By Zander Vyne
I edit professionally. When I ask most authors what the theme of their erotica story or book is, what I hear most often is, “Uh…sex?” Bad answer and here’s why:
Every compelling story has a theme, usually one tied to common, human emotions. The Shining? Ignore your problems (or try to hide from them) and they’ll come back and bite you in the ass—hard. Gone With the Wind? Don’t be so focused on what you want today that you sacrifice what you need tomorrow (because, Scarlett, though tomorrow might be another day, you may wake up and find what you want most doesn’t give a damn about you anymore).
It’s difficult to write an exciting sex story where sex is the theme. We’re all adults. We’ve all had sex. We’ve all seen it and read about it before. We’ve also all had issues in our lives that impact our enjoyment of sex. Those issues are always more intriguing than sex. I read and edit erotica, but few stories stand out and linger in my memory. Last year’s favorite, Normal by Charlotte Stein, is full of sex, but the theme is fear—what if you find you enjoy edge play a little too much?
Themes give us familiar images, and comforting signposts along the way. Think of any Disney movie. The stories might involve evil circus owners, or lions, or princesses with enemies, but they all contain elements we’ve come to recognize: abandonment, a happily-ever-after ending, mommy/daddy issues, fairytale and mythology touchstones. We plunge right into Disney’s world because so much of it is already embedded in our memories. Use common themes to help your readers fill in the blanks so you can focus on the meat of your tale.
Themes tie together otherwise disparate elements. With a firmly thought out theme, you can write from multiple perspectives (but don’t try doing it in the same chapter or section unless you’re an expert), in first person and/or third. You can flash forward, backwards or sideways and your reader will follow your theme breadcrumbs and walk away feeling as if they read one, solid piece of writing.
People like solving riddles. Drop theme clues throughout a story and give readers a chance to put all the puzzle pieces together. Our brains like figuring out mysteries and riddles. There’s a satisfaction that comes when we have one of those light-bulb moments and everything clicks into place.
Themes make writing stronger and give it direction and focus. The time to develop a theme is after your first draft has been edited; you should be able to pick up your theme’s threads as you’re reading your work for the 100th time. If not, ask why. Odds are you haven’t told a strong enough story. Last year, I edited a story for a new, unpublished, writer. It was a straightforward lesbian sex scene with some D/s elements when I started, but it became a story about taking risky chances, sharing secret desires with a partner when you’re not sure they’ll go for it. Once the theme was there, it was easy editing the whole story to incorporate more tension, fear, and jumping-off-a-cliff moments. I’m happy to tell you that the writer sold this story to a major anthology publisher.
Themes can color your story, and add to mood and rhythm. I often use colors as themes, because they evoke similar responses in people. Red is a favorite of mine because I write a lot of erotic horror. Purple is soothing and gothic and poetic. Black is edgy and mysterious. For examples of how color can be used to enhance a mood and carry a story, check out my latest collection of short stories, Amaranthine Rain. The title story uses purple to bring together third person, past and present tense, and to create a lush feeling to the whole piece. In “Souvenirs”, red is splashed over everything and contributes to the twisted, scary nature of the story. In the noir story, “Tricked”, I use blue. Red pops up again in “La Belle Mort”.
Moral of the story: Every story needs a theme. Find yours.