story telling

Sex versus Story

Photo by Daria Shevtsova from Pexels


I’ve always been a story teller. I started reading other people’s stories when I was four. Without any particular prompting, I began to create my own. Of course, my dad served as a model, regaling my siblings and me with his wildly original tales of ghosts and monsters, and my early teachers encouraged my knack for narrative, but I probably would have written stories even without those influences. It’s just part of who I am.

During the third decade of my life, I began producing erotic stories – stories about the experience of desire, and its fulfillment. My own rather broad experiences as well as my still-unrealized personal fantasies inspired my early erotica. Those tales included a lot of sex. This didn’t get in the way of the plot or character development, though, because these books were in some sense sexual coming-of-age stories. They chronicled the heroine’s journeys as she explored and came to understand and accept her own sexuality – especially her interest in power exchange. In a sense, the sex was the story, the escalating intensity of the erotic encounters teaching the heroine who she was – a sensual, polymorphously perverse creature destined to live outside the bounds of conventional “morality”.

When I began writing erotic romance, the shape of my tales changed. Now the plot was about the development of a loving relationship, as is traditional in romance. Still, this was a sort of journey, and once again sexual interludes formed the milestones along the way.

In the last couple of years, I’ve been experimenting with a different sort of erotica: sex-first, over-the-top tales with many characters, all of whom are engaged in outrageously lewd activities with one another, without, in most cases, the societal whitewash of romance. For want of a better label, I’ll call this genre “stroke”, though this term has some negative connotations. The basic idea is to provide readers with plenty of heat and variety, without any angst. My Vegas Babes series epitomizes this genre.

It’s great fun to write stroke fiction, because I can let my dirty imagination run free. I don’t have to worry about delivering the sine qua non of romance: fidelity, a focus on the protagonists’ relationship only, and a long term commitment. Even when my characters are in love or married, they can enjoy themselves with other partners. Furthermore, I can mix up MF, FF, and MM interactions in the same book, a practice that romance readers seem to loathe.

So I just started a new stroke series. The genre is steam punk erotica, with tongue firmly in cheek. However, I appear to have a new problem. For the first time, story is getting in the way of sex.

Let me explain. My current WIP, set in an alt-Victorian world, follows the progress of a brilliant young female engineer, Gillian Smith, as she tries to win a place in the secretive Toymakers Guild, an organization that creates bespoke sexual devices on commission from the wealthy and influential. As might be expected from a group of people who design outrageous sex toys, a lot of carnal activity goes on in the remote Devon mansion where the Guild is located. Gillian is an enthusiastic participant – confirming the fact that she’s well suited to be a member – but her ultimate focus is on being accepted as an official apprentice, not on getting her rocks off.

My rough mental outline has her proving herself to the Guild, demonstrating not only her technical competence but also her resourcefulness and her loyalty. Along the way, she succumbs (willingly) to various lures of the flesh. That’s a good thing – I wouldn’t have a stroke book if she didn’t. However, my efforts to introduce the necessary characters and to sketch out the conflicts that will come to a head later in the book are making it hard to include as much sex as I’d like – or perhaps I should say, as much sex as the book requires.

As a rule of thumb, a stroke book needs some sex in every chapter. Otherwise, the folks who are reading only for the naughty stuff will start to get bored. But I find myself balking at the idea of throwing in truly gratuitous sex scenes that are unrelated to the plot. Even if I try, I can’t just write disconnected sex scenes. That’s not a story. There’s no build-up, no narrative arc, no crisis and resolution. And without those essential dynamics, readers who are looking for more than just sex are going to be disappointed.

Hence I find myself struggling, trying to figure out how to make each sex scene an organic part of the story, when for once my story is not fundamentally about sex.

Maybe that’s the crux of the issue. Perhaps I need to revisit my ideas about Gillian’s motivation. It could be that in order to make this book work, her journey has to become sexual, as much as emotional and intellectual. I’ve planned some femdom scenes for later – perhaps this book is really about Gillian becoming a Domme, not about her finding a place as a Guild apprentice.

Interesting thought. Maybe that’s a path to the synthesis of sex and story that I’m seeking.

Stories We Tell Ourselves

By Lisabet Sarai

Fantasy versus reality. This is a
recurring theme in our author discussions and blogs. As authors of
erotica, do we have a responsibility to paint a somewhat realistic
picture of the complexities of human desire? Or is our role to create
engaging fictional worlds and people them with characters who have
more and better sex than most of us actually experience? Should our
BDSM stories portray the actual practices of the kink community,
complete with negotiation and limits? Or should we allow ourselves to
descend into dark fantasies of acts that might be risky, even
physically impossible, because that’s what pushes our buttons?

I don’t intend to reopen this debate
right now. Even if you’re firmly in the “realism” camp, however,
I’m sure you’ll admit to consciously constructing your stories to
enhance their emotional impact. You introduce elements of suspense.
You gradually intensify conflict. Ultimately, you provide enough of
a resolution to give readers a sense of closure. This is, after all,
the job of the storyteller – to build a coherent whole out of an
assortment of people, actions and events, a tale that will linger in
the readers’ (or listeners’) minds and perhaps, change them.

We do this, often quite deliberately,
when we write fiction. But what about autobiography or memoir?

I’m currently reading, for a review, an
anthology of “true sex stories”. Each author has written about
some crucial erotic experience in her life, some encounter or
relationship that had particular significance. I’m perhaps halfway
through the book right now, and enjoying it quite a bit. The authors’
accounts are well-crafted, diverse, and frequently hot. However,
they’re more or less indistinguishable from the fictional erotic
tales that appear in so many collections from this same publisher.
There’s nothing about them that labels them as “true” or “real”.
They have been subjected to the storyteller’s craft, smoothed,
tailored, refined – turned into works of art.

Please understand, this is merely an
observation, not a criticism. As I contemplate the so-called true
stories in this book, though, I wonder whether the phrase is an
oxymoron, whether “story” and “truth” (in the sense of actual
experience) can ever coexist. “Story” by its very nature implies
an intervention to turn raw phenomena into narration.

Of course, many erotic authors –
myself included – mine their own histories as material for their
fiction. Much of my work is to a greater or lesser extent
autobiographical. A few tales (I won’t say which ones) are nearly
literal accounts. In every case, though, I’ve applied my
storyteller’s lens to the details of my real world erotic encounters
– bringing some aspects into sharper focus while blurring others.
Some alterations are intentional misdirections to protect the
so-called innocent, but most have to do with whipping the tales into
a more literary shape, transforming them from anecdotes to stories.

As I contemplated the phenomenon of
the“true” collection described above, however, I realized that I
do the same thing with supposedly accurate descriptions of my “real”
life. Between ERWA, Oh Get a Grip, my personal blog Beyond Romance,my publishers’ blogs, and my frequent guest posts, I produce quite a
lot of material about myself and my past. I know I’m writing for an
audience, and, without really meaning to, I adapt my life story to
fit my perceptions about what they’ll find intriguing. At this
point, it’s practically second nature to tweak a detail here, neaten
up an ending there, to heighten the effect.

I’m a bit disturbed to note that in
some cases, the stories I’ve told you are now the stories I remember.
I am not sure I recall what actually happened, only what I’ve told
you happened. In fact, some of my fictional tales, even the ones not
intended to be “true”, feel just as real.

As psychologist Daniel Kahneman points
out, direct experience is fleeting. Memory is an act of creation –
or re-creation – an effort to enforce some order on the fragmentary
impressions left by our senses. There’s no guarantee that our
recollections are accurate. Research has shown that memories can
be systematically manipulated by changing our foci of attention.

There are two ways to react to these
findings. We can panic, as the supposedly solid ground of remembered
experience turns to perilous quicksand. If we can’t be sure about our
own life histories, is there any certainty at all?

On the other hand, we can embrace our
storytelling genius, our genetic predisposition to rearrange and
restructure the world into some shape that makes sense, as a gift. We
all tell ourselves stories and create realities – whether we call
them fiction or not. That may be unsettling. But it’s also a kind of

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