So I was talking with a friend about erotica — a real-life friend who doesn’t know I write the stuff. She was saying that her problem with the genre is that the number of possible scenarios is so limited and so stereotyped that it’s easy to get bored.
My answer to her was that she hadn’t been reading the right smut. But it got me thinking.
To a certain extent, it’s true: if you’re going to write a story with sex in it, it’s going to fall into one of a few broad categories: straight, gay, lesbian, or group sex of some sort. (Longer pieces may mix those larger categories some — though even then you don’t see it very often.) And then there are a number of sub-genres that will further define the piece: bondage, first time, dominance/submission, student-teacher, fantasy/paranormal, whatever. There are a wide number of subgenres — kinks, if you’d rather — but really? The pattern is more or less the same: desire is sparked, desire is tested, desire is satisfied.
There’s the rare story — Tess Mackenzie’s Suburbia jumps to mind — where satisfaction isn’t the point. But really, whatever the paraphernalia, most of the stories in the erotica genre follow some variation on that pattern. It’s sort of the Hero Journey of smut.
So what’s to keep us as writers — not to mention readers — from dying of boredom?
It’s the same dilemma faced by writers in every genre, I guess, including romance, mysteries, epic fantasy: you’ve got a certain pattern that the plot is expected to follow (protagonists look for love, detective seeks the perp, hero goes on a quest), and certain tropes that are standard set-dressing (ripped bodices, guns, swords).
In erotica the plot is Someone gets off. The tropes depend a lot on the subgenre: BDSM will often have whips, flogs, and ball-gags; student-teacher will have a desk (yeah: that’s me, busted); lesbian smut (whose intended audience is often not in fact lesbian women) may have a strap-on or dildo or vibrator or other pseudo-phallus.
So how do we keep our stories from going as stale as last week’s lottery numbers?
I thought about this for a bit, and thought about the stories that I enjoy, and about the writers who write them, and the best answer I can give is that what keeps smut fresh is the same thing that keeps sex alive in real life: imagination and specificity.
I mean, we’ve all read stories that lack either, right? Stories that are so generic that they could have been written by a computer. “He saw her. She had perfect tits. He wanted to fuck her. ‘Oh, baby,’ she said, ‘come fuck me.'”
(Use of the word perfect as a narrative description pisses me off. It doesn’t mean anything. But that’s a rant for another day.)
What separates any good story above that is the particulars. In a way, it is the lack of perfection. People aren’t generic. We’re each of us different, with different strengths and (especially) weaknesses. And so the more specific the story — the more it is about a specific man looking to be tied up in a very specific way by a very specific person for a very specific reason — and the less perfect the characters are — buffeted by fear and anger and jealousy and worry, but also by empathy and humor and… — the less we as readers focus on the shape of the piece, which will probably follow that spark/frustration/satisfaction journey, and the more they will be swept up in the experience that you as a writer are leading the characters through.
At least, that’s what I’m thinking today.