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Elements of Literary Erotica

bysr71plt©

Although there is no requirement to strive for the literary in writing erotica, if you wish to do so, and want to do so well, I think there are several elements you need to build into your story (which ain't easy). What is discussed here probably isn't a definitive list and may be an arguable list, but if the highlighting of these evokes thought or discussion among writers, the purpose of this essay is served.

Literary erotica is more fully developed than what we refer to on Literotica as the "stroke" vignette, which is a perfectly valid form of writing for this site—so this is, by no means, an assertion, that you "have" to write literary erotica. But if you do want to write literary erotica, I suggest you need to focus on three major elements (completed storyline, developed characters, and a rich sense of setting/time), which are good to concentrate on when writing any full story, and four "enrichment" elements (sexual heat, humor/pathos, surprise, and human condition profundity).

Before getting into the "dos" of writing literary erotica, it would probably be best to run by some of the "don'ts," although I don't think there are nearly as many of these—or that they are as rigid—as some of the others offering critiques on Literotica seem to think there are. I do think the grammar, punctuation, and spelling should be proficient enough not to intrude on the reading of the story, so I don't think those should be ignored. But perfection is unattainable and isn't as necessary for posting a story to an Internet Web site, I don't think, than it is to publishing it in the New Yorker (in which case, the magazine would be having it professionally edited anyway). So "get an editor" seems to be a good idea to me, but I don't see it as a show stopper to posting your stories. I also think the advice not to do a longwinded data drop of background to start off a story is always valid. And a common mistake of fledgling writers is to frontload stories with all sorts of unnecessary (at least at that point) material—and to include data that doesn't serve the story just to pad out wordage. If this is what you were doing, shorter is better than unfocused verbose.

Some of the other "don'ts" that crop up seem more conditional to me, though. The "don't use this or that voice or tense" seems capricious. A good story can be written in any voice or tense as long as they are consistent. It's also always good to show what you can too rather than telling it. This means that dialogue is important. But there's good literary erotica that has no dialogue in it at all. It's all a matter of writing well enough to bring it off. And the better writer you become, the more "don't" writing you can get away with—and thus be producing something new and different.

The glory of fiction is its variety and how a writer can creatively use the voices and tenses available to attain interest and fresh perspective. "Don't ever use bad grammar and don't ever give physical measurements" also fall flat in fiction in the realm of establishment of character through dialogue and/or narration.

I don't think many Pulitzer Prizes for fiction have been awarded to authors following staid writing formulas, and trend-setting best-sellers do just that—they set trends. They stand the expected on its head and flout the "don'ts," and they stand out because they do this well and get away with it.

So, on to what I think are the major elements of constructing good literary erotica.

First and foremost is that the work needs to have a complete storyline. Anything trying to be more than a vignette needs a storyline, so this is both basic and nothing special for writing literary fiction. The work needs a beginning (a starting place), middle (change of some sort), and end (some sort of resolution—or purposeful nonresolution, if that's the discernible point of the story). When you apply this to literary fiction, though, you would earn extra points by skewing this formula without violating the need to have all three elements. Literary fiction often starts in the middle and catches up with whatever necessary beginning there is as you go along (which, actually, is what is currently popular to do with any story). And, it's also trendy to start at the end and then move to either the middle or the beginning. This mix-up is often used frequently in literary fiction because it's hard to do well—which means it's also something to try if you want what you write here to be considered literary erotica.

You'd think that in erotica characters were very important, but, in fact, erotica writers often give them short shrift. There's actually a good reason to do this. If you want the reader to identify with the character getting pleasure out of whatever happens in the story, you have a good excuse to cut description of the protagonist to the minimum to allow the reader to identify more easily (which is also a good reason to use the first person voice). But in literary fiction, taking the time and effort to deliver fully developed characters is very important. You can get around this conundrum in literary erotica by keeping the physical description of the protagonist minimal (while expanding on what the protagonist feels and thinks) but developing the other characters really well (but in a balanced way—it's not good to provide details that have no relevance to the story. The important elements should all be balanced really well in literary erotica—which is hard, but you have to do the hard well to be writing literary erotica).

The last (and least, I think) basic element of a good story and entry point to good literary erotica is providing a rich sense of setting/time. The setting and time period are nice to have for good, basic stories—and, of course, you need to give some sense of that in any well-written story. But a well-developed time period and setting are earmarks of literary fiction, and thus of literary erotica.

To get all of these basics in, of course, you are usually talking longer than shorter—but there has been superior short literary fiction—so that's just another challenge for a great writer. In any event, if you throw in unnecessary padding, you may be in the realm of literary, but you are draining away your grasp on "good." Everything you put into a story should serve that story directly—if only to provide indirection.

These are the basics, I think, that should be there in a story (for anything more than a vignette, really). Moving into the realm of literary erotica, though, I think literary erotic includes considerable amounts in pleasing/surprising combinations of four elements: sexual heat, humor/pathos, surprise, and human condition profundity.

Literotica does have a section on the nonerotic, and there certainly can be literary fiction that is nonerotic, but, sorry, literary erotica requires sexual heat. You don't have to deliver on a sex act (or more than one), but you have to sexually arouse, I think, or you aren't talking about erotica at all. Good literary erotica, I think, requires an underlying fabric of sexual arousal. And to be literary at all, I believe, this needs to be tasteful, whether or not subtle. If the sexual element is crude, I believe you've lost all claim to having a literary work at all. The sex can be rough and intense and still be something other than crude, I think. It's one of those things, like the Supreme Court said, that I'd just know when I saw it.

One element I'm not fully confident in as a required element but that has been included in all of what I've read (or written) thus far that qualifies in my mind as literary is humor and/or pathos. Literary fiction is known for usually containing pathos, but I've just found that all good literary fiction I've read has included one or both of these elements. I'll drop this off my "necessary" list if I ever find something that I think is both good and literary that doesn't contain one or the other. So, why not put it in until the jury is in? Or take the challenge and write something really good and literary that doesn't contain either.

I don't really consider any story good that doesn't include surprise, some element that makes me go "wow." And I've always found this in any literary fiction or literary erotica that I thought was good. Why would we think anything was good that didn't make us go "wow"? Every good story has a good "hook" to it. This is usually the element of surprise in it. And it doesn't really have to be all that much of a surprise to the reader. That it's a surprise to the reader that the story delivered an element that the reader figured out as the "best thing to happen" is as much a surprise as delivery of an element that takes the reader by surprise. (But in both case the element must be satisfactory to the reader.) In my stories, I usually try to go for the twist ending. But there are other "hooks" that can be used to provide surprise, (But if I tried to enumerate them, they wouldn't be a surprise.) This is an area where the writer can show creative and superior writing ability—and set her/his stories apart from the run of the mill.

The necessary element to anything qualifying as literary, however, I think, is the element of including an aspect of human condition profundity. If I'm left with the thought that the story has explored or presented a basic element of the human condition that is greater than the story setting itself, I know I'm dealing with literary fiction. And it applies equally to literary erotica. This is what really lifts a story above stroke and into the realm of the reader shaking her/his head and saying "umm, profound. A real story."

These are the elements of literary erotica that spring to my mind. What would you add or delete—and why?

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by Anonymous05/08/14

Missing a crucial element

Let me say that this is a good essay. It's definitely possible to elevate erotica to literature, and any author that takes the advice in the essay will be well on their way to writing some. I particularlymore...

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