Every one of us was born a sexual creature.
We all have that in common. Yet despite its vital importance to our species and our surface celebration of its sheen, as a culture, we’re ashamed to acknowledge the erotic underbelly that’s been a part of human civilization forever.
Sex and money are the driving forces behind much of the world. Both are buried in intrigue and mystery, while also being the subject of endless fantasy. Both are fascinating in some way to almost everyone.
Money is uniquely human — because we’re social animals who keep score re: social debts, and money is just a convenient externalization of that. No other creature on the planet has it, although chimpanzees do seem to have a concept of trading with each other, and chimpanzees in captivity who are given the opportunity to “pay” for things in experiments quickly pick up the concept. But every creature on the planet, including even some single-celled organisms, has sex, as do a majority of plants.
Every sexual encounter has the potential to be a valuable experience. Erotica offers artists the opportunity to create something good enough for a reader to add to their repertoire.
The problem is (and to my mind it’s a big one), the genre can be better. One of the reasons erotica isn’t taken more seriously is that, in its current state, it doesn’t deserve to be. There is an overwhelming heap of garbage to sift through, both free and paid, churning in front of the good stuff. I’ve found some brilliance buried among the mediocrity and worse, but nothing close to what the genre deserves.
Imagine if true erotic fiction had its place at the table?
That day will come, because our culture is changing. The line between cinema and porn is blurring more by the year. Interaction is on its way to cloud the mediums further. Erotic storytelling will become a new art form in the way that branching narratives for video games are right now. Both forms have been around for a while, but evolution in the medium has begun to demand exponentially more.
In the meantime, how do we elevate the average piece of erotica? How do we grow the genre incrementally so it deserves consideration as the emotion-in-motion storytelling it can be?
The first pen name I ever helped to develop was for an erotica writer. At the time, I didn’t care about the genre at all. I saw it as a curiosity and a shortcut into gaining insight into how the algorithms worked. Unlike general fiction, categories and keywords are king and queen to selling erotica. With short releases, we could tickle the algorithms each week, see how they behaved, then respond in real-time with our very next story.
The algorithms taught us a thing or two, but the real surprise came from the readers themselves. Sales were great, reviews were staggeringly positive, and we got a shocking amount of email that all expressed some version of THANK YOU.
This author had a rather specific aesthetic from the start. Brazen and unashamed, sex-positive and proud of it. We branded our line smut for smart people, and for a while, it did very well.
There were two of us writing for the name in those early days, me and a 27-year-old single mother who was every bit the author readers got to know on the page, while also being a minister’s daughter who could never, ever be who she really was in public. Her inner pain was obvious on the page, and readers plugged right into it.
My influence was there as well. I didn’t come from the erotica market at all. I wasn’t a fan, and in this case, my ignorance fueled me. Same as writing in general. Dropping out of high school was a bonus, because I learned by doing rather than having to unlearn the wrong or inefficient ways that didn’t work for me, even though they might have worked for some other dudes a few hundred years ago.
To my mind, erotica needed to not just be character-based, but we had to know our characters. We had to feel their need to connect, and crave for that connection to continue once their encounter was over.
That wasn’t a story-based decision, it was all about marketing. I wanted readers to bond with the characters so they would move onto the next story, but our style went against the grain of what was readily available. We were always more interested in writing about sex as catharsis or communion than we were covering the subject from superficial angle. At first we designed all of our stories to sell, but soon we started asking ourselves, How can we go deeper?
It isn’t always easy to parse erotica from pornography, and you’ll never see a universally agreed-upon answer because everything with sex exists on a spectrum. Still, there are some very generally-accepted definitions between the two. Erotica is more of a tease, whereas pornography is all about release. Porn is ninety percent the body at least, leaving little room for the mind. Erotica engages more of the senses, because it’s meant to stir your arousal like a wooden spoon in chocolate upon a stovetop.
You should always know what you are writing and why, as well as what your ideal audience most wants to read.
This is where we got everything wrong.
Our author had a clearly-defined audience. She wrote unapologetic erotica. It was sex first on every page. But behind all the sex there was a human voice screaming for acknowledgement. One that demanded to be heard and related to.
But despite the success, we ignored what was working and turned our back on what we knew. By trying to give our audience more, we ended up giving them less.
We thought we knew best, and by trying to “elevate” her work, we unintentionally told the author’s readers they were wrong about what they wanted. When she tried to write romance, her readers rebelled. They didn’t want all that story to slow down the sex.
And that’s the biggest lesson we ever learned. You must know what you’re writing and who you’re writing it for, because if you’re not satisfying your reader, she will get what she wants from someone else.
Below is a list of everything else I’ve learned about writing erotica, after hundreds of titles published. This isn’t an article about writing a sex scene, this is about how writing sex applies specifically to erotica.
1. Be confident in what you’re writing
Even if there is a line between erotica and pornography — your work is sexy yet smart, rather than base, or perhaps even perverse — you can pretend that it isn’t. Both forms of content are in the arousal business, so the faster you can accept that, the better your writing will be. If you’re trying to write erotica that doesn’t resemble pornography to anyone, you’re going to fail for most of your readers and likely for yourself.
Write what you would enjoy reading yourself and you’re more likely to craft something that naturally connects with your reader.
2. Stick to your perspective
I mean this in two ways. First off, your erotica should have a point of view. Sex is personal, and the more your reader identifies with what she sees on the page, the more likely she is to enjoy, remember, and perhaps even revisit your story. The more likely she is to look for the next one, or blush while telling her friends all about it. Understand what your reader needs and feed it.
But beyond that, also consider what perspective you’ll be telling your story from. The female POV is most widely used in erotica, because the majority of readers are female. This doesn’t mean you can’t write from the male perspective. Of course you can. But you should always have a reason for going against the grain of a genre convention.
No matter which perspective you choose, don’t leave it. Head-hopping is bad enough in regular fiction. It’s present in indie fiction much more than it is in traditional publishing, and often poorly done. Doing this will make your work feel more amateur, but worse, it will ruin the scene. The mechanics and emotions of sex are complicated enough without introducing inconsistent perspective into the scene.
3. Know your sub-genre, and the style within it
This can change from book to book, but you should always be aware of what you’re writing and why. First, you need to know your sub-genre, then what style of erotica you’re writing. Is it hard, soft, something in between? Is every part of the sex spelled out, or is it barely alluded to? Genre will have something to do with this, but so will your preference.
You’re writing erotica, but is it contemporary, meaning realistic stories set in the present? This was almost exclusively what our erotica author wrote, in both full length novels and shorter vignettes. But you could also be writing historical, BDSM, LGBT, paranormal, menage, fantasy, suspense, sci-fi, western, etc.
Then within your sub-genre, what are you comfortable writing? Single or multiple partners. Gay, straight, or other. Kinks like milking or edge play (this list is seriously infinite) or taboo interests from mild (infidelity) to severe (torture).
There are two considerations here: your interests as an author, and commercial viability. There are riches in the niches, but you need to be happy there. If you love sci-fi, you might enjoy writing about a human getting it on with an alien. If not, you’re less likely to truly connect with your work and that will show up on the page. You shouldn’t be writing about anything that’s a personal turnoff, unless you have a specific storytelling reason for doing so. Never as part of your brand.
The walls around erotica sub-genres are taller and thicker than in most other genres. This makes sense: sex is personal and there is no accounting for preference or taste. If you don’t know the genre, then you shouldn’t be writing in it. There will be expectations and it isn’t in your interests to subvert them. If you’re incorporating gay acts, strong genre elements (fantasy, horror, or sci-fi), or kink your reader isn’t expecting, she probably won’t respond well.
Regardless of where you land:
4. Don’t be afraid to explore
Erotica is a powerful art form precisely because it stokes specific desires and feelings in its readers. The genre is filled with taboos that people might not be willing or even wanting to explore in real life, and yet it’s satisfying to let themselves go on the page. The more direct your writing can be, and the more it can focus on a reader’s specific impulse or wanting, the more effective it will be.
If your erotica addresses a specific kink or fetish and does it well, then at least a small audience is almost guaranteed, since there are already readers searching for what you’re writing about, looking for new content all the time. Like porn, erotica is a renewable rather than a reusable resource for the majority of users.
5. Good erotica is about more than getting your reader off
Never be frivolous with your sex scene. You’re not aiming your iPhone and pressing record, you are documenting character motions and emotions. Capture what’s important and let everything else go. Treat your scene with the same reverence you would give to any other part of the story.
Know what type of experience you want your reader to have and you’ll be much more likely to craft it. We always wrote our erotica as if our reader wanted, or perhaps even demanded, a story to accompany their stroking material. Our author made no bones about the fact that she wanted her readers to finish her writing with a satisfied smile, but she also wanted their mind engaged before they started reading one-handed, and maybe even thinking about what they’d read once it was over. She always cared as much about what was between people’s ears as she did what was between their legs.
Your reader has needs that go beyond simple desire. Universal needs that we all share to varying degrees. She might want to be accepted, to be encouraged, to be validated. She might not need love as she needs to have a catharsis, or a place to admit that she’s not as perfect as she feels like she’s supposed to be. She might need to feel understood, or she just might need a place to express something that no one else in her life wants to hear.
Sex can be a form of self-expression. It can also be an opportunity to confront — or embrace — things about yourself that you’d normally be afraid to acknowledge.
Yes, sex is the key experience in erotica, but the sex itself should still stay secondary to the feelings you give to your reader. One of the most important things you need to realize is:
6. By writing an erotic story, you’re giving your reader permission
Permission to be who she is when the lights are off and nobody’s watching.
Permission to be a sexual creature who experiences pleasure.
Permission to lose control of herself without fear of being judged.
Permission to explore experiences — and emotions — she might not be ready to seek out in real life.
Permission to experiment with being someone else, and finding out if she likes that person.
Permission to find out what makes her body tingle and what leaves her cold, before she lets someone else do it to her.
You can never know what your story is going to mean to your reader. But by bringing your own enthusiasm for all the ways that sex touches a person’s soul to your writing, you’re giving your reader permission to go places she’s never gone before.
But that’s not all you’re doing. You’re also giving her a voice, through the characters and how they talk to each other. That’s why:
7. You need dialogue as much as you need dirty talk.
Dirty talk can clearly elevate a sex scene, but so can the right kind of conversation. Great dialogue in an erotic scene is no different than great dialogue in any other context. You should be using what the people in your scene are saying to one another to reveal character.
Verbal exchanges are an exciting opportunity to show your audience who your characters are, but actions speak louder than words. Dialogue should never be just about what a character says, it should be about what they do, or refuse to say out loud. People seldom say what they truly mean. This is especially true when the stakes are in any way emotional.
If two people are about to have sex, one won’t say he’s nervous while the other expresses optimism but confesses she’s been hurt before. If a long-married couple is fighting before they’re about to fuck, chances are they’re arguing about something a lot deeper than whatever the surface tension appears to be about.
You can use dialogue as an alternative for exposition, even in a sex scene. So yes, give your reader all the filthy language that will get her going, but never neglect the other words that will get her heart and mind working in concert with her libido. Use dialogue before, during, or after the scene. Wherever it feels most appropriate.
When it comes to dialogue, ask yourself what’s seething beneath the words themselves: fantasies and secrets, grudges and longings, memories and insecurities, power dynamics and control, of course.
Sex is a sensory experience, and the sound of language is important. But so are other sounds, alongside the other four senses.
8. Draw on all five senses when writing an erotic scene
Most writers know they’re supposed to write with all five senses, same as you know you’re supposed to show instead of tell. And yet, so many get this part of erotic writing wrong. Sight and touch are handled well enough, but the others senses are often missing, or poorly done. Sex is visceral, and all five senses are a part of the act that should be documented for your reader.
- Sight: Your reader wants more than a description of what your characters look like naked, or how they might be fitting into one another. She also wants to see beyond the obvious. Facial expressions (especially if one character is trying to hide it from the other), environmental details, and the fog of reality that can happen in the most intimate moments. All are worthy of your attention as much as the thickness of a cock or the curve of a breast.
- Touch: This is clearly the big one when writing erotica, but in a great scene, touch is always about more than the bodies. If your characters are having sex on the beach, your reader should feel the grit of sand. In a luxurious bed, we want to feel the cool kiss of silk on the lovers’ skin. Always consider how touch can take your erotica beyond the obvious.
- Scent: The aroma of sweating bodies, burning candles, or old leather — scent pulls your reader deeper into the experience. Even more than the other senses, done well describing a character’s reaction to scent can put your reader into the scene and keep her there.
- Sound: Dialogue is great, but it isn’t enough. Is there music playing in the background? How about noise coming in from the window outside? Is it raining outside? Is the couple having sex distracted by neighbors, roommates, parents? Are outside noises affecting the scene? You want your reader to feel the experience, so getting them to hear it is a great place to start.
- Taste: From sweaty to sweet, there is a taste to sex and including it in your writing brings you reader closer to what’s unfolding. No taste is universally loved, but if you stick to tastes that are generally considered pleasant (chocolate and fruits, for example) it will be relatively easy to get your point across.
Always watch out for purple prose here. It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that if one adjective is good, three will be better, especially when it comes to description. But concrete, specific nouns and powerful, emotive verbs should carry most of the action, with adjectives and adverbs used to add finishing touches.
Including all five of the senses will help to give your erotica the immediate it deserves by including your reader in the characters’ experience. But it’s also important to show restraint, and always remember that:
9. Less is more
Few readers are as interested in the physical mechanics of sex as they are in the feelings and reactions — before, during, and after the act. Remember, sex without emotion is porn, so if that’s not what you’re writing, consider that when it comes to description, less is more. Yes, you need to detail your characters’ physical pleasure, but steer clear of overly-detailed descriptions. Even the simplest sex scene will mean more to your reader if you’ve engaged her mind as much as her body.
Detailing every move in a sex scene is more likely to be exhausting than erotic for your reader. Withholding the details can be sexy, same as in real life. Think about your story as a striptease rather than someone standing naked.
10. Put yourself into the work
Writing sex is about as intimate as you can get. Even if the characters in your story are strangers to you, their experience will in some way still be influenced by your own. Find the line between fantasy and history. Use what you know or want or imagine to get a better scene. Even if it’s more difficult, get your DNA onto the page.
Find the line between what everybody understands about sex and what only you know because it’s part of your personal history. The work shouldn’t be confessional, and unless that’s the point of what you’re writing it probably shouldn’t be. But still, the more you’re willing to put yourself into what you’re writing, the better your story is likely to be.
If you’re writing something erotic and don’t find yourself the slightest bit aroused, then you might very well be getting it wrong, and there’s an excellent chance your scene isn’t meeting its potential. By contrast, if you’re courageous enough to put yourself out there, your reader will experience a part of your truth. Be brave. Making the erotica personal will help you to:
11. Leave clichés on the cutting room floor
This is no different than any other form of writing. Unless you are specifically trying to prove a point through their usage, clichés will always weaken your writing. You can get away from them in everyday conversation, sure, we’re all used to hearing them. But writing is supposed to remove you from the real world and put you somewhere else. Clichés not only remind the reader that she’s in a story and yank her away from the artificial reality she’s wanting to feel, it tells her that this is something she’s read before.
You don’t have to avoid the cliché entirely. If you find yourself circling an overused idea, ask yourself why that phrase became so tired in the first place. Clichés are shortcuts to understanding, but because they’ve been so overused they are often also the lazier route. But this isn’t the case if you find a way to rephrase an old truth.
12. Keep it real, but also remember that reality is overrated
Don’t assume that a pair of gorgeous people having athletic, explosive sex is what your reader is looking for. Erotica should err more on the fantasy side than a regular sex scene, but unless it’s the point of your scene it shouldn’t be entirely removed from reality. The best erotica lives in the sweet spot between fantasy and reality.
Your reader is a real person, and there needs to be room for her to exist in the story. How are you going to make your characters accessible, so that your reader can identify with the characters deeply enough to get immersed in the story? If the gap between who your reader is and who your characters are becomes too wide, you might actually be shutting readers out of the story.
13. Sex isn’t the same as love
Sex and love are not the same thing. They never will be, and understanding this fundamental truth will give your erotica the weight of truth it deserves.
Love can make sex great, but by no means is it a prerequisite. If you’re writing erotic romance, then you obviously want that component to your story. If not, tapping into the power of something more primal and driving your sex with an engine of lust makes a lot more sense, both for you and your reader. It’s a lot of fun to develop a character around the purity of attraction and nothing else.
The carnal instinct to have sex is powerful, and while love at first sight may or may not be a thing, we can all agree that lust at first sight absolutely is. Humans are struck by something about a potential partner’s face or body. Sometimes it’s all about the way they smell. Testosterone and estrogen levels surge — even strangers can find themselves wrestling with the sheets, bent over a sink, or up against a wall.
Love and lust can sometimes arrive in unison, but should always be an intentional part of the story you’re trying to tell. Never assume, not in erotica. Character is important, but sex comes first, and love, in your case, might not even matter.
Sex can make love more fulfilling, but not necessarily “better.” Inherently, the two have nothing to do with each other. Know what your erotica is working toward.
But even if there’s isn’t any love in the sex, don’t assume that foreplay isn’t important.
14. Foreplay is as vital on the page as it is in real life
Foreplay doesn’t have to be kissing or rubbing or fingering or stroking. It can be as simple as a walk or a craven look across a crowded room. Foreplay can be anything from suggestive conversation to touches and nibbles. But no matter what, it does deserve a spot in your story.
Effective erotica builds tension, anticipation, and drama. Foreplay handles all of these elements by creating a Bolero like progression of emotional action. The better you can do this in the beginning, the more explosive your climax will feel at the end — both for your characters and the reader experiencing the scene alongside them.
15. The more fun you have, the more fun your reader is likely to have as well
Same as with real life, abs aren’t enough. Yes, obviously the protagonists in your story should fit the fantasy in your reader’s mind, but understand that she’s imagining more than what the characters look like.
Ultimately, even when erotica is all about sex, it’s also about the characters. Ask yourself what characteristics are interesting to you, enough that they can drive the story and keep you engaged.
Humor, hobbies, belief systems, things they’re willing to argue into the ground. Secrets, bad habits, quirky obsessions. Getting to know the people in your story will make the erotica more fun to write, and ultimately resonate with your readers on a deeper level.
The better you know your characters, the more you’ll be able to color outside the lines.
16. Take as many chances as you can afford to take
Incrementally pushing yourself to find out what you like can lead to great results. Same as in the bedroom. Try new genres, styles, character types — whatever keeps you interested and writing better erotica. The world deserves a better breed of story, and since you’ve made it this far there’s an excellent chance that I’m talking about the kind of erotica you want to be writing.
You’ll get there faster by taking chances. Find what’s true for you and work to be as innovative and unique in your work as you possibly can be. Sex is sex, so there are only so many ways you can write it. Everything else, from character to sub-genre, will help you to write better erotica than you have before.
If you’re already writing erotica, work to improve what you’re doing. If you’ve not yet started, let nothing else stand in your way. And if you’re afraid of the overwhelm of starting an erotic novel, then stop fretting immediately and:
17. Start with something shorter
When I first started writing erotica, I just wanted to get something to market. Very soon after that I just wanted to tell a story. Because I wasn’t interested in writing a full novel — I was saving that was for “serious” genres like sci-fi — and because it was an experimental publishing play more than anything else, I started with shorts.
It was the best thing that could have possibly happened. Shorts, or vignettes, are the beating heart of erotica. It’s those moments that make everything work. In another time and place I wouldn’t have even toyed with the genre, but Kindle made it possible to publish a 5,000 word short story that I could fully invest myself in for a day, then move on from.
That was a magical experience, and I loved being able to publish something that felt complete to the reader and to me as an author. A story with a beginning, middle, and end, from introduction to climax and closure.
But there’s a takeaway here for all of us. Even once I started writing longer stories and full erotic novels, after I fell in love with the genre and was seeing it more than the playground it also was, these vignettes remained at the core of everything I wrote.
Now a full book is a blend of vignettes and connective chapters. Each chapter with a sexual encounter could stand on its own, with enough character, soul, and memorable sex to serve as a full experience all on its own.
I never set out to write great erotica, but I’m wired to optimize whatever I’m working on, and it’s easy for me to fall in love with a genre and its potential.
Erotica has been one of the most rewarding genres I’ve ever written in, and I hope that the things I learned writing more than a million words of it will help you to tap into something you might not have even known was there, and to share it with readers so you can make the world a better place with story.
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