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Conflict and smut

January 16, 2014
Posted at 1:04 pm

I'm working on the next chapter of Not Alone, and wondering what fundamentally makes a great erotic story. There are a lot of people who have written guides about this (Ken Randall is the first one that comes to mind), and it usually comes down to the same things that make a good "normal" story: characters, settings, and plot. But can we equate the needs of erotica and the needs of non-erotic fiction so easily? There are a surprising number of people that will swear that they read smut for the plot and characters, but if this is the case, why bother going to a sex story website when you can read a nice respectable literary novel that is almost certainly better written?

The first thing you learn from any writing instructor is the centrality of conflict (think of the man vs. man, man vs. society, etc. schema you learned in high school). Conflict, whether external or internal, is either the motor of the story or it IS the story, full stop. And there's plenty of conflict in erotic fiction, including most of my work. But smut is fundamentally predicated on a moment of concord, not discord. Unless you're writing non-con, your central characters have to get along well enough to have hot sex every once in a while. And when they have hot sex, I don't really want to be reminded of the larger struggles that the plot is about. For me, conflict is a bit of a turn-off. Moreover, the conflict risks becoming eroticized and fetishized by that juxtaposition. There's a lot of crazy sex in my story Not Alone, but there are also some really toxic relationship dynamics. Am I promoting toxic relationships by linking them with crazy sex?

So how do we write erotica, then? Porn without plot? A regular story that turns into porn without plot at the drop of a hat? There's always the romance, in which the conflict is resolved by hot sex, but that can often be unsatisfying in its own way (and you don't get to the sex until the end! How lame is that?) A lot of authors use the internal conflict between shame and desire to drive sex scenes, and that can be very erotic, but there are only so many times a character can be slowly seduced into losing their innocence.

I'm very wary of any schematic instructions about how to write fiction, especially of the simplistic ideas you get in writer's guides and some creative writing classes. It's certainly possible to write stories, even very good stories, without a strong narrative conflict. Maybe erotica is the written version of the "cinema of attractions", in which narrative is subordinated to sensory pleasure. Or maybe we can develop new storytelling methods centred around concord instead of conflict. If we want to take erotica seriously (and I think we have to), we need to consider the ways in which it demands as a genre a reconsideration of much of our received wisdom and common sense about writing.