I generally think of fiction as being made up of four elements: action, dialogue and exposition. Exposition is often used as a dirty word by writing teachers, but I consider it a very big category. Sensory description can be part of action, and it can also be mixed in with dialogue, or even included within it (as quotes). But most commonly, sensory description falls within the realm of exposition, if only because it doesn’t fit into either category…and for me, adding another category for it screws up my idea about everything in fiction coming in threes.
Audacious erotica can depend primarily on action or dialogue, but sensory description is usually going to be key to the reader’s experience. It may be an interesting exercise to build an erotic story from just action, just dialogue, or the two of them. Chances are, if you can make it work, you’ll have an innovative story, although I’d caution against trying to do that in anything very long. (Structural experiments and exercises usually work best with short pieces, in my experience – my general target is a couple of thousand words when I try for stylistic innovation, but highly stylized pieces have run to 5,000 words for me.) Most of the time, especially if you’re writing novels, you’re going to need to rely on all three elements.
So let’s keep talking about sensory description for a bit – and what may be the most important sense to engage in erotica – sight.
Remember, there are five senses, with the sixth sometimes thrown in – I’ll talk about that later. I’ve already talked about smell, taste and hearing. They’re all critically important, especially in erotica. But visual description is probably the most important element in any descriptive passage. Vivid descriptions of smells, sounds and tastes can evoke powerful feelings of “being there” in the reader. But most of the time, if the reader can’t “see” what’s happening, you won’t even get that far.
What do readers want to “see” when they read erotica? The answer is, whatever the author feels they need to see – honestly, the reader is in your hands. The expectations may be standardized, but that doesn’t mean you need to stick with them. You can do whatever you want to do in a story, obviously, and whether it works for an individual reader is less important than whether it works for you (as a writer, and when you read it later).
But if you’re looking to strengthen your erotic writing, think about how your characters’ visual experience is being related. In this first column about visual cues, I’m going to talk about describing bodies.
Now, erotic fiction isn’t just about bodies; I’d even go so far to say it doesn’t need to be mostly about bodies. It’s probably strongest and most memorable when it depicts the brains and minds and souls and interactions of the characters, rather than just their bodies and how they fit together.
But any kind of erotica gives the reader permission to think about bodies. That’s where it’s okay for them to read (and for you to write) all those dirty things you wonder about other people. More importantly, in erotica the body is the way characters express themselves. Most of the time you’re going to need to describe them.
When I say “bodies,” I’m including faces, incidentally.
Which brings me to a good point. In non-erotic fiction, there are certain areas of the body that are considered appropriate to describe. These include faces, hair, maybe shoulders, hands, arms, and attributes like height and weight – not to mention clothes.
Describing anything else, in most fiction, is often considered rude, in one form or another. Sure, you can get away with it. But for many readers of mainstream fiction, it’s like using the F-word; you’d better have a reason for it. If you’re writing a mainstream mystery novel and a narrator describes the size of a woman’s cans, it’ll generally get labeled as sexist. But in erotica, it’s perfectly appropriate. Similarly, not going to find Neal Stephenson spending time on the size, shape and leftward sweep of a male character’s cock; if he did, he’d probably need a good reason, or readers would be left going, “Huh!?”
(Many readers are left going “Huh?” when mainstream authors include explicit sex or sexual description – but often, other readers will be all over it. Keep in mind that a little goes a long way.)
Anyway, in erotic fiction, you have carte blanche to describe all those sexual bodily attributes in tasty detail.
But as an erotic writer you shouldn’t just describe those sexual attributes. Describing just “the basics” about a sexualized character is a porno cliche. Read a few pieces at the Alt Sex Stories Text Repository (Google it – it’s highly NSFW) and get a crash course in bad writing (along with some very good pieces – but they’re rare.) One of the things you’ll see is a first paragraph that looks something like this:
“My name is Candi Summers, and I’m a college Freshman. I’m five feet, two inches tall, I weigh a hundred pounds, and I have long blonde hair, blue eyes, straight, white teeth, a tight, firm ass, and 38D breasts.”
Ow!! Ow!!!! For the record, women do not walk around thinking about their bra size all day. Similarly, hair color and eye color are not going to show up in a narrator’s description. But it’s not much better to deliver the information like this:
“Candi Summers was a 19-year-old college Freshman. Five feet, two inches tall, she weighed a hundred pounds and had long blonde hair, blue eyes, straight, white teeth, a tight, firm ass, and 38D breasts.”
It’s still information dump. The license to think about bodies, particularly sexual attributes, is one things; the license to describe nothing else about a character is something else. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with it, but it makes for cheesy fiction.
A more vivid picture is painted by lacing the description throughout the narrative, but if all you care to tell the reader about Candi is her height, weight, hair color, eye color, the tightness of her buns and the size of her knockers, you’re not describing much about her. She’s beyond being a flat character; she’s nothing but a target for your fantasies.
Which is fine, in some cases. Yahoo Chat? Sure. Alt Sex Stories? Yeah, that’s what people go there for. Certain erotica writers can pull clichéd descriptions off just fine, and still bring home a hot read. But commercial erotic fiction strays far closer to the realm of “real” fiction than it used to. Sometimes, it almost gets…gasp…serious. Even, dare I say it…literary! (No…I dare not say it. Scratch that, it just can’t be.)
However much of a sexual fantasy your fiction is supposed to be, people will hopefully spend a lot of time in your universe. If women are walking around with nothing but knockers, butts, possibly a nice pair of legs and a flat belly, plus floating hair and a pair of eyes hovering about four feet, eight inches off the ground, with all of it poured into a tube top, skintight cutoffs and four-inch wedge heels – well, then you’re really not doing your characters justice, visually.
Of course, descriptions of men in erotic fiction are always highly complex…not. Writers may lapse into descriptive clichés. The male characters may have raven hair, piercing eyes, strong jaws, and muscles up the wazoo. Their bodies may be totally predictable, based on the expected sexual attributes of the alpha male. And rather than being poured into tube tops or tight skirts, male characters may be placed in blue jeans, cowboy boots and shirts that suspiciously disappear when it’s time to pose for the book cover.
Which is fine, in some cases. But as with female characters, male characters in erotica deserve the same visual richness that they get in truly vivid fiction when the book’s primary action is outside the bedroom (or dungeon, back seat, strip club, motorhome, psychiatric hospital, mud-wrestling pit, conjugal trailer, etc…)
Writing and reading erotica is a license to think about bodies; that’s awesome. And needless to say, to some extent bodies are going to be idealized in your erotic fiction. But the more creative, unpredictable and viscerally visual your descriptions of characters bodies are, the more readers will remember what they did with them, and how hot it was.