotica and erotic romance, I also edit the stuff. I’m very proud of my anthologies of literary erotica, Sacred Exchange: Stories of Spirituality and Transcendence in Dominance and Submission (with S.F. Mayfair) and Cream: The Best of the Erotica Readers and Writers Association. I’m also editor for the Coming Together Presents altruistic erotica series. Each Presents volume offers work by a single author, supporting a cause selected by that author. So far we’ve released seven volumes of stellar erotic fiction, each of which does double duty by making the world a better place.

A lot has changed since my Black Lace days. Black Lace itself has bitten the dust, as has my second publisher Blue Moon. The e-book revolution has made it easier to get published but a great deal more difficult to get noticed. Promotion claims at least as much of my time as actual writing. Speaking of which, I blog regularly at Beyond Romance and Oh Get A Grip, and offer news, excerpts, free reading, reviews and more at Lisabet’s Fantasy Factory.

I still get a thrill from writing erotica. It’s a never-ending challenge, trying to capture the emotional complexities of a sexual encounter. I’m far less interested in what happens to my characters’ bodies than in what goes on in their heads.

2 Comments

  1. I agree Lisabet with your thoughts and my stroke stories are always HEA, well except for the occasional beatings that take place.

    Reply

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