Does erotica need to have a plot?
Some people will answer with a resounding negative. If it gets me off, they’ll argue, then I don’t care whether there’s a story – a plot would just distract me from the dirty details.
I respect those whose opinions differ from mine, but as far as I’m concerned, erotica sans story is just sex, without anything at stake – and that, to me, is boring. To keep me interested – and aroused – the sexual activities in an erotic tale need to have some kind of impact on the characters involved. The characters don’t have to be in love; indeed, some of the most fascinating erotica I’ve read involves people who detest one another. There doesn’t need to be any sort of commitment; a one-night stand can offer the most luminous, intense sex you’ve ever experienced. But somehow, the sex has to matter. At least one of the characters needs to be changed by the erotic encounter. They need to feel something new, want something that’s different from what they wanted before – often something wilder or kinkier or more extreme. Without this, sex becomes repetitious, mechanical and uninspiring.
Plot is essentially a set of events that causes characters to change. In erotica, those events often (though not always or exclusively) involve sex.
All plots are driven by conflict, which in the simplest case can simply be a discrepancy between the current situation and the desired situation. Jim is a virgin consumed with hopeless lust for his voluptuous next door neighbor. Jenny has discovered her boss’s stash of femdom porn, but doesn’t know how to let him know she’s ready to be his mistress. Maria and Marilyn have been best friends for years, but neither dares to take the next step toward intimacy.
Erotica can also involve external conflicts, for instance a kidnapping by a cruel but horny villain, or a plane crash in the middle of the jungle that leaves the characters struggling for survival. In many cases, though, erotica plots focus on the sexual trajectories of the protagonists.
One common and effective erotic plot pattern is initiation. The main character is gradually introduced to new activities or desires that at first seem shocking or scary, but which soon become central to her sexual identity. My first novel Raw Silk falls into this category (as do many other BDSM-themed books). It’s a journey of discovery as the heroine Kate comes to understand her submissive side and learns to surrender to her Master. One of my favorite erotic novels is K.D. Grace’s The Initiation of Ms Holly, about a seemingly ordinary young woman who’s sucked into the twisted world of a secret sex society, only to find that their outrageous behaviors unexpectedly match her natural inclinations.
A related plot outline is seduction (or perhaps, “corruption”), in which an innocent character is, in Larry Archer’s words, “brought over to the dark side”. Sometimes the innocent is actually a virgin, but often he or she is sexually experienced but “vanilla”: a married and monogamous couple turned on to swinging; a straight man or woman lured into a same-sex relationship; an all-American male tempted into donning lingerie and high heels. My Sin City Sweethearts is a classic seduction tale. Eighteen year old twins Marcella and Madelynn move away from their small-town, overprotective family to attend college in Las Vegas. Annie and Ted, their polymorphously-perverse upstairs neighbors, take it upon themselves to give the inexperienced co-eds a true education.
A third familiar erotica plot might be labeled liberation. After divorcing her cheating husband, a woman blossoms into a sexually insatiable MILF. A shy, nerdy IT guy gets a new roommate who’s irresistible to women – and who’s happy to share. I’ve used this plot pattern in The Slut Strikes Back, among other tales. Lauren is a faithful wife, until her husband complains about her powerful libido. He tells her to find someone else to satisfy her, setting her free. Before long, she’s getting it on with the pool guy, the UPS delivery man, a pair of strangers she picks up in a bar, even her son’s wrestling team.
One aspect shared by all these patterns is escalation. All three provide motivation for increasingly intense, extreme or taboo sex scenes. As I’ve argued in another post, escalation is an essential ingredient for effective erotica. Readers continually want more. They also want variety. Hence you need to lead both your characters and your readers deeper into depravity, step by step. If you start off with a double penetration or a severe caning, what will you do for an encore? The patterns I’ve mentioned naturally lend themselves to increasing levels of intensity – both physical and emotional.
Sometimes, of course, plot can get out of hand. I have a feeling that’s what happened in my steam punk series The Toymakers Guild. There are aspects of all three patterns – initiation, seduction and liberation – in the two novels I’ve written so far, but there are many other plot elements, including mind-control, recalcitrant sex toys, cut-throat competitors, romance, murder and revenge.
I may have gone overboard. On the other hand, there’s one advantage to not sticking to the patterns: unpredictability. There are thousands of erotic initiation tales; readers know what to expect. I like to think that my readers will be continually – and pleasurably – surprised.
I really don’t think that would be possible without plot.