By Remittance Girl
When most people discuss punctuation within the erotica-writing field, they usually send out desperate pleas for it to be correct. I’d like to underscore that; good punctuation makes meaning clear. Bad punctuation compels the reader to stop, reread, and puzzle out the intended meaning before going on. This kicks them out of the storyspace; suddenly they’re no longer in the story, but trying to figure out why that sentence was so difficult to parse.
This emphasis on clarity and precision, however, only addresses one of the two distinct functions punctuation serves. Yes, correct punctuation will help you organize thoughts, group them, indicate associations between them, and so on. But, along with the sound of words and their syllabic beat, it will also drive the rhythm of the text, the cadence of the way the reader consumes the words. I think erotic fiction has more in common with literary fiction and poetry than with other genres of writing precisely because the poetics of writing matter so much to a good sex scene.
If you’ve been taught writing in the past 20 years, you’ve probably been told to keep your sentences short and snappy. You’ve probably also been told to eschew too much descriptive writing, or imagery in the form of similes or metaphors, and to show instead of tell. It’s all good advice for journalists. Excellent if you’re a postmodern author who believes that all readers read critically, with one mental foot firmly rooted in reality, and the other judging the work in the context of the author’s past oeuvre.
My own feelings are that this imaginary pedant of a reader is a mythical creature dreamed up by jaded academics and snark-sodden literary critics. When I read, I want to be swept away. I might return to the book later and think critically about it, but if I start doing that on the first reading, I’m not enjoying myself—I’m working. Fiction reading should be, at the very least, a pleasure—and, as the venerable Roland Barthes said, at best it should be bliss.
This is particularly true of erotica. A good sex scene should take you outside the social boundaries, outside time or space or the confines of your chair. It should take you into the bed, the sand, the pool, or up against the brick wall where the action is happening—and if it doesn’t do that, it’s not a really well-written sex scene.
There are a lot of things that can spoil a fictive sex scene. As writers on this blog have mentioned before, impossible physical positions are one. Disorienting points of view are another. Comic euphemisms never fail to screw things up. Ridiculous asides that pull the reader’s focus to a distance also disrupt the experience. But one of the subtlest, least discussed elements—one that can either strengthen a sex scene or turn it into nothing more than a pile of explicit descriptions—is the sound of language and the flow of the writing.
There’s nothing wrong with short sentences if you’re writing a hard, fast, nasty sex scene. In fact, they can be very effective in that abrupt, jack-hammerish way that put one in mind of a dirty quickie. But if that’s all you’re offering your reader in a multi-scene story or novel, it can become unsatisfying—much like that boyfriend who never seemed able to last past getting his pants down and his cock inside. Too many sex scenes written in short sentences feel, to the reader, like desperate serial adolescent date-sex: it’s cute but not much of a meal.
To take readers down into the luxurious depths of erotic physicality for a longer period of time, you really need to think about using longer sentences. This is tricky. The reason writing teachers don’t like long sentences is because there are so many ways to fuck them up: readers can lose track of their object and subject; they can be disorienting if you hamfistedly tack on too many clauses; complex sentences can get mid-level editors riled up—they usually stick to what they know and cumulative syntax is unfamiliar, so they can freak. However, bear with me. As long as they aren’t confusing, long sentences can be wonderfully immersive, and they’re perfect for a hot, progressively built, sexy scene.
The technique for constructing good, long, flowing sentences is, as I mentioned above, called ‘cumulative syntax.’ Basically, this entails starting out with a root sentence and adding modifying phrases that help to build in more information, set up a rhythmic cadence, and strengthen your voice as a writer. Those modifying phrases can be tacked on before or after their root sentence, but readers tend to get a little lost with ‘left-handed’ modifying phrases (where the clause is put before the root). That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use them, but that you should use them more carefully. It’s amazing how lush a sentence you can build with the careful application of either type, or both:
Paul cupped her ass. (root phrase)
Tugging up her skirt, Paul cupped her ass. (Left-handed)
Paul cupped her ass, his fingers digging into her fleshy cheek. (Right-handed)
Tugging up her skirt, Paul cupped her ass, his fingers digging into her fleshy cheek. (building up a little snowball of lust here)
Tugging up her skirt, Paul cupped her ass, his fingers digging into her fleshy cheek, his hips grinding into hers. (Now we’re getting somewhere.)
You can see how, if we tacked on too many more left-handed clauses, the reader could get lost as to what the subject was—but as long as you build this sort of sentence with a critical eye, asking yourself whether the root phrase is still clear, you can really go to town.
Frustrated, desperate, tugging up her skirt, Paul cupped her ass, his fingers digging cruelly into her fleshy cheek, his hips grinding brutally into hers.
Yeah, I know. There are adverbs in there and some editors don’t like the present continuous either. Fuck ‘em. True, I could use the word ‘gouging’ instead of ‘digging’ for his fingers, but I think that would be overkill, so an adverb is appropriate here. Same with ‘grinding brutally.’ I could use a more violent verb, but I don’t want my reader to think Paul’s performing an autopsy.
Frustrated, desperate for visceral contact, Paul tugged up her skirt and cupped her ass, his fingers digging cruelly into her fleshy cheek, his hips grinding brutally into hers, like a man at the edge of a precipice.
Here you can see that cumulative phrases no longer simply modify the root phrase, but drift a little. We’ve gone from his hand on her ass, to his hips, but the reader gets it. Like the final phrase, they refer to the totality of the act in the root phrase. That’s fine. As long as it doesn’t get confusing as to what is going on, feel free to break some grammatical rules here.
Of course, I could cut this up into a series of shorter sentences, but commas are a way of inviting the reader onwards. Periods tend to make them stop and think. At this point in the narrative, the last thing I want is for the reader to step back and gain distance. I’m seducing them. My characters are about to get down and dirty. I want to build the sexual desire, the tension, the need, the drive. I don’t want to give my reader—just like Paul doesn’t want to give the woman he’s seducing—too much time to think about it. I want them to succumb, just like she will.
Next time we meet, I’d like to talk about why the sounds of words and poetics matter when it comes to sex scenes.
Remittance Girl has been writing and publishing erotica for over ten years. She teaches creative writing and multimedia design. At present, she is pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing, focusing on the possibility of eroticism in a postmodern society.
You can read some of her work on her site at remittancegirl.com.