“This book had a great variety of terrific sex scenes, but the author cannot write dialogue to save her life. They all end up sounding like wooden Indians.” ~ J. Mullally
The quote above comes from an Amazon review of my second novel, Incognito, published in 2002. Needless to say, the comment made me cringe, but I have to admit that when I started publishing, dialogue was definitely a weak spot for me.
Before diving into fiction, I’d written a lot of technical material: research papers, product specifications, user manuals, and a five-hundred page dissertation. I knew how to convey ideas in an articulate and logical manner, but I really had very little experience capturing the nuances of human conversation. Read some of my early dialogue and you’ll see the effects of my formal background.
* * *
“Miranda, I would like to present Mark Anderson, our new lecturer. Mark will be handling the Dickens course for the summer session.”
“Mark, this is Miranda Cahill, my most promising graduate student.” Miranda blushed, and Dr. Scofield’s eyes twinkled. “Miranda has chosen a rather controversial topic for her thesis: a new interpretation of the corpus of Victorian erotica.”
The newcomer’s polite smile expanded to a grin. “Really! That’s fascinating. Sounds far more—stimulating—than my dissertation on the metaphorical significance of orphans in Dickens and his contemporaries.”
Miranda’s blush deepened as she noted the double entendre. She met his teasing gaze, almost defiantly. “Yes, it is an intriguing topic, and I believe one of considerable literary and social significance, as well.” He had thick, dark hair, slightly tousled. His eyes behind the glasses were velvety brown with glints of gold. In his face, she saw intelligence, energy, and humor.
“Miranda has championed an unusual theory: that the explosion of sexually-oriented writing during the latter half of the nineteenth century was a reflection of actual practices, rather than a reaction against repressive public morals.” Her advisor appeared to be enjoying the role of agent provocateur. “She believes that the detailed accounts of sexual adventure and aberration published during the era chronicled real experiences, not merely fantasies.”
“Hmm.” Their bespectacled companion looked both amused and interested. “What evidence do you have to support this proposition?”
“Well, to begin with,” said Miranda, automatically adopting an academic tone, “a significant fraction of these writings are first person accounts. And a surprising number are related from a woman’s perspective. If this were primarily a literature of fantasy and titillation, I would expect a male point-of-view to dominate, as it does in modern pornography.” Miranda was encouraged to see that her audience listened attentively and gave due consideration to her points.
“Secondly, these tales are full of real-world details and commentary that would be superfluous and even distracting in fictional erotica. The protagonists discuss social issues such as poverty, child abuse, oppression of the lower classes, things that can only detract from a work intended as escapist fantasy. Even a hack pornographer knows better than to mention the unpleasant or the mundane: illegitimate pregnancies, unpaid bills, rising damp. Yet references to such items are common in the corpus.”
“Finally, I find in many of these writings a thoughtfulness that conflicts with the conventions of the pornographic genre. The narrators are engaged in a wide variety of sexual activities, which are described in vivid and provocative detail. At the same time, in many cases, they reflect on their own desires and behaviors, sometimes justifying themselves in the face of the official morality, sometimes castigating themselves for weakness and sinfulness. Either way, there is a psychological depth that would be redundant in fictional erotica.”
“So, what you are saying,” interposed Mark with a grin, “is that a fictional character would simply go ahead and bugger his maid, whereas an individual writing a clandestine diary would spend some time and effort wondering why he wanted to bugger his maid, before he got around to actually doing it?”
“No, no, that’s not it at all!” Miranda, embarrassed and flustered, wondered if the new instructor had been reading her manuscript over her shoulder. Her eyes flashed. “You’re not willing to take me seriously, any more than the submission review committee for the Association for Modern Literature!”
“Now, Miranda,” soothed her advisor. “Mark was just teasing you.” Looking again at the attractive stranger, Miranda saw that Scofield was telling the truth.
“Sorry, I really didn’t mean to offend you, Miranda.” Mark held out his hand like a peace offering. “I really am delighted to meet you. I think your theory is unconventional and provocative, but who knows, it might actually be true.”
* * *
As it happens, these characters are all academics (as I had been for such a long time), but still, their formality sounds artificial.
In my first books, people spoke in full sentences most of the time. They didn’t use contractions. They never interrupted one another. Furthermore, they used each other’s names so frequently that one might wonder whether they were trying to reinforce their faulty memories.
Fortunately I was more adept at writing sex scenes than dialogue, or I might never have found any readers!
The problem is that dialogue can play multiple, critical roles in a narrative. It reveals character— immediate emotions and concerns as well as more persistent aspects such as class and ethnicity. Dialogue also advances the action; indeed, speech is action, and an entire plot can turn on a conversation. Conversations can also inform the reader about history or backstory, in a more subtle and less disruptive manner than unadorned exposition. Thus, poor dialogue can be more than just an annoyance. It can ruin an entire book.
I joined ERWA in 2000, not long before I wrote this novel. Since then, I’ve participated in Storytime and Writers, written nearly a hundred stories and edited a number of anthologies. ERWA has exposed me to authors who are true doyens of dialogue, especially Bob Buckley, Daddy X, and more recently, Belinda LaPage.
My characters’ conversations still can’t begin to match some of what I read, but I know I’ve improved quite a bit. I now understand that in order to write dialogue successfully, you have to hear the characters in your head. How can you get to the point where your characters talk to you? By reading effective dialogue by other people, and by listening to people actually talking.
If you listen to real world conversations, you’ll recognize that they’re very “messy”. People rarely speak in full sentences. They sprinkle their dialogue with exclamations, “ums” and “ohs”, filling the space while they thing about what to say next. They start one utterance then interrupt themselves to express a totally different thought. They interrupt the other speakers too. Because the partners in a conversation have a shared context, one or two words can convey meaning without ambiguity. Of course, one partner can easily misunderstand this sort of abbreviated utterance, also.
People make grammar errors, too. You have no idea how hard it has been for me to let my characters do that! Between my education and my experience editing, I have finely tuned detectors for faux pas like dangling participles, tense errors, incorrect pronouns and word misuse. Sometimes, though, that’s exactly what dialogue needs, to make a character seem real.
One useful exercise, I’ve found, is writing all-dialogue flashers. I learned how to do that from Daddy X, “the master of flash”. A flasher tells a complete story in 200 words or less. Trying to do this in dialogue is a fabulous challenge. You need to convey the characters, their relationships, and their actions, without any description at all (and ideally, without speak tags). I can’t begin to match Daddy’s expertise in the genre, but here’s an example that illustrates the technique:
By Lisabet Sarai
“Miss Meriweather. Increase the gain by another order of magnitude. Ah—oh, by Newton’s apples!—”
“Is that too much, Professor? Shall I dial it back?”
“No, no, we must continue. Another notch, please.”
“But your face is scarlet, sir. And your member—Oh, God, are those sparks?”
“To be expected when experimenting with electrical forces, Miss Meriweather. Adjust the rheostat as I’ve instructed. Argh—that’s good, excellent…Oh! More. More…!”
“Sir, the boiler will blow. The needle’s halfway into the red zone already.”
“We need more power—more steam—oh, incredible! Amazing! We shall be the first to chronicle the detailed response of the male organ to various levels of electrical stimulation—oh, by Aristotle, turn it up, girl! Don’t stop now!”
“I smell burning. And you’re drenched with sweat.”
“All—all the better—ah! Enhances conductivity—what? What are you doing?“
“Protecting you from excessive scientific curiosity. I don’t want you hurt.”
“But—I was so close to a breakthrough… Unstrap me immediately, Miss Meriweather. If you won’t assist me, I’ll have to man the controls myself.”
“Sorry, Professor. I can’t do that.”
“You disobedient little hussy! And where—oh, by Pythagoras, you’re not wearing knickers!”
“Before you research artificial sexual stimulation, sir, shouldn’t you investigate the real thing?”
* * *
Then there’s the question of dialect, that is, using speech characteristics to convey nationality, race, social class and so on. Robert Buckley does this incredibly well. Whether his setting is Irish Boston or the Civil War South, his characters talk like natives.
I’ve mostly avoided dialect in my work. It’s really easy to overdo, and can make your dialogue difficult to read and understand. Recently, though, for my novella More Brides in Vegas, I had to create a character who spoke with a very strong dialect – for the sake of my plot and for comic effect. I sought out a lot of help from ERWA folk on this one, in particular from a member whose father came from Glasgow:
* * *
A gruff, male, almost unintelligible voice interrupted her.
“I wannae see the hoatel manager. Where’s the fookin’ manager, you little eejit?”
A giant of a man with a barrel chest and legs like telephone poles strode into the courtyard from the direction of the hotel lobby, dragging a skinny college-age boy with him. The kid—Chantal remembered she’d seen him behind the hotel desk when she’d picked up her key—cringed and silently pointed in Nan’s direction.
“Gawn! D’ye think ahm buttoned up the back? That nekkid dyke?”
Cool as anything, as self-assured as if she’d been wearing a designer suit instead of a strap-on, Nan rose to her feet and confronted the newcomer. Though she was at least a foot shorter, the obviously angry man paused when confronted by her natural authority
“I’m Nan Anderson, general manager of the Holiday House,” she said. “I’ll thank you to let Michael go.”
He glared at her from under bushy ginger brows. Nan didn’t flinch in the slightest.
“Now, please. He’s just a part-time clerk. Whatever your difficulty, I’ll take care of it.”
He opened his ham-sized hand. Poor Michael almost crumpled to the floor.
“Get back to the desk, Mike. I’ll handle this.”
The young man scuttled away.
“Now, sir,” she continued, her voice cool and professional despite her nudity. “What’s the problem?”
“Thae gormless tool said yer fool for the weeken’.” The foreigner scowled and waved a sheet of paper in her face. “Me an’ me mates booked an’ paid. Ye dinnae think we’re gonnae come all thae way to America fer a ternamen’ but nae reserve our rooms, did ye?”
“Can I see that, please?” Nan scrutinized what was obviously a printout from some website. “I have to admit the dates match. But we’re closed for a private event this weekend. We blocked out the rooms more than three months ago. I don’t know why the booking site—”
“Ah dinnae ken an’ ah dinnae cerr. Me an’ me chaps need beds. Been on a fookin’ plane for ferteen hours.”
“Um—how many are in your group?”
The angry customer shook his head. “Aye, but yer stoopit, lass. Who doesnae know thae a rugby team’s fifteen men?”
“Rugby?” Nan looked him up and down, as if that explained his stature. “Oh!”
The guy broke into a grin. “Glassgow Gladiators. City champs.”
“And you are?”
He gave a little bow. “Ian Stuart, team captain. At yer service.”
* * *
I will admit, I’m quite proud of this bit. It’s encouraging to see I’ve learned something in more than fifteen years of writing.
At least he doesn’t sound like a wooden Indian.
Hook your reader. Keep her riveted to your story, so engrossed that she forgets to eat or drink—while tempting her to indulge in other cravings. Leave her feeling totally satisfied, or better yet with a powerful desire to go read something else you’ve written.
This is the dream of every erotic author, indeed every writer whatever the genre. Alas, grabbing and holding the reader’s attention is far from easy, especially in a longer work. What’s the secret to writing this sort of what-happens-next, can’t-put-it-down tale?
Of course, there’s no one foolproof method for keeping readers engaged. Plot, characters and style all contribute. In erotic fiction, there’s also the question of how well the sexual situations and activities match the reader’s personal interests or kinks. One technique that I use, though, is deliberate escalation.
Escalation means holding back at first, starting gradually, then building up the tension (both narrative and sexual) as the book continues. The idea is related to the concept of rising action in the so-called narrative arc. The early part of the story—the exposition—introduces the characters and the conflicts that will drive the plot. Then events occur that make things progressively more difficult, complex or challenging for the protagonists. Effectively written, the rising action portion of the arc will cause readers to becoming emotionally invested in the characters, so that when the climax and resolution occur, the reader experiences a pleasurable catharsis along with them.
Okay, this all sounds convincingly literary, but how does it apply to erotica, which usually offers many climaxes? Most readers who open an erotic book don’t want to wait until the end for satisfaction. You’ve got to create some arousal early in the tale, or they’ll just move on to something more explicit. One of the traditional recommendations for writing erotica suggests you need a sex scene in every chapter. While I don’t believe in slavishly following this sort of rule, it accurately reflects the typical reader’s impatience, especially with a “stroke” story. (Literary erotica can perhaps afford to delay the physical gratification of its characters, but even so, must provide some measure of erotic tension to justify the genre label.)
Hence, stroke fiction often starts out with a “bang”—sex in the very first chapter, maybe even on the first page. This creates potential problems, though. What do you do for an encore? Even the most dedicated consumer of erotica can get bored with a tale that’s just one sex scene after another. Without some sort of rising action, some progressive increase in emotional intensity, it will be difficult to keep the reader hooked.
Most of my erotic novels offer sexual situations within the first chapter. However, I carefully design these initial scenes to be less complete, less intense or less transgressive than scenes I plan for later. For instance, I might begin with the protagonist observing someone else having sex and feeling vicariously aroused. Or I might start with a sexual interaction that’s exciting but does not lead to full-out intercourse. As the book continues, I gradually raise the sexual stakes—adding multiple partners, taboo elements, or scenes that fulfill a character’s more extreme fantasies. I also play with the characters’ emotions. Early in the book, sex is more likely to be casual. Later, it becomes more serious, with more psychological impact on the characters.
For example, my most recent release, More Brides in Vegas, has the following structure of sexual elements in each chapter:
Chapter 1 – Public nudity, fetish clothing and BDSM references, FF cunnilingus
Chapter 2 – Skinny dipping, fingering to orgasm
Chapter 3 – Private penetrative sex between bride and groom
Chapter 4 – Public FF cunnilingus, FF strap-on penetration
Chapter 5 – Best man gets blow job from mother of the groom; public fingering to orgasm
Chapter 6 – Mother of the groom gets it on with brother of the bride
Chapter 7 – Private spanking role play between married couple (Laura and Steve, friends of bride and groom)
Chapter 8 – Public fingering to orgasm, spanking threats
Chapter 9 – Erotic musical chairs
Chapter 10 – Public Dom/sub lesbian penetration of the bride
Chapter 11 – Lesbian orgy
Chapter 12 – Spanking threesome with Laura and Steve plus the brother of the bride
Chapter 13 – Private masturbation, tit-fucking, multiple penetration scene between best man and mother of the groom
Chapter 14 – Voyeurism; Laura has multi-partner DP sex with husband and friends
Chapter 15 – Sex between the bride and the best man
Chapter 16 – Public lesbian BDSM strap-on sex
Chapter 17 – Gang bang where Laura takes on an entire rugby team
Chapter 18 – Female voyeur watching MM anal sex, also watching bride with the voyeur’s husband
Chapter 19 – Four-way partner swapping sex (bride and groom, best man and his wife); DP and lesbian interactions
Chapter 20 – Conclusion – the wedding – public orgasm – references to future adventures.
This book has many characters. The escalation is most pronounced for Laura, who starts out with a not-very-visible orgasm in the swimming pool and ends up taking on the Glasgow Gladiators rugby team. Between these two extremes, she fantasizes with her husband about being spanked and fucked by the bride’s brother, then makes this fantasy a reality, then further explores her inner slut with a few more friends.
Other characters have their own arcs of escalation. In addition to being more extreme or intense, the sex scenes later in the book mean more to the characters than the earlier ones. For instance, the partner swap in Chapter 19 fulfills long-held but never admitted desires for all four participants.
This book definitely falls into the stroke category (as if you couldn’t guess). However, I tend to use the same strategy when I write erotic romance or literary erotica. For instance, my first novel Raw Silk, which is really a romance, begins with a dreamily remembered sexual encounter and ends with a wild sexual contest in which each of Kate’s three lovers tries to convince her to choose him over the other two.
In short, if you’re looking for a technique to keep your readers interested, consider escalation. Don’t pull out all the stops in the beginning. Start slow, build the action, and make every scene more intense than the last.
Your readers will thank you.
I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a fellow author say, “I’m not good at grammar.” I might even be able to afford a trip to Eroticon next year! Seriously, it seems that many writers find the entire question of conventionally correct grammatical structure intimidating. Some of them simply give up, relying entirely on their editors. Others try to convince themselves grammar doesn’t matter, that a reader who’s thoroughly seduced by their great story (or aroused by the amazing sex) won’t notice the blunders.
Alas, I think this is far less true than these authors would like to believe. Even if a reader doesn’t recognize an error as such, she’s likely to have a vague feeling of discomfort, a sense that “something’s wrong” with the sentence. Worse, a grammatical faux pas may end up confusing the reader, pulling her out of that zone where she’s connected with your characters to wonder exactly what’s going on.
Grammar is not just something dreamed up by high school English teachers to torture their students. English (as well as most other languages) relies on syntactic structure to convey meaning and resolve ambiguities. Consider the following example:
Rick couldn’t believe how good it felt to drive his big rod into the brunette’s pussy. It has been so long since he’d had a woman. Now he had two! The blond bombshell massaged his balls as he fucked her harder and harder.
This is adapted from a book I recently edited. The paragraph pulled me up short. “I thought he was inside the dark haired woman, not the blond,” I thought. “And how could the blond be fondling his balls at the same time that he’s screwing her?”
Of course, re-reading the paragraph made it clear that there was a problem with a pronoun reference. Pronouns should refer to the most recently mentioned noun with matching gender and number. That’s not the case here. The problem could be fixed by swapping the clauses, so the blond gets mentioned after the pronoun instead of before:
Rick couldn’t believe how good it felt to drive his big rod into the brunette’s pussy. It has been so long since he’d had a woman. Now he had two! He fucked her harder and harder, while the blond bombshell massaged his balls.
Another solution would be to replace “her” in the original structure with a noun phrase, e.g. “her girlfriend”. Now “her” does refer to the most recently mentioned noun (the blond bombshell).
The point is that by the time I figured out what the paragraph was trying to say, I’d lost the thread of the scene. The heat had dissipated. This is definitely not what you want if you’re an erotic author!
I’m sure that some of you authors reading this post are rolling your eyes. “Pronoun reference?” you may be thinking. “Matching gender and number?” You’re being assailed by visions of fat, grouchy Miss Mackleswain from tenth grade, the nasty old witch who made you diagram sentences ad nauseum and memorize the names of all the different tenses and constructions. “I couldn’t make sense of it all then, when I was young and smart,” you’re thinking. “I certainly can’t remember all those rules now!”
Relax. Take a deep breath. I have some good news for you.
Grammar is not about rules. It’s about relationships.
If you’re an editor or a pedant (and I’m something of both), it’s nice to be able to apply the correct term to a particular construction. However, that’s not necessary in order to write grammatical prose. You can produce beautiful, perfectly grammatical sentences, one that would make even Miss Mackleswain weep with delight, without having any idea of the so-called rules governing the structure.
In fact, so-called grammatical rules are nothing but abstractions developed after the fact to try and make sense of the way language is actually used. That’s one reason why there are so many exceptions! Grammarians and high school teachers like to present grammar rules as prescriptive (that is, as iron clad expressions of what you should do), but in fact grammar is descriptive, an attempt to systematize the complexities of linguistic structure.
And why do I say that grammar is about relationships? Because that’s what most constructions are trying to convey.
Consider the concept of independent versus dependent clauses. An independent clause expresses a single idea that can stand alone.
Louisa was desperately horny.
Louisa’s boyfriend Jim had been in Hong Kong for a week.
English allows you to use the conjunction “and” to combine two independent clauses:
Louisa’s boyfriend Jim had been in Hong Kong for a week and she was desperately horny.
This compound sentence states two facts of supposedly equal importance, leaving the reader to figure out why they’ve been conjoined. In this case, you might expect a further sentence explaining the situation, for instance:
Normally, they met for sex every Tuesday and Thursday.
A dependent clause, like an independent clause, has a subject and a verb, but the idea it expresses has some logical relationship to another clause. The nature of the relationship depends on the words used to join the two clauses into a single sentence.
Louisa was desperately horny because her boyfriend Jim had been in Hong Kong for a week. (Causality)
By the time her boyfriend Jim had been in Hong Kong for a week, Louisa was desperately horny. (Sequence)
Louisa was desperately horny long before her boyfriend Jim had been in Hong Kong for a week. (Also sequence, but with a somewhat different meaning.)
Louisa was desperately horny even though her boyfriend Jim had been in Hong Kong for a week. (Contrast/conflict)
This last, somewhat peculiar, example suggests that maybe Louisa has somebody on the side, but that she hasn’t been able to hook up with him or her!
Verb tenses are another example of grammar constructs that are used to establish relationships, in this case relationships related to time. You don’t need to know the names of the verb tenses to understand the temporal relationships in the following sentence:
(1) Genevieve was still a virgin, even though she had slept with several men.
The whole narrative is in the past, but it’s clear that the sleeping with several men occurred before the time of the story.
It would mean something different to say:
(2) Genevieve was still a virgin, even though she slept with several men.
This is also grammatically correct, but implies that Genevieve continues to sleep with the men at the time of the story, that it’s an ongoing state of affairs.
Contrast the previous examples with the following:
(3) Genevieve is still a virgin, even though she has slept with several men.
In this case, we’ve pulled the story into the present, but the time relationship between the events hasn’t changed from sentence (1). Her experiences with men still occurred before the main time of the story. However, we have to use a different tense to express that relationship, because we’ve changed the first clause from past to present.
To extend this further:
(4) Genevieve is still a virgin, even though she has slept with several men. Her mother had told her to keep her pajamas on until she was sure she’d found the right guy to be her first lover.
Now we have three points in time, neatly signaled by the verb tenses:
Present: Genevieve is a virgin.
Past: She has slept with several men.
More distant past: Her mother had given her instructions about staying dressed in bed.
Actually, this example actually includes a fourth, more complicated point in time, the hypothetical time when Genevieve is sure she’s in bed with Mr. Right. As far as we can tell, this event hasn’t happened yet. English has clear ways to grammatically mark this sort of hypothetical statement. (Not every language does.)
If you’re a native English speaker, you will have no difficulty understanding the relationships in sentence (4), despite its complexity. Furthermore, you’ll know something is wrong if you read a sentence like this:
Genevieve was still a virgin, even though she sleeps with several men.
The relationships in this sentence don’t make sense. The first, independent clause already happened, while the second, dependent clause is happening now.
The key to writing grammatical prose resides in that feeling that “something is wrong”. You don’t need to know the grammatical terminology or the rules, but you do need to develop your grammatical intuition. You need to learn how to evaluate your sentences based not only on the basic content, but whether the relationships are sensible and have the intended meaning.
How can you do this? By paying closer attention when you read, both your own work and work by other people.
Try to notice when you get that niggling feeling that something’s not quite right. Reread the sentence or paragraph that’s bugging you, considering the implied relationships between clauses, sentences and events. If you can’t figure out the nature of the problem, ask for help, but don’t just ignore that slight discomfort so you can get on with the story. (Don’t be lazy!)
Furthermore, you can strengthen your grammatical intuition by reading really clear, well-structured prose. I recommend works from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Literate prose from that period is often far more complex than would be appropriate for modern readers, but Jane Austen, Wilkie Collins, Edith Wharton and Henry James were grammar virtuosos. Educate your ear to the nuances of tense, the layering of logic. Notice how a sentence with five or six clauses can still be immediately comprehensible. You don’t have to study the structure, or figure out how it works. Just allow these exemplars to sink into your brain.
Don’t worry about the rules, just the relationships.
Of course, you also need to practice improving the grammar of your own work. Learn to recognize the mistakes you commonly make. Sensitize yourself to grammar gaffes. Finally, don’t become discouraged. Improving one’s writing craft is a lifelong process — one that can bring great joy and satisfaction.
Although I don’t try to make my living through my writing, I consider myself a professional author. The Internal Revenue Service agrees. Every year for the last decade and a half, I’ve dutifully tallied up my royalties, subtracted my expenses, and reported my income on Schedule C.
Every year, I’ve managed to make a small profit—until 2017. When I finished the computations for this past year, I discovered that for the first time ever, my writing business is in the red. I spent more on promotion and publicity than I received from sales.
Strangely, I’m not upset by this. For one thing, I know that independent authors everywhere are seeing their incomes decline. Plus I haven’t had as many releases as I’d like, mostly due to outside demands on my time.
Also, I realize that I’ve been less than frugal in my expenditures. For instance, I spent over $200 on gift certificates and books used as prizes for my fans and blog followers. What can I say? I get joy from giving things to people who take the trouble to read my stuff. Next year I plan to cut back on this. I’ll offer free books that don’t cost me anything as prizes where I can. I will also reconsider some of my advertising choices. This past year I devoted quite a bit of cash to promoting two major releases. It’s not at all clear that the costs justified the benefits. I’m sure that with more judicious management of my funds, I can turn my red ink to black in 2018.
The main reason I’m not depressed, though, is that I’m having more fun writing than I have in years. My main difficulty is finding the time to write, given my real world responsibilities. When I do manage to sit down with a work in progress, my stories seem to flow—perhaps not effortlessly, but with far less friction than a few years ago. I’m writing in a variety of styles, each one aimed at a different audience. My intuitions are stronger. I revel in my sense of control over my craft. I’m not sure whether my readers would agree, but I feel as though I’ve become significantly more skilled as a writer.
I’ve moved almost entirely to self-publishing. Why not? The work I’ve released in the past through established publishers has never done particularly well, and I have sufficient editing and graphics skills to either do things myself or barter for editing and art services. Of course, the profits are higher on self-published books, as well, and the turnaround time a lot faster.
Meanwhile, I can now write what I want, even if my books don’t fit neatly into the established genre categories. I find this freedom truly exhilarating.
No longer do my lusty heroines need to restrict themselves to only one lover—even if they ultimately end up in a committed “romantic” relationship. No longer do I need to worry that an editor will object to my mixing lesbian or gay or even transgender content in with straight sex. I can write dark sex, taboo sex, silly sex, or deeply meaningful sex, depending on my mood. Not every reader will be comfortable with my erotic visions, but that’s okay. At least what I’m producing now is genuine, not a compromise based on genre “rules”.
I never planned to be an author. When I published my first novel, almost as a lark, I didn’t expect I’d become addicted to the thrill of sharing my fantasies with the world. Sure, the money is nice, a concrete validation of my talent, but the real payoff is the occasional rapturous reader email or breathlessly enthusiastic review.
I can’t afford to treat writing as an expensive hobby. If I started to lose a lot of money, I’d have to stop. As long as I can break even, though—or close—I’ll do it for the joy.
(My latest releases, in case you’re interested, are Butterfly: Asian Adventures Book 4, and Hot Brides in Vegas. The former is romantic literary erotica with a transgender theme. The latter is a light-hearted, smutty romp with very little redeeming social value, set in the world of swingers created by Larry Archer.)
In what city does Fifty Shades of Grey take place?
I had to look this up. The answer is Vancouver, Washington, but does anyone care? Does the setting matter at all in erotic fiction?
Many authors (and I suppose readers) might argue that it does not. Certainly quite a lot of the erotica and erotic romance I encounter is set in a generic urban or surburban environment without any distinctive geographic or cultural features. These tales focus entirely on the characters and the action, which apparently could be happening anywhere. The background is an undifferentiated blur.
Personally, I prefer stories that provide a strong sense of place. I guess that’s because I read erotica for the total emotional experience, not just for the sex. However, I also find that a specific, vividly depicted setting can heighten the erotic charge.
One time-honored technique in writing erotica is to use all the five senses. Our bodies are located in space, and our senses bring us messages from that space. So the roughness of the cheap blanket in the seedy hotel room—the fragrant fresh-mown grass clinging to our sweaty bodies—jazz, drifting in the window from Bourbon Street—the sticky sweetness of the ice cream we shared, before you dragged me into the cool shadows under the pier (which smells of rust and seaweed)—the distant orb of the full moon sailing above as I lie on my back with you pounding into my cunt— all these sights, sounds, scents, tastes and textures combine to bring an erotic interlude to life in the imagination.
Of course, you can provide sensory details without specifying exactly where it’s all happening. As an author, though, it’s easier to conjure these details if you have a particular setting in mind.
Setting complements and enhances both character and plot. Where you come from, where you live, strongly influences who you are. A person from Boston thinks, speaks and acts quite differently from someone who comes from Los Angeles (not to mention Marseille or Singapore). Even when I don’t mention it, I almost always know my characters’ geographic histories. Not infrequently in my stories the major conflict flows from background or cultural differences between the protagonists.
Meanwhile, certain events can occur only in certain places. For instance, a devastating landslide is pivotal in my MMF tale Monsoon Fever, providing a catharsis that pulls the characters into three-way sex. That story is set in hilly Assam, India. It just wouldn’t work in Bangkok, or Venice, or Minneapolis.
I guess I’m known for my evocative and varied settings. My novels take place in Thailand, in Boston, in London and LA, in Pittsburgh, in rural Guatemala, in Paris, in Rajasthan, in Manhattan, in Worcester MA, and in northern California. I’ve written stories set in Provence, in Newport RI, in Nebraska, and in Amsterdam. I do tend to return in my writing to places I’ve lived or visited often, as I can describe them with greater ease, but I certainly haven’t been to every location that shows up in my fiction.
I wonder if readers can tell which of my settings are based on real experience, which on research and imagination.
For me, the joy of reading is being pulled into a new world, rich in detail, intense and believable. So I want to know where a story is happening—even if that location is totally fictional. George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series has the strongest sense of place I’ve ever encountered in a book. That’s one reason why I love it.
I try to offer my readers the same joy. I know some of you don’t care. I’m writing for those of you who do.
(If you’re one of those people, check out my new Asian Adventures series—short erotic pieces set in different Asian locales. The most recent title, set in Thailand, is Butterfly.)
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.
By Lisabet Sarai
I have trouble with endings. In fact, I’m having trouble right now, trying to complete my Christmas erotic romance tale so I can get it published before Santa comes down the chimney. The story is currently in the 7K range. I had the main conflict resolved almost 1000 words back, but I can’t quite figure out how to actually wrap it all up, tie it in a nice bow, and write “The End”. Every time I think I’ve got a smart closing line, the characters continue to yack on, and I get increasingly frustrated.
Given my current difficulties, you might suggest that I’m not exactly qualified to give advice about good endings. However, when it comes to an effective finish, I know one when I see one—not to mention recognizing when an author has not succeeded in bringing her story to a clean and compelling end. So let me talk about my observations. Who knows, this might even bring me some insight into my own problem!
The end of a story is arguably less important the initial hook I discussed last month. After all, by the time the reader reaches that point, she has already bought your book, and consumed most of it. On the other hand, the ending is what’s going to stick in the reader’s mind after she shuts the covers or turns off her e-reader. A poorly executed conclusion may convince her not to buy your next book.
An example: I adored Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. It’s a thick, juicy, enigmatic novel full of unexpected synchronicities and challenging ideas. The last few chapters, however, left me deeply disappointed. Rather than shedding light on the peculiar and perilous alternative world he had created, Murakami simply shunted his main characters back to the “real” world. So many threads were left dangling, so many mysteries remained unsolved, that I wanted to scream. I dropped my rating from an enthusiastic five stars to a grudging four stars. And I started warning people away from the book, or at least cautioning them about its lame conclusion.
What lesson do I take from this experience? Your ending shouldn’t drop the ball. You don’t have to address every one of the reader’s questions (especially if you’re planning a series), but be sure you deliver on the promises you make earlier in the book.
Another no-no: avoid cliff-hangers. Readers hate them. Even if you’re planning a sequel, make sure that the ending gives readers a feeling that one episode has concluded.
I still remember (unhappily) the first book of a BDSM erotic romance trilogy I read three or four years ago. The novel was beautifully written, with a distinctive heroine and a dark, brooding alpha hero who somehow managed to avoid being a cliché. The whole thing was brilliant—until it suddenly ended with the Dom beating the sub until she lost consciousness. That was it. No further information. I was appalled. The Dom wasn’t an evil guy; his ferocity was due to the sort of misunderstanding that’s the common engine of romance. However, this was (in my opinion) a horrible way for the book to end.
I found out later that the trilogy had originally been a single long book. The publishers had cut it into three shorter pieces. I fault their editors, actually, for not realizing that the ending needed to be reworked after the surgery.
Then there are the books that just stop. No suspense, really, but you’re reading along, fully expecting more—and there isn’t any. Drives me absolutely crazy!
Some authors fall into the opposite trap. They continue the story long after its natural end. They appear to believe they must resolve every open issue, tie up every loose end no matter how trivial, explain the fate of every minor character. The book drags on, after the crisis and its resolution, becoming more diffuse and less exciting with each chapter. (This seems to be the problem I’m having.)
To write an effective ending, I think you need to have a clear view of the narrative arc in your tale. Every story—well, most stories in the Western narrative tradition, anyway—have five main phases. In the exposition phase, the author introduces the situation, the characters and the fundamental conflicts that will drive the tale. During the rising action phase, the conflict(s) motivate characters to “do things”. The characters react to each other and to events in or threats from the environment. The climax is where everything starts to fall apart. The literary excrement hits the fan, and the characters make fundamental choices that will determine their future. After the climax, things quiet down quickly, during the so called falling action phase. This is the mopping up stage. Finally, during the resolution or denouement phase, the author brings everything together, to give the reader a sense of satisfaction and completion.
|From Annabel Smith’s Blog|
Stories that suffer from cliff-hanger endings stop the action too soon, in the climax phase. Stories that seem to drag on forever stretch the resolution phase beyond recognition. Stories like Murakami’s play bait and switch. They bring you to the climax, but then pull you down the slope of some different tale altogether.
There’s a symmetry to the traditional narrative arc, even though the earlier phases usually last longer than the later ones. I suspect that the best endings take advantage of this balance. Effective endings refer back to the starting point. They recognize and exploit the patterns of conflict and action from earlier in the book. Like a symphony that repeats a musical theme, but in a different key, the ending echoes or alludes to these patterns, but now they are transformed by the knowledge and progress that have emerged from resolving the conflict.
Writing this has helped to see what might be wrong with my own ending. At the point I am at now, the hero has disappeared off stage, back upstairs to his own apartment. The heroine is conversing with a secondary character, her daughter, who’s judging her for indulging in casual sex.
The story began with the heroine climbing to the floor above her apartment in order to investigate the racket emanating from there. I think it needs to end the same way, with her making her way up the winding stair to the hero’s place. But he’s not a stranger anymore. He’ll meet her at the door (naked, I’m thinking, except for maybe a Santa Claus hat), and draw her inside, where they’ll continue the carnal activities that were so rudely interrupted.
Yeah, that might work. At least it will get the daughter to shut up!
In any case, I think I’ve pontificated long enough on this topic. Happy holidays to all. May your days be merry and bright, and all your endings turn out tight!
By Lisabet Sarai
If you don’t grab your readers’ attention in your first paragraph, you’ve lost them.
Well, that’s what the experts say, at least. Like all absolute statements, this one awakens my critical side. Certainly, I’ve read, and enjoyed, many books that began with a whimper rather than a bang. On the other hand, an effective, engaging opening can make the difference between someone buying your book or moving on to the next author.
Here are the first two paragraphs of one of the best books I’ve read in the past decade, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern:
The circus arrives without warning.
No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.
I had heard nothing about this novel. Seeking a birthday gift for my husband, my attention attracted by the dramatic black and white cover, I picked it up from a bookstore table. As I often do, I read the first page to gauge the style. I was hooked. I had to know more. Later, I bought several other copies as presents for friends and relatives. I’ve recommended it to many other people.
An author’s dream. All because of that dynamite opening.
Of course that’s not strictly true. If the rest of the book had not been as amazing as its first page, I would not be singing its praises to all and sundry. On the other hand, without that hook, I might never have read it at all.
This incident occurred in a bricks and mortar bookstore, but the same phenomenon can occur online. Amazon and Smashwords both allow you to sample the first ten to twenty percent of the books they sell. I don’t know how often people flip through my first few pages on Amazon, but Smashwords gives you these figures. Many more people have sampled my indie books than have bought them.
Maybe I need better openings. Maybe I shouldn’t be giving you advice at all. On the other hand, I do feel that I’ve learned a few things since my first novel (which has a rather awful first sentence, based on my current evaluation).
So how can you hook your readers? How can you write more effective initial paragraphs? Here are some suggestions.
Stimulate the reader’s curiosity.
Your first page can and should raise questions in the reader’s mind. What’s going on? Where are we? Who are the actors? What are their relationships?
Here’s the start of my short story The Last Amanuensis:
My hands no longer tremble when I pierce his papery skin. I’ve learned how much force to apply, how to tilt the hollow needle just enough to fill the tiny wound with color without blurring the line. I know what he can bear. I can read the change in his breathing that tells me he needs a break.
Although this one paragraph reveals a great deal, it also makes the reader wonder about the scenario. Clearly the narrator is creating a tattoo, but who is the subject? Who is speaker? He or she seems to have done this many times—why?
Provide a lightning introduction to your characters.
We all know that great characters are the key to keeping readers’ attention. One way to open a tale is let your characters immediately speak up, so readers get a sense of their quirks, personalities, and motivations.
This is how my erotic suspense novel Exposure begins:
I strip for the fun of it. Don’t let anyone tell you different. It’s not the money. I could make nearly as much working at the mill and keep my clothes on, but then I’d have to suck up to the bosses. Here at the Peacock, I’m the one in charge, and I like it that way.
Only five sentences, but already we know quite a bit about Stella. She’s opinionated and self-confident, the total opposite of a doormat. She doesn’t care must about society’s judgments. She’s probably not highly educated, given her short sentences, colloquial vocabulary and marginal grammar. And she’s a stripper—a fact relevant to both the noir suspense and erotic aspects of the story.
Dump the reader into the middle of the action.
I learned this from Kathleen Bradean. Years ago she critiqued a short story of mine on the Storytime list. I knew something about the piece was not working. It felt leaden and plodding, especially at the start. However, I couldn’t figure out how to fix it.
Kathleen suggested that I throw away the first couple of paragraphs, starting the story smack in the middle of a scene. I followed her advice. The story gained new energy and with it, new interest. I found the change wrought by a relatively minor edit quite astonishing.
One way to get the reader involved in ongoing action is to begin with a line of dialogue. I’ve been using this technique quite a bit recently.
Suzy might as well have stuck my finger in an electric socket. I forced myself to breathe.
(From The Late Show)
“Ginger? Do I taste ginger?”
“Uh—yes, that’s right, sir…”
“Ginger in coq au vin? That’s practically sacrilege, Ms Wong.”
(From Her Secret Ingredient)
“On the desk, Miss Archer. Arms out, palms flat.”
I should have realized Greg had something up his sleeve. Normally he hates big parties. His work requires him to interact with all sorts of people, but I know he finds it stressful. To relax he prefers more—how should I put it?—intimate gatherings. So I really should have understood he had some deviant plan in mind when he told me about the Halloween masquerade.
(From Coming in Costume)
Okay, so maybe I’m overusing this device!
Use short, direct sentences and pay attention to the prosody.
Readers have limited attention spans, especially nowadays. Hence, all else being equal, you should keep the sentences in your first paragraph as short and direct as you can manage. I’d never recommend that you dumb down your English to increase the size of your market, but first sentences are almost like advertising slogans. They should be brief and catchy.
To enhance the impact, take advantage of the fact that repetition and rhyme stimulate parts of the brain not involved in the literal interpretation of words. These elements of prosody give sentences more impact and make them more memorable.
Consider the example from The Night Circus. The first sentence —the first paragraph—is a mere five words. The paragraph break provides a breath, a beat. The next sentence is longer, but the repetition carries it forward: “No announcements… no paper notices …. no mentions.” The next sentence also uses parallelism: “It is… it was…”.
Here’s the first sentence from one of my personal favorite stories, Like Riding a Bicycle:
My wife is on her knees.
Okay, I’m probably my own biggest fan, but I get a little chill when I read that, especially when it becomes clear that this is not (at the moment!) a BDSM scene. The stress patterns (three iambs) seem to me to perfectly fit the meaning.
So, following up on the recommendations above, is there anything you should avoid in your openings?
Well, there’s Elmore Leonard’s famous advice: “Never open a book with the weather.” I’ve broken that rule a few times, deliberately, when the weather was an essential aspect of the plot or the setting, but in general I tend to agree. Perhaps I can restate it more generally: do not begin with a long description of things that are tangential to the story.
Of course there are always exceptions. One opening strategy mimics the common cinematographic technique of the wide pan over the scene, focusing in on a character. For instance, you might show us a narrow country lane winding between hedgerows, the sun setting behind the purple hills, the freshening breeze starting to stir the trees. Then, as we look more closely, we notice a lone figure just coming over a knoll, trudging along, weighed down with what seems like a heavy knapsack. We cannot see his face at first, but as the walker approaches, we realize it’s actually a young woman, dressed in jeans and a ragged jacket, a tight cap crammed over her lank brown hair….
This approach works well with an omniscient point of view, when you want to keep some distance between the reader and your characters.
I have a rule of my own, born of reading a lot of romance: never begin a book with your character’s name. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve read that start something like this.
“Anna Wilkins shut off her monitor, leaned back in her office chair and closed her eyes. If she had to review one more report, she’d scream.”
“The clang of an alarm woke Reggie Borden from a restless sleep. He was on his feet, pulling on his work pants, before he realized it had been a dream.”
This is a personal peeve, but I find this sort of opening (which is very common) really annoying. It’s even worse when the author feels inclined to tell us, in the very first paragraph, about the characters’ occupations, appearance, relationships, and so on.
“Anna Wilkins, CEO of Anastyle, Inc, shut off her monitor, leaned back in her office chair, ran her fingers through her blond curls, and closed her sapphire blue eyes. If she had to review one more report from Mark Reynolds, her ambitious Director of Sales, she’d scream.”
“The clang of an alarm woke veteran fire fighter Reggie Borden from a restless sleep. He was on his feet, pulling on his work pants and slipping the suspenders over his broad shoulders, before he realized it had been a dream—a dream about Linda and that terrible day two years ago.”
Rather than making the reader curious, authors who start their books like this seem to feel the need to convey as much information as they can, as early as possible.
Resist the urge to explain, especially in the first few paragraphs of a story. Make the reader wonder who these people are, what they are doing, and why. The reader doesn’t need to know, right away, your characters’ names or what they look like!
I’ve counseled brevity, yet here I am on the fifth page of the essay. Guess I should stop!
In fact, I often have trouble with endings. I’ll talk about that next month.
a novel is an heroic endeavor. It takes not only imagination and
creativity, but also more prosaic virtues such as perseverance,
discipline, and attention to detail. Anyone who can generate 60,000
to 100,000 words without giving up in self-disgust has my admiration.
I’ve done it myself, so I know how difficult it is. Yet many
novelists quail in the face of a far less daunting task: producing a
few thousand words for a synopsis of their work that is often
required by publishers.
think that one reason why so many writers claim to have trouble with
synopses is that they may have misconceptions about what a synopsis
is supposed to accomplish. Also, this may be a forest-and-trees
phenomenon. Novelists are so deeply involved in the complexities of
their fictional worlds, they may have a hard time pulling back and
taking a more generalized view.
is a Synopsis?
synopsis is a summary of a longer work—for
purposes of this article, a novel or novella. Publishers have
different standards for the length and format of a synopsis. One
common format is a chapter-by-chapter summary, with one or two
paragraphs per chapter. Assuming 200 words per paragraph and 10 to 20
chapters, the length of a typical synopsis will be in the same range
as the average short story: 2000 to 4000 words.
should of course always consult your target publisher’s guidelines
before creating the synopsis. Some publishers want more detail, while
others may ask for less.
a synopsis is of comparable length to a story, the similarities end
there. A synopsis does not need to establish the setting, set a mood,
or develop characters. Fundamentally, a synopsis is about plot. It is
a prose outline of the major events in your novel. Your synopsis
needs to introduce and identify your major characters, then explain
what they do or experience during the course of the novel. Given the
constraints of word count, your synopsis should not include much
description or backstory. It does not need to create suspense. It
should never contain dialogue.
purpose of a synopsis is to convey information to the publisher (or
editor or agent). The synopsis allows the publisher to evaluate
whether the action flow of your novel makes sense, and whether it
will be of interest to their target audience. If your novel is not
yet completed, the synopsis also demonstrates that you have worked
out the resolution for the conflicts and problems that you introduce
in your early chapters. (It’s sometimes possible to sell an
incomplete novel on speculation, based on initial chapters plus a
synopsis. In fact, I’ve sold four of my novels in this manner.)
synopsis is part of your marketing package, but it is not intended to
demonstrate your fabulous writing style. Your sample chapters should
do this. (Of course, the synopsis must be free of spelling and
grammar errors, but that should be true of every bit of writing you
show to the world.)
synopsis is also different from a “blurb”—the
few brief come-on paragraphs included on the buy page or the back
cover. A blurb is intended for readers, not publishers or editors.
Blurbs (which I find much harder to write than synopses) must be
clever and engaging. They’re designed to hook potential readers and
to make them want to read your book. A synopsis, in contrast, needs
does not need to be particularly snappy or creative. Rather, it needs
to be clear and comprehensible, communicating the essential structure
of your novel while leaving out extraneous details.
to Write a Synopsis
are a variety of strategies that can be applied to creating a
synopsis. They vary somewhat, depending on whether your novel is
already complete or you’re writing a synopsis for a speculative
submission. Different strategies might feel more natural, depending
on your cognitive style: linear and hierarchical versus non-linear
The outline approach.
strategy works well for linear thinkers. Create an outline of your
novel. Create a major item for each chapter. Within each major
section, list in order the most important events that occur in that
chapter as sub-items. Try to limit the number of sub-items to three
or four. Focus on the one chapter you are considering. Don’t go back
or forward in the narrative flow.
you have your outline, turn each major section into a paragraph. Each
sub-item should generate one or at most two sentences.
result of this process will be a synopsis, but it may be hard to
follow because it is missing transitions. Go back and add, as
necessary, sentences that link chapter events back to previous
you have tried this approach a few times, you’ll probably discover
that you don’t need to create the intermediate outline. You will be
able to move directly from a mental summary of the major events in a
chapter to the sentences of the synopsis.
variant to this approach is to use the scene breaks in your chapters
to identify the sub-items. In other words, one scene will become one
sentence in the synopsis.
The Post-it Note approach.
writers do not feel comfortable with outlines, either when creating
their stories or afterwards. Yet a synopsis is, structurally
speaking, an outline. For non-linear thinkers, the scene-based
strategy, in particular, may feel terribly artificial. For these
authors, the Post-it Note approach may be more natural.
down with a pad of Post-it Notes. Start thinking about your novel. On
each Post-it Note, write down one story point that you think is
important to your novel. Don’t worry about temporal order; just jot
down your first impressions. However, you should try to focus on
actions or events rather than characters or setting.
until you have twenty or thirty items on your Post-It Notes. Then go
back and arrange them into the time sequence in which they occur in
your novel. Next, survey your notes and satisfy yourself that all
items are equally important. Try to remove items that are not
critical to the plot, even if they illuminate the characters or
perform some other narrative function.
turn each of your notes into a sentence or two. Fill in transitions
as necessary. The result should be a reasonably coherent summary of
the major happenings in your book.
The dictation approach
lived with your novel for a long time. Now, tell the story of to
someone else. Record your narration. Then go back and transcribe your
oral recounting of the tale.
they tell a story out loud, people often discover a natural ability
to select relevant detail and to focus attention on the essentials. A
real audience will provide feedback, in their expressions and body
language, that will help you to realize when you’re getting into too
much detail and when you are missing connections.
strategy is particularly appropriate for unfinished novels. As you
tell the story, you may find yourself making decisions about the
course of the plot.
Common Problems in Creating Synopses
are a variety of issues that can arise when following the strategies
above. Some of these are general, while others are specific to
writing synopses of erotica or erotic romance.
The plot is not linear in time.
novels contain frequent flashbacks that reveal information important
for future events. Other novels (particularly in the science fiction
or paranormal genres) may include parallel time lines. The guidelines
above suggest that the synopsis should be linear in time; how can you
deal with these aberrations?
recommendation is to linearize as much as possible. Describe the
prior events that are contained in the flashback before the events
that they influence. For parallel time lines, try to deal with each
one as a separate thread, and then include coordinating information
that helps the reader to relate them. This approach can also be
applied to novels in which several characters pursue separate
activities which ultimately connect.
that your goal is to explain the events of your plot, not to build
suspense or gradually reveal the nature of the truth. The sequence in
which you describe events in your synopsis does not need to match the
exposition in the novel itself.
this being said, there are certain novels—for
example, Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife—which
can be extremely difficult to linearize. Even this novel, though,
could be summarized by breaking its narrative into several phases:
Claire’s childhood, Claire’s married days; Claire’s life after
Many characters need to be introduced.
presenting the strategies above, I haven’t said anything at all about
characters. Yet characters are responsible for most of the events in
the plot; where do they fit in to the synopsis?
a novel will have a few major characters. Your synopsis should
introduce them as early as possible, as soon as they begin to act or
affect others’ actions. You will need to provide some description for
each character; try to focus on the attributes and historical
information that is critical for the story. Usually, you can sum up a
character in a phrase or clause. Once you’ve introduced the
character, get on with the action.
your novel has many characters, you may not need to mention them all,
especially not by name. Restrict your introductions to the characters
who serve as the engine for your plot.
Most of your novel is sex scenes.
many erotic novels, the primary action occurs in bed (or on the
kitchen table, in the shower, in the back room at the office, and so
on!) Clearly you can’t summarize the details of each scene, and
probably you wouldn’t want to:
sucks George’s cock until he comes. Then Roger comes out from the
broom closet and takes Lisa anally while George jacks off”…
if you don’t want your synopsis to read like a list of body parts and
sex acts, what can you do?
each sex scene, ask yourself: what changed because of this scene? How
did this scene modify the relationship between the characters, or a
character’s self-image? This is what you need to describe in your
synopsis; the sex itself should get no more than a mention.
may want to highlight salient points. If this is a character’s first
experience with BDSM, for example, the audience may need to know.
However, it’s better to say too little about the sex than too much.
Once again, you’re not trying to arouse your reader (the publisher).
You’re trying to convey information, as succinctly as possible.
Your novel isn’t finished.
can you summarize a novel that doesn’t yet exist? Clearly, you as the
author must have a plan for the plot, even if you haven’t yet
implemented it. This plan should be what you describe in the
worry too much that you may change your mind later about the details,
or even about major issues like the ending. Your synopsis is not a
contract or a commitment. Publishers understand that writers
sometimes have new ideas.
anything you write, your first draft of the synopsis will probably
need work. My synopses are always too long. I need to go back and
consider what can be cut. Another common problem is lack of
coherence. You need to communicate not only the story’s events but
how they are connected.
someone else to read the synopsis, then find out if he or she has any
questions. That will help you identify points that you might have
omitted, or areas that you have not clearly explained.
you want to spell check your synopsis and make sure that your grammar
is correct. With the synopsis, you are not trying to dazzle the
publisher with your literary brilliance. However, you do want to
impress the reader with your basic competence.
article is already much longer than it should be. However, if you’d
like to see some examples of synopses which have actually sold books
visit www.lisabetsarai.com/synopses.html. And please feel free to
comment or ask questions here on the blog.
By Sam Thorne, Storytime Editor-in-Chief
In everyone’s life, there is that special someone who makes you want to wring them warmly by the neck. In a good way, of course.
Of course, you can’t really throttle this person, drown them or have them forcefully emigrated. The legal system tends to frown on these things. That minor detail aside, you might be related to this person, or ‘owe them’ in some way. You might work for them. Or perhaps you’re under contract to share living space with them for the next six months. You can’t do much but survive these people, but you can put them to good use.
Your key characters (both protagonist and antagonist) need adversaries. I don’t mean villains; they’re in a class of their own. By adversaries, I mean secondary or minor characters who exist to:
- frustrate your main characters’ (MCs) aims
- show what’s important to your MCs by creating inner conflict
For example, our heroine—let’s call her Clare—has an anxiety about being late because she works in the dispatch office for the emergency services. To avoid the cliché of Clare having a jerk boss who will rip two strips off her if she’s late, let’s step sideways. We can create tension adding someone to Clare’s life who has this strange talent for making her late. I’m going to be mean, and give Clare a housemate called Lisa, who is a professional problem-haver:
Clare checked her texts for traffic updates and found one from Mark, sent just a couple of minutes ago.
Geoff’s off sick. Any chance you can get in early for hand-over?
She flicked a glance at the time—07:15—and bit her lip. So long as she got out now, and the A316 was clear, she’d have a few minutes alone with him before shift started. To hand over, of course. She thumbed back On my way and shoved her mobile into her back pocket.
Clare didn’t hear any movement from Lisa’s bedroom, but picked her way towards the front door nonetheless, treading only on the non-creaking floorboards. She passed the hall table, sliding her keys into her palm. She had her hand on the latch when she heard a sniff. Her heart fell.
Don’t look round.
‘Clare?’ Lisa’s voice had that tell-tale waver. ‘Have you got a minute?’
‘It’s just…I heard from Joe last night. He’s not doing well.’
Clare longed to be able to say ‘sorry to hear that’ and make a run for it, but Joe had been ill. And if it were her brother going in and out of hospital, she’d need a bit of support.
Suppressing the sigh, she turned and gave Lisa a hug.
This kind of sequence serves several purposes. Firstly, to show Clare letting her empathy get the better of her. To begin with, she’s a bit of a people pleaser. By the end of the story, she may find that she knows the difference between distress and emotional blackmail (in any context), and have a better handle on how to deal with it. Adversaries are good ‘showing’ tools. And they can be cathartic, too. Mix up the details of your irritating character enough, and you create a whole new person.
There are all kinds of adversaries. Your MC’s best friend could turn out to be an adversary, thanks to her pushy (but well-meant) lectures about following the head, not the heart. A brother could be over-protective. Perhaps there’s a colleague who’s unreasonably cheerful every morning, making the MC feel (and appear) irritable by comparison. Or maybe there’s a Dom who is only masterful in the bedroom, and hopeless everywhere else.
The extent and depth of the role these people have really depends upon the length of your story. But if there’s something getting in the way of your character getting what they want, perhaps let that ‘something’ be a person. There’s more opposition, that way.
So, how do you create these adversarial characters (ACs) without fear of being accused of writing someone specific into your story? Well, there are a few methods:
1) Next time you’re up at two in the morning, replaying an argument in your head and gnashing your teeth, get up and write down some of the things you wish you’d said. If nothing else, it might help you sleep better. Anger-induced insomnia is usually a sign of repressed resentment. Tap into that resentment more closely and you’ll find a golden stockpile of material for internal conflict.
2) Make a list of love-to-hate characters in movies and TV. What makes them so infuriating? Can you transplant that behaviour/trait to a different context?
3) Read books on coping with idiots at the office. They feature long lists of aggravating behaviours which you can apply to just about any situation. Some good guides are:
Dealing with Difficult People (Drs Rick Brinkman & Rick Kirschner)
The Way of the Rat: A Survival Guide to Office Politics (by Joep P.M. Schrijvers)
4) Finally, watch and listen to stand-up comedians. They usually have some kind of routine that kicks off with some variation of: ‘I can’t stand it when…’ If they make you laugh, jot their point down. If you can identify with it, so will many, many others.
But we don’t want to read about two-dimensional ‘impossible’ people. You can dial them back a little by making them supportive of your MC at unexpected moments, or by giving them frustrations that most people can sympathise with. For example, a cliché AC might embark on a political/totally selfish rant; your AC might get unduly enraged about continually finding tiny cars hidden behind huge ones when trying to find a space in the car park.
Now, take a deep breath, summon your imagination, and write a character who’s going to irritate the living daylights out of your readers. In a good way, of course.