We’ve come a long way in this column: plotting erotica, creating realistic characters and writing provocative sex scenes. Now it’s time to look at what I think are three important factors in spectacular sex writing: description, action and dialogue.
While erotica is mostly about sex, it’s also a story about where the sex takes place, what happens between the sex scenes and what the characters say to each other before and after they get out of bed. When used correctly, these elements help deepen the story, illustrate character and echo the theme.
I thought I’d use a recent story of mine to illustrate this point. In “Finding My Feet,” two long-time friends meet up after a time apart. The narrator has a crush on her friend, Sun, but has never been able to express it. Sun has just returned from Singapore and asks to henna the narrator’s feet. As you might imagine, it gets hotter from there…
At its most basic, description helps your reader see the physical space that the characters occupy. But done right, description can also help your reader see the mental space that the characters occupy.
Here’s an example, from the opening of “Finding My Feet.”
I was looking at the tapestries on Sun’s walls, the fabrics she’d brought back from Singapore. I moved around her dining room, touching a red and orange fabric, a green and gold. A blue one that matched my eyes. I dared to imagine her there in the bazaar, touching the blue and buying it, thinking of me.
So, in this small section of description, we get a clear view of the important physical part of this room — namely, the part that’s changed since last time the narrator was here. We also learn the narrator’s eye color in a way that’s so subtle I almost missed it myself the first time around!
We also come to understand the mental landscape of the story: where Sun has been, what she brought back, how comfortable the narrator is moving around this space and’most importantly — we get a glimpse of the narrator’s longing for her friend. The tapestries come back in later as well, when Sun gives the narrator a gift from the bazaar that’s even better than the blue tapestry.
Compare that with a description that focuses solely on the exterior: I looked at the tapestries on Sun’s walls. I touched a red and orange fabric, a green and gold. A blue one.
It’s easy to see that with just a few additional words, you can paint a more complex interior and exterior landscape for the reader. Thus, I try to make sure that my descriptions — from the weather and the room temperature to the objects and the characters — do double-duty.
When I say action here, I don’t just mean sex action. I mean any kind of movement, whether it’s getting your characters from one place to another or rearranging their bodies on the bed. Imagine they’re bendable dolls in a dollhouse — anytime you need to reach in and rearrange their arms or make them kiss each other or fall onto the floor in a heap, that’s action.
To me, the purpose of action is two-fold. First, it creates a mental picture in the reader’s mind. And second, it shows us something additional about the characters or their situation.
Here’s an example from the story. Sun has made herself vulnerable by showing the narrator the henna kit and asking if she can henna her feet. The narrator laughs, not at the request, but at the absurdity of the situation. Here’s Sun’s reaction, with the explanation in parentheses.
Sun pulled her hands out from under mine, leaving only cold air. She put the bottle back on the silver tray.
(This is Sun’s retreat from the narrator’s laughter. She takes away her hands and her henna kit, leaving the narrator “cold.”
“You’re right,” she said as she lifted the tray from the table. “I’m sorry, that was stupid. Let’s just have our chai. You can tell me about the teaching, how that’s going.”
(This is a similar action to the first graph, but the semi-repetition works to slow the action down so that the narrator has time to act, if she chooses to. It also puts physical distance between the two women that echoes the emotional distance.).
“Sun, wait.” I reached for Sun’s hand, for her arm, but only caught the corner of the tray. Liquid splashed onto the silver, sending up the sweet scent of lemon and sugar between us.
(Here, the narrator acts. It’s almost too late, which is a theme that runs through the story, and she makes a mess of it. And yet, there’s redemption in the end for her attempt: the sweet scent that arises and connects the two women).
It really is about the details you choose to show the reader. Imagine if I’d written the scene with more general details:
Sun pulled her hands out from under mine and stepped away from the table.
“You’re right,” she said as she moved away.
“Sun, wait.” I reached for Sun’s hand, but missed.
It alters the focus slightly, doesn’t it? Instead of focusing on the almost-missed opportunity for connection, it shifts the attention to the gulf between them and, without the henna kit, we lose a lot of sensory details.
Writing great dialogue is a tricky thing — dialogue has to sound like real people talking while still doing a great deal of work.
For me, dialogue has to do one (or more) of the following:
1. Move the story forward
2. Show character
3. Create an emotion in the reader
I know there are a lot of “rules” out there about writing dialogue, such as you’re not supposed to include the “ums” or one person saying another’s name. For me, those rules can be broken as long as my dialogue does one of the things above.
Here’s another example from the story. Sun has just hennaed the narrator’s feet and they’re hanging out together in her living room.
“Sun,” I said. My eyes focused on my new feet. Sometimes you changed one thing and the whole world looked different.
(Even though she only says Sun’s name, this dialogue actually moves the story forward, because it asks the reader to pay attention in the same way the narrator is asking Sun to pay attention.)
“Hmm?” she said.
(Sun’s response, which shows her mental state. She’s comfortable, she’s kind of paying attention, but not really. She’s also the most talkative between the two, so it would be unusual for her not to say something).
“Have you ever, you know, liked a girl?” I wanted to stop talking as soon as I started, but words, you can never take them back.
(Tension, which always moves the story forward and often evokes an emotion for the reader. It also shows that the narrator’s nervous and unsure.).
Sun was smarter than I was. I’d known that for a long time. She didn’t say anything.
(Believe it or not, I consider this to be dialogue. Sun makes a choice not to respond, which moves the story forward and shows her character, especially since it’s been established that she’s the talkative one).
Yes, it’s true: the focus of good erotica is the sex. But without description, action and dialogue the story falls flat. By giving these three elements the attention they deserve you can give your stories the kind of depth that will make readers lust after your characters, and care about them too.
More Sources for the Rest of the Story:
- What is a Short Story, by Marion Zimmer Bradley
- Speaking of Dialogue, by Robert J. Sawyer
- Creating Dynamic Dialogue, by Will Greenway
“Sexy on the Page” © 2007 Shanna Germain. All rights reserved.