Yeah, it happens.
Your characters are almost life-like, your erotic imagery is on-point, but your plot is still blegh. The only climax your story has is a physical one. And unless you’re aiming to write a porn-without-plot (kudos to you, really), you probably intended to have a little drama in your erotic romance soup. As a woman, I truly do need a convoluted narrative to get off. For me, it isn’t enough for his abs to glisten: I need them to save the girl, save his mother’s house from the debt collectors, and have hopes and dreams.
It’s a problem I face head on: how do I write a plot to my porn?
So, personal confession – I struggle to write PWP. I’ve tried. But then my BDSM short turned into a full-length novel with feelings and a villain. But I feel I’m qualified to talk about the struggles of plot in romance erotica – I’ve read a lot of free internet erotica (both published and fanfiction) – but my plots truly suck. I hate plot. But somehow, my imagination always demands it.
I find myself with thirty-pages of fun-engaging exposition, then fantastic sex, and then…nothing. My enthusiasm is gone. The only tension the set-up had was sexual. What’s a third-act? What do you mean you’re supposed to know how it should end? I’m too much of a nihilist to say “and they lived happily ever after.” Bullshit. The dream guy and his glistening abs probably get hit by a bus two days after the ending, and she’s back to square one drinking margaritas with her one-dimensional best-friend.
Of course, there’s a lot of guides on the internet of how to structure a plot. And if you’re writing something in a hybrid genre, like bringing a little spooky mystery to your erotic romance or straight up porn, you’ve already got some great conventions and tropes to draw on for inspiration. I’ve done a lot of Googling lately in an attempt to salvage the structure-progression of my first draft of my BDSM romance.
Paint By Numbers Basics
You studied English/your native language at school. You’ve probably read a book. You probably watch TV.
We have Aristotle (apparently) to blame for the three act structure: the protasis, the epitasis, and catastrophe. Pretentious bastard. We all know early homo-sapiens invented the story structure. All fiction stories, the internet argues, have a beginning, middle, and an end. If you’ve seen Momento, you know it doesn’t have to happen precisely in chronological order.
Another dead guy you should direct your vitriol towards is Gustav Freytag. He was German, so you know he wants you to be very precise, or else. Freytag’s pyramid (although you might have been taught it as a squiggly line graph in school) is the shape your narrative arc should take.
I always like to think of television emphasizing in this homogenized little format – especially serialized nonsense like Law and Order SVU or House which you can pretty much set your watch to. They have their own conventions, but we’re pretty much wired to write our exposition, action, climax event, and the aftermath. However, the thought of writing to this, and to stricter act guidelines makes me bored as hell. But, we should probably pay some attention to them. Especially me.
K.M. Weiland has a structure breakdown that is a hook to buy her likely very helpful book, but it’s simple enough to spell out the rise and fall format your three-act structure should take (1). Other articles and resources do similar renditions of this style.
Your first act should probably hook us in, backfill to keep us engaged, have your first big plot point happen, and she argues, pivot on the inciting event and key event. If your character is a swinger, then your key event can actually be a key event. Hey. I had to click to find out what the heck that means (2).
But an inciting event is, for example, your shy Mary-Sue going to a swinger’s key party – but the key event is our hunky man-candy with the glistening abs picking her stupidly fluffy keys from the bowl. What happens after is because of these two pivotal ideas. Your first half of the second act is reacting to it. Hey.
I almost always have my first and second act write out just fine. I have third act anxiety. In the romance erotica field, I feel my only two options are literal climaxes or a variety of tropey romance/genre plots. TV Tropes has a laundry list to choose from (3). Admittedly, I love tropes. I love bad/good romance movies. I still think 27 Dresses is a terrific narrative, and deserves an Oscar for the Bennie and the Jets scene alone. They’re not particularly well acted, but damn it, I love it when people get a happy ending. They make me care about Katherine Heigl’s character.
Hugh Grant gets Julia Roberts, and Elvis Costello sings. But Notting Hill, 27 Dresses, She’s All That, 10 Things I Hate About You, (and I could go on), all have some element of a ‘classic’ misunderstanding, or a secret coming out. My favourite ‘climax’ might well be Hugh Grant running through London to get to the press conference. You’re on the edge of your seat. The Airport run inLove Actually.
But they have life. Well some. I think I fear formulaic structures because of the Mills-Boon-Harlequin romance novel effect. I volunteered at a library one summer, and would spend my lunch break reading the old paperbacks – you knew precisely what would happen.
Consequently sexy minorities and ‘savages’ are still my favourite slightly racist tropes. Admittedly Mills-Boon/Harlequin are poor examples: they won’t publish you unless you follow their formula. Their readers come home to a familiar place in with each paperback with some porn, a varied theme plot to add some thrill, and predictability.
“A sustained conflict between the hero and heroine leading to a Happily Ever After is at the heart of every story”
That’s an actual quote from writing submission guidelines on Harlequin.com (4). Sure, you can be creative with constraints, but eventually, it all tastes like predictable junk-food. Every Big Mac tastes the same, which is both comforting and sad. Since when did every romance have to end in happily ever after? (Although all my favourite ones oddly do).
There’s nothing I hate more than the idea of work becoming an executed formula. It’s why I love/hate crime fiction. James Patterson doesn’t even write his own books any more – he gives plots and outlines to a ghost writer (5). Not to suggest that his plot aren’t ‘good’, but when do you become a ‘brand’ and no longer an authentic craftsman? I’m still an idealistic woobie who doesn’t dream of success equalling becoming a ‘brand’ and a plot machine. But he makes more money than I ever will.
So what I’m really trying to say is, I’m terrible at plots, but they’re important, but they should probably have some life.
My favourite stories all sit with me long after I’ve put them down. But Diana Gabaldon’s Outlanderseries is one that has sat with me for a while thanks to my filthy, filthy grandma’s recommendation. But she follows a narrative structure, she has become progressively more formulaic in her sequels, but there’s a love for the characters, fairly engaging plot (let’s not talk about Dragonfly in Amberthough), and damn it, it’s not bad writing if I cry, laugh, and enjoy it!
You can deride erotic romance as cheap, but even Ulysses had a butthole kissing scene.
I’ve Lost The Point (Continually Demonstrating Why I Struggle With The Third Act)
Just imagine it’s like a really hip infographic below.
1. Your Plot Sucks
2. How Do I Fix It? By Checking Out Some Structure Basics Of Course!
3. Three Acts (Beginning, Middle, End) By Aristotle
4. Freytag’s Pyramid/Squiggly Line Thing
5. Weiland’s Variation on the Three Act Structure (You Should Probably Support Her Work!)
6. All My Favourite Stories Have Engaging Plots, and Life. Look At What You Love and Why.
7. You Don’t Have To Be Formulaic! Experiment.
8. Capitalism = Death of Idealistic Dreams
9. Edit, Plan and Rewrite To Improve Your Plots
Resolution & Denouement
I think the message of this is if you suck at plots, you should probably go back to third-grade short story writing, check out Freytag and friends, and look what’s going on in your own plot planning. Don’t be afraid to experiment (unless you’re selling to Harlequin, they’re harder to get into than Harvard*). The only guidelines you need to follow in the self-publishing world is what they will and won’t let you host on their site (bestiality, incest, poor spelling etc).
I’ll come back around to tropes and conventions as a part two, but I like to turn to the narratives I love to figure out just how much plot belongs betwixt my porno, and what makes it great.
Straight-up porn is easy, but just what are the consequences of the glistening abs having dreams? If we can take away anything, we should care and be interested enough about the abs long enough to pay some goddamn attention too. We’re all here for the porn, but it’s a lot harder to get someone to care about Mary-Sue, and her strange, strange journey as the hunky-man-candy/glistening abs from the swinger’s key-party opens a cake-bakery next-door.
I’m still not sure what the third act is, but then I suck at plots.
*Originally posted at bethcoxlove.tumblr.com on October 26th 2015
*Revised 13th November 2015