writer’s craft

Through whose eyes?

Image by Irina Gromovataya from Pixabay

Of all the craft issues that bedevil new writers, point of view may well be the most mysterious. Novices frequently receive critiques that accuse them of the dreaded sin of “head hopping”, without really explaining what this is or more importantly, why it can be a problem. Blog articles about point of view natter on about “deep first person” and “third person omniscient”, confusing things further.

Even experienced authors sometimes mess up, producing slips in point of view. For example:

Horrified by her faux pas, Maria stumbled through an apology, her cheeks reddening and her lips curving into an embarrassed smile.

What’s wrong with this sentence, you might ask?

The problem here is that Maria, who is the focus character – the character whose point of view we’ve adopted – would not be able to see herself blushing or smiling in an embarrassed manner. Only an outsider, another character, could perceive these details. The point of view has momentarily slipped away from Maria. I could have said that Maria felt her cheeks getting hot, without violating point of view. But as soon as the narrative steps outside Maria’s head, the POV has shifted.

Why is this undesirable? We’ll discuss that shortly.

You’ll find many technical discussions of point of view on the Internet. These may be helpful, but in fact the whole issue can be distilled into a single question:

Through whose eyes are we looking as the story unfolds?

Characters provide the emotional energy in a story. In romance, especially, we authors want our readers to understand and to identify with the protagonists. A common way to heighten this sense of identification is to show readers the world as the character experiences it, that is, to tell the story from the character’s point of view. Strong and consistent point of view can bring the reader into the character’s world, enhancing the sense of sympathy and connection.

Clean and controlled use of POV also supports plot development. Plots often turn on various sorts of secrets. If a POV character doesn’t know about a secret, neither does your reader. When events conspire to reveal the hidden information, your reader vicariously feels the same sense of surprise or dismay as the character.

Does this mean you should have only a single POV character? Not necessarily. Decisions about POV characters should be based on the story you are trying to tell and the reactions you are trying to evoke. A common strategy in romance is to alternate the POV between the hero and heroine (or between two heroes or two heroines – the different members of the romantic unit). This makes it possible to show how each character’s feelings are developing. It also helps reveal misunderstandings or differences in expectations, upon which the plot often depends.

In contrast, a story with a single POV character focuses the reader’s attention exclusively on that individual’s inner life. Other characters act as external forces. Their behavior and their motivations can only be understood based on the main character’s observations, assumptions and judgments.

If you do decide to alternate point of view characters, you should generally avoid switching the POV too frequently. This is what we mean by “head hopping” – when POV shifts from one character to another on the same page, or (heaven forbid!) in the same paragraph.

An extreme case of head hopping can introduce serious confusion. The reader loses track of what each character is perceiving and feeling. I’ve read books with such chaotic POV management that I truly couldn’t tell what was going on.

Even if the story flow remains more or less clear, head hopping usually has a negative effect on reader engagement. As noted above, we want our reader to identify with the POV character, to feel what the character is feeling. Frequent POV swings yank the reader from one character’s perspective to another, interfering with the development of empathy and understanding. This diminishes the depth and intensity of the reader’s experience – usually not something we want.

A rule of thumb is that if you want to switch to a new POV character, you should introduce a section or chapter break to signal this. Rules are never absolute, of course. If you have a good reason to violate this heuristic, then go ahead. However, it’s important to consider your intentions and goals when you make this sort of decision.

What about the question of first person versus third person narrative? Authors sometimes mix up this grammatical issue with the topic of point of view, but in fact the two considerations are mostly orthogonal. Just to clarify, a first person narrative uses the pronouns “I” and “me” (or occasionally, “we” and “us”). A third person narrative uses character names as well as pronouns “he”, “she”, “him”, “her”, “xe”, “hir” or whatever. The selection of first versus third person definitely affects the feeling of a story and possibly the level of reader identification, but you can have either single or multiple POV characters using either.

As an illustration, here is short passage from my erotic romance The Gazillionaire and the Virgin, in its original first person mode, then revised as third person. This novel is told in the first person with POV alternating between the hero and the heroine on a chapter by chapter basis.

First Person Excerpt (Rachel)

I decide to drive myself, and choose the BMW for its aura of unobtrusive luxury. One look at my red Lamborghini, I suspect, and Theo Moore would run away screaming. Cruising up to his attractive but unremarkable building at exactly six, I pull into one of the parking spots labeled “Visitors”. My pulse, I’m annoyed to notice, is elevated, and my cheeks feel hot. Do I look as flustered as I feel?

A quick check in the rear-view mirror reassures me. My understated make-up enlarges my eyes and shrinks my rather prominent nose. Gold-plated combs sweep my unruly curls away from my temples into a semi-elegant cascade. Matching gold earrings dangle from my earlobes almost to my bare shoulders. My strapless gown of teal satin hugs my bust and hips like it was made for me—which of course it was. I practice a confident but non-threatening smile. Good evening, Theo. I’m so glad you decided to come.

The minutes tick by, but there’s no sign of him. Should I climb up to his door and ring? Or wait for him to work up the courage to come out by himself? Does he realize I’ve arrived? Is he watching out his window? Or cowering in his room?

I get more annoyed by the second. I am considering honking the horn, which I know will embarrass him, when he appears on the second floor landing. I recognize him by his height and bulk. Otherwise, he’s transformed.

In the custom tailored tuxedo, he’s distinguished and elegant. The sleek black trousers cling to what are obviously powerful, muscular legs. The jacket highlights his broad shoulders and trim waist. Not fat, oh no! He moves with unexpected grace, as if the formal clothing bestowed a sort of gravitas to subdue his usual gawkiness. With his dark hair slicked back from his forehead, he looks like some international man of mystery. The spectacles just heighten the impression of intelligence and sophistication.

Third Person Revision

Rachel decided to drive herself, choosing the BMW for its aura of unobtrusive luxury. One look at her red Lamborghini, she suspected, and Theo Moore would run away screaming. Cruising up to his attractive but unremarkable building at exactly six, she pulled into one of the parking spots labeled “Visitors”. Her pulse, she was annoyed to notice, was elevated, and her cheeks felt hot. Did she look as flustered as she felt?

A quick check in the rear-view mirror reassured her. Her understated make-up enlarged her eyes and shrank her rather prominent nose. Gold-plated combs swept her unruly curls away from her temples into a semi-elegant cascade. Matching gold earrings dangled from her earlobes almost to her bare shoulders. Her strapless gown of teal satin hugged her bust and hips like it was made for her—which of course it was. She practiced a confident but non-threatening smile. Good evening, Theo. I’m so glad you decided to come.

The minutes ticked by, but there was no sign of him. Should she climb up to his door and ring? Or wait for him to work up the courage to come out by himself? Did he realize she’d arrived? Was he watching out his window? Or cowering in his room?

She got more annoyed by the second. She was considering honking the horn, which she knew would embarrass him, when he appeared on the second floor landing. She recognized him by his height and bulk. Otherwise, he was transformed.

In the custom tailored tuxedo, he looked distinguished and elegant. The sleek black trousers clung to what were obviously powerful, muscular legs. The jacket highlighted his broad shoulders and trim waist. Not fat, oh no! He moved with unexpected grace, as if the formal clothing bestowed a sort of gravitas to subdue his usual gawkiness. With his dark hair slicked back from his forehead, he looked like some international man of mystery. The spectacles just heightened the impression of intelligence and sophistication.

As you see, I can describe exactly the same scene in either first or third person. In both cases, Rachel, my heroine, is the point of view character. Everything described is through her eyes. In particular, when she’s evaluating her own appearance, she can do so only while looking in a mirror.

Note also the way she describes Theo, the hero. She has theories about his feelings and the reason for his lateness – but they’re just that, theories. When he does appear, she doesn’t have much insight into his inner state – that can be revealed only when we switch to Theo’s perspective. On the other hand, she can explain how he looks and communicate her own feelings in response – an obvious attraction.

The observant among you may have noticed that there’s another difference between the original passage and the revision – verb tense. The original is in the present tense. We are in Rachel’s head, and she is describing her observations and emotions in real time. The revision is in past tense, which is a more traditional choice.

I personally like first person present for erotic romance and erotica, because I find it imparts a sense of vividness and immediacy. It’s tricky to write, though, and some readers object to stories told this way.

I switched to past for the revision because third person present stories are rare and generally sound – well, weird. If I’d retained the first person, the excerpt would have started as follows:

Rachel decides to drive herself, choosing the BMW for its aura of unobtrusive luxury. One look at her red Lamborghini, she suspects, and Theo Moore would run away screaming. Cruising up to his attractive but unremarkable building at exactly six, she pulls into one of the parking spots labeled “Visitors”. Her pulse, she’s annoyed to notice, is elevated, and her cheeks feel hot. Does she look as flustered as she feels?

I don’t think this would be an effective way to tell a story, but I hope this demonstrates that not only is point of view independent of the first versus third person dimension, but it’s also independent of time.

Next time you’re worrying about point of view, simply take a deep breath and ask yourself: through whose eyes do I want the reader to be looking? Let the answer guide you.

The Plot Thickens

Image by Mystic Art Design from Pixabay

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.

In Defense of Bad Sex

By Corvidae (Guest Blogger)

A few months ago I attended a local
science fiction and fantasy writing conference, FOGcon, held here in
the Bay Area on the first weekend of March. Although it is a
conference primarily about

speculative fiction, all sorts of
avenues within that genre come up, including erotica. I was attending
a panel whose discussion drifted toward themes in erotic writing when
someone made an interesting


Why isn’t there more bad sex in

Some people chuckled, of course, but
the speaker was serious. Her argument came primarily from a
sex-positive standpoint: she pointed out how many people build
expectations of normal sexual behavior on the erotic material they
consume, so for the sake of healthy development, it would be fair for
erotica to include “bad sex” sometimes.

But no one wants to have bad sex, the
audience murmured, so who would want to read about bad sex?

The conversation moved on, but that
question has stuck with me. The more I’ve thought about it, the
more I’ve come around to an intriguing idea: not only could bad sex
be abstractly beneficial, but it might actively improve the story.

How? Well consider the following.

Take, for example, the science fiction
and fantasy genres. We enjoy these stories for their hero/ines
overcoming larger-than-life challenges in worlds beyond our
imagination; in other words, achievements we yearn for. But how many
of these stories have everything happening magically-perfect all the
time? Where every battle is fought with top-score perfection and
every villain brought immediately to their knees?

You can write such a story, sure, but
odds are the reader won’t be as engaged as you’d like them to be.
The reason for that is so simple it’s stressed in every book on
writing-theory: Conflict = Plot. Without any conflict or build-up of
tension, there isn’t really a plot.

I just learned recently (better late
than never, really) about the old writers’ trick of adding conflict
by Making Things Go Wrong. Don’t just have your characters jump
from Point A to Point B, give them progressively larger obstacles to
overcome along the way. A fun practice technique is to take a
character and make her situation progressively worse and worse and
see how she deals with things to keep moving forward. These obstacles
make the story interesting, but they also help define your
characters, in that your reader will get a deeper sense of who the
character is based on how she deals with the challenge presented to

How does this apply to erotica? Well,
quite simply, “bad sex” could be an interesting tool to Make
Things Go Wrong. Don’t just have your characters jump straight to
putting Tab A in Slot B. Instead, try incorporating unusual
occurrences–physical challenges, emotional blocks, sudden
introspection, maybe even things as prosaic people barging into fix
the cable–and see how that affects not only the details of the
sexual encounter, but the internal facets of the characters

For example: the other day I was
reading a story by a friend of mine, Reyna Todd. Her upcoming
novella, Ghuulden Girls, is an erotic fantasy novella that plays
around with issues of gender identification in a few scenes. Though
it is an erotic story, one of the highlights for me was a scene where
two of the characters were engaged in much-lusted-for sex but decided
halfway through that it just…wasn’t…working. The aftermath of
this “bad sex” scene was some deeper introspection that led to
them both evolving as characters, as well as playing a major role in
advancing the overall plot.

Now, one could argue that these
characters could have gotten hot and heavy in that scene and also
developed through other, clothes-on methods. There’s nothing wrong
with that approach in and of itself, but I argue that, as erotica
writers, we can do better. Erotica already shows the scenes other
stories don’t, so why not take things even further and show how
those scenes–good, bad, and yes even

ugly–are inexorably tied up in the
stories of normal human lives?


About the Author

Corvidae is a biologist, a writer, and
a near-lifelong fan of scandalous storytelling. She is an active
proponent of sex-positivity, polyamory, and BDSM, both in her work
and in real life. When not writing, what spare time she has is
usually filled with yoga, dancing, and table-top gaming. Her first
published work can be found in the Big Book of Submission  coming out this July from Cleis Press.

Visit her blog at

She tweets at @CorvidaeDream

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