Yes, it still sucks.
If you read Part One to this discussion, you already know I’m terrible at plotting in romance erotica, and my struggles with the third-act. This addresses planning, conflicts, my fear of formulas, and genre expectations.
You’re probably not writing the next great American novel – people probably won’t hail your cake-bakery romance as the next Grapes of Wrath (which is terribly sad). You don’t need to reinvent the wheel, a sturdy wheel will do. On my journey thus far figuring out just how much plot belongs in romance erotica, I’ve decided that there needs to be a counterbalance – especially if your selling point to your readers is some hot, engaging smut. They want just enough to support the work, but in doing this, you can have fun, you can make us love and care about Emily, and you can insert a narrative about a sentient chair if you want to.
But you’re still selling something – and when we pick a book, you need to pay off the genre and plot promises you make.
But if I want plot beyond sex, what are my options?
Basic Plot Complications
The Secret, The Misunderstanding, and The ‘Villain’
I feel that the third-act options in romance erotica is limited to literal climaxes, and tropey romance premise plots. But my biggest point of pained terror is that all my favourite romance movies have a misunderstanding between the heroine and the hero as the third-act complication. Oh no! My secret came out! Heath Ledger was being paid to date me/he made a bet to make me prom queen/he published an article about me and my creepy bridesmaid dresses/she’s really married/you’re a mermaid?! etc. They all play on betrayal of some kind because of a convenient lack of communication.
It’s resolved however in the third-act through forgiveness/explanation and everyone gets to live happily ever after (for ten minutes, probably, Ariel you don’t even know that guy).
Lying about who you are = true love
Of course, as I wrote this out, I realized I’m a giant idiot. Misunderstandings aren’t our only options! I also love some great movies with an external villain plot working to keep our hero and heroine apart. Disney does this great. Sometimes they even mash the two together to make a super-hybrid-misunderstanding-villain-plot! I’m looking at you Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and Mulan (albeit it might be the only film where the villain wants more than our hero/heroine dead – he just wants to take over China).
The only problem with villains in ‘realist’ fiction is that there aren’t a lot of black-and-white evil people out there plotting to hurt us. Our monsters are just people. But there are external pressures standing between you and I everyday and romance: reality, work, location, family, values, a war, ego, mental illness, my ex-wife, my evil teenager, societal pressures, the government, zombies, Hitler, ourselves (looking at you Edward), drug addiction, deportation, serial killers, cars, and killer bees.
What I suppose I’m asking is about the kind of conflicts that should tent-pole my erotica – enough to keep the reader engaged, but not at the expense of what I’m selling them.
I talked before about formulaic writing, maybe at the offense of some Mills-Boon/Harlequin writers (take satisfaction, you’re published and I’m not – you’re doing something pretty great regardless. You can still do a lot working within a formula). It’s only that I fear the fine line between too-experimental crap, and churning out something lifeless. Not that yours is lifeless/cliche, but just like you, I fear that tweeted review that says: “cliché crap, why do you even bother?”. We all want our work to be great, strive for to better ourselves, and seek at least some kind of personal/external success. You’ll always have cruel critics no matter what job you work, but you want to do your best.
Plots, Genre Expectations and What Sells
Part of me thinks this only further complicates, rather than clarifies, just how much plot belongs in my romance erotica: but genre always makes a promise to a reader. When I talk about romance erotica, you know I’m what I’m talking about. If I want to locate myself in that category, my story must have two things: scenes and/or a theme of an erotic nature, and a romance. It doesn’t have to end in a happy ending, but a romance needs to be there.
But under that umbrella comes a diverse range of possible stories, and genre mixes you can turn to like comedy, mystery, horror, action, adventure, historical, time-travel, science fiction, crime, and fantasy. All these categories make more interesting promises about what you can expect.
We could get into a Russian Doll situation of sub-genres within genres, but it comes back to one thing: when readers are checking out books in a book shop or online category subsection, there are certain expectations a book belonging to it immediately. I’m guilty of returning to genre’d spaces because I like, say, fantasy novels. Heck, I watch cheesy romance movies specifically for the cheesy use of cliché, but again, a successful story will make me care.
I saw Magic Mike for Valentine’s Day a few years ago, and this is important. It was sold to me, and my girlfriends, as a fun, raunchy movie about men taking their clothes off. We were so distracted by advertisements of rippling abs, and thumping club music, it didn’t occur that the movie would have a story to tell we didn’t expect. The result left us feeling bad-touched. I finally understood what it was like to be a man who felt ‘tricked’. I felt sick with me. This wasn’t a fun, rollicking romp. This was a cautionary tale about capitalism, exploitation, drug addiction, sex-worker discrimination, people who lie to us, friendship, and when to say enough, this isn’t who I want to be.
Sexy men are people too!
We sat through the second half with WTF etched on our faces. This wasn’t what we came for. This wasn’t what was promised when we looked at the poster with glistening abs. But when I bucked up the courage to watch it a year later, I knew what was waiting for me, and I had a damn good time because I knew now it wasn’t a sexy, fun story. Quit it with your objectifying female-gaze.
A friend of a friend of mine writes pure erotica quite successfully. She argues that there are only a couple of sub-erotica genres that really sell, and people will look for them every time. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel – a sturdy structure that looks and talks like a wheel will do just fine.
We seek out erotic romances, I think, under similar circumstances. We know what we want to read about, what intrigues us, and sometimes that’s cliché fantasy about an Alpha Male Billionaire who knows how to sex good. Erotic romance is read largely by straight women. We like a gimmick: strippers, vampires, werewolves, the Amish, Billionaires, teachers, cowboys etc. Don’t be afraid to give it to us.
But even if this helps focus what kind of plot you want your erotica tent-poled by, what does your third-act look like? What is my conflict? Without conflict, it’s just a porn scene with an Alpha Male Billionaire.
You’re Terrible At Planning and Aristotle Knows
In my search to solve my third-act pay-off perils, I did some reading. Mia Botha wrote something that fascinated me: she writes the ending first (1). It’s the first time anything has actually made any sense sifting through the writing tips articles online. She says a lot of other very simple, but well explained ideas about writing an ending. But it’s never really occurred to me to write, of all things, the ending first.
This is where I’m going so wrong.
I probably should have listened to my heart and not the economic climate and studied writing at university. But then if I hadn’t made this fatal mistake I never would have learned how to be things other than a writer.
Do I know how I want it to end? I know, of course, in the abstract sense. I’m an idealistic nihilist: I usually want them to ride off happily into the sunset in an imperfect world. I want most things to be okay for them, even if we can’t stop the Russian revolution.
As readers, we usually want a happy, or at least satisfactory ending. This is, of course, where the plot, genre expectations, and conflicts are supposed to pay off. Readers buy a whole book, not 2/3rds of one. A well-written, thought out ending will probably leave me with more satisfied book-buyers, and readers.
I’ve never been a very good planner. I’ve always had to write to develop my ideas, and ask questions like, ‘where is this story going?’. I suppose that’s okay – but this time, before I do a rewrite, I’m going to take a much harder look at working back from my desired ending.
Back To the Point Summary
*My Porn-With-Plot Plotting Sucks
*How Much Plot Belongs? Enough To Keep Us Engaged and Caring
*Third Act Conflict Options: The Secret, The Misunderstanding, and the ‘Villain’
* Speak To Genre Expectations, Subvert (or Don’t) Cliché Romance Plots, and Look at What People Really Want To Read About
*Plan, Plan, Plan.
Q: So, how much plot should exist betwixt my porno?
A: Enough to make it an engaging read.
I talked in part one about how caring and investment is so important, even in cliché plots.
Even though there are seemingly three ways of finding conflict for your third-act, it doesn’t mean you can’t make it exciting. Secondly, your genre is making a promise – your plotting should follow through on it. This is especially key for endings – I can’t really think of a romance movie or book that hasn’t given me a big love as promised. They might live happily ever after, or take a dirt-nap together, or she/he might die, but they get their big love. It’s beautiful, you weep, and turn to your snoring significant other and say, “I wish you loved me like that.” Your significant other is a cat.
So if your plot sucks as much as mine: plan, make us care, work back from the ending, and if you make a genre promise, give it to us.
*Originally posted at bethcoxlove.tumblr.com on October 29th 2015