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In his answer to my previous question, @Standback distinguishes two types of erotic storyline:

  1. stories in which the stakes are romantic or sexual

  2. stories in which the stakes are neither romantic nor sexual (e.g. an erotic thriller)

In an erotic novel, where the stakes are romantic or sexual – i.e. the story develops (to use @Standback's examples):

  • from the first desire to consummation or
  • from loveless sex to romantic love or
  • from a lack of sexual experience to sexual empowerment

– what can cause conflict?

It seems to me that the development of a purely erotic plot, that is, a plot where the erotic storyline is not put into the context of a thriller, horror, romance (where a rival or differences in class stand between the lovers), or other non-sexual storyline, must lack all turning points and therefore all suspense.

Like the building of a house, unless you add an earthquake or financial crisis, a purely erotic storyline will unerringly build towards its climax. A purely sexual relationship will turn into love from time spent together alone, if love is at all possible. A person with no sexual experience will gain it if they have sex and nothing can keep that person from acquiring experience. Only the desire for consummation can fail because of one partner's shyness, and then the antagonist is that person's fear. In all other cases:

What causes conflict in a purely erotic storyline?


I'd like to repeat and emphasize that in the context of this question a "purely erotic story" is one where the protagonists aren't hindered from achieving their goals by external obstacles such as rivals or social segregation, as they commonly are in romance novels.

In a "purely erotic story", the obstacles and conflict are erotic or sexual.


I want to write an erotic novel (which does not contain rape) and am currently brainstorming story ideas. To better understand erotic storytelling, I wanted to understand which aspects are actually erotic in essence and which are not essentially erotic but sexualized. I want to try and build a purely erotic story fundament and then see whether I want or need to add non-erotic elements to that. If this approach doesn't work, I'll try another one. It is a writing experiment that I undertake to learn.

You may have a different concept of what is and what isn't erotic to you, but for the purpose of my question regarding my writing experiment, if you attempt an answer please respect the definitions I have given.

I'll try and explain my concept of "purely erotic" in more detail.

We can consider erotica as a continuum from stories that are purely sexual to stories that contain nothing sexual. On the one end of this continuum are depictions of sexual acts without any narrative as we find them in some pornographic movies. On the other end are stories without human relationships like some hard science short stories. In between, there are stories with differing amounts of sensuality, eroticism, and sex. And somewhere towards the pornographic end, there is a transition from stories that contain a non-sexual narrative to stories that are purely sexual:

  1. Stories without sensuality, eroticism, or sex.

  2. Stories about primarily non-sexual matters (a criminal case, a law suit, future technological development, history, family problems, etc.) with differing amounts of sensuality, eroticism, or sex.

  3. Stories about love, eroticism, and sex with differing amounts of non-sexual narrative (e.g. an erotic thriller or an erotic romance).

  4. Stories with a sexual or erotic narrative but without any (significant) non-sexual narrative elements. These are the "purely erotic stories" that we seek!

  5. Depictions of sex without any narrative.

To better understand the distinctions between the third, fourth, and fifth story categories, let's define them in more detail and give some examples:

5. Depictions of sex without any narrative

This category is defined by the presence of sex and the absence of any narrative elements, sexual or non-sexual. Example:

  • a porn clip that shows two people having sex; nothing else happens

3. Stories about sex with a non-sexual narrative

In this category, sex and eroticism are the main topics or themes of the story. The stories are about sex. But they contain non-sexual narrative elements which could also be told without their sexual or erotic turn. Example:

  • a character desires sex with another character, but that other character desires sex with a third character.

This rival/triangle story can also be told without a sexual or erotic turn, for example: A child wants to be friends with another child, but that child is already best friends with a third child and seems to be disinterested. Here we have the same rival/triangle story, but without the sex.

  • a character can stop time with her orgasms

This story can be told without the sexual turn, for example: A character can stop time with a technological device or with a spell from a grimoire. Here we have the time-stopping story, but without the sex.

In stories about sex with a non-sexual narrative, the connection between the sexual and the non-sexual narrative is not necessary. The non-sexual narrative can be told wihout sexualisation.

4. Stories with only a sexual narrative = "purely erotic stories"

In these stories, the narrative cannot be told without sex. Examples:

  • a character is afraid of sex and overcomes their fear

  • a character learns to have sex or to perform certain sexual practices or to enjoy them

  • a character is raped or forced to have sex

  • a character has sex in circumstances where sex is not allowed or taboo (in public, with a family member, etc.)

  • etc.

All these stories have a narrative (which distinguishes them from category 5), and this narrative requires sex (which distinguishes them from category 3).

In these stories, the conflict is sexual and the antagonist is an opponent or obstacle in sex. In this way, these stories are "purely erotic" or purely sexual.

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    Not an answer, but important nonetheless: Have you read much in the way of erotica, or even romance? The interactions and growing relationship between the characters are often where the tension lies, and it can be absolutely intense. – Standback Dec 26 '18 at 20:07
  • @Standback I'm a complete virgin when it comes to reading erotica. And if possible, I'd like to preserve my innocence. – user34178 Dec 26 '18 at 21:09
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    I don't blame you -- but that does probably mean you'll have a lot of trouble understanding the form... – Standback Dec 26 '18 at 21:44
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    Consider inner conflict. For example, the protagonist has strong desire, but also is a firm believer in a religion that says such desire is evil. – celtschk Dec 28 '18 at 15:15
  • Funny fact, in the final point 4. you can replace "having sex" with "eating apples" (or any other activity) and get a perfectly reasonable "purely fruity story" (or whatever activity you used). The definition of purely erotic seems still a bit of a specific case of a generic boilerplate definition. – NofP Jan 2 at 15:18
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(1) from the first desire to consummation or

(2) from loveless sex to romantic love or

(3) from a lack of sexual experience to sexual empowerment

– what can cause conflict?

I think what you need is an alternative to a plotted novel; these are "character-driven" novels, in which a character may not have an antagonist, exactly, except for the difficulties of her world and inability to get exactly what she wants. Over the course of the novel, she develops and becomes different. The reader continues reading, not just for the erotica, but to see what happens to her, usually because they like her and want her to succeed.

1) Going from first desire to consummation doesn't have to be straightforward. Particularly so for males, and particularly so for homosexuals. Even if she and the boy she desires are straight, he may be committed to somebody else (or to his religion). You can introduce problems in this phase. You can introduce problems after this stage; the consummation did not satisfy her, or her partner demanded acts she did not want to perform, or they got caught in the middle and the sex was interrupted.

2) Going from loveless sex to romantic love: Finding a partner that wants more than sex doesn't have to be easy. Or, a conflict from within, a promiscuous character may enjoy the lifestyle and not want to give it up, but also does not want to give up a particular partner.

3) From a lack of sexual experience to sexual empowerment: Another internal conflict. So the MC has a lot of sex with a lot of partners, she's learned to do everything, but she still doesn't FEEL sexually "empowered". She has said "yes" a dozen times and its pretty much always the same few things, oral sex, intercourse, maybe anal sex. After yet another episode of that she decides she doesn't feel "powerful" at all. Guys are as easy as buying groceries, and then the script hardly varies. She gets off, but she's getting bored with that, and boredom can be a source of conflict. She wants an escalation, something more challenging. And that is what the story is about, her finding the sex that rocks her world.

In a character-driven story, the story is about the character and how she feels and how she is changing. What she seeks is internal, not external like a treasure. She is her own antagonist -- By not being satisfied with what she has done, and not knowing what to do next, so she makes missteps and has close calls or disasters or whatever.

So you don't have to have a "bad guy" in the novel, per se, or if you have "bad guys" they can be temporary and not the lethal or life-changing kind of bad.

What you can have is a "character against the world" scenario, like Tom Hanks in Castaway, stranded on an island and trying to escape. She is on her own without help and trying to figure out how to get what she wants, sexually.

You can actually combine those three scenarios into one master.

Act I: From desire to consummation.

Act IIa: Reactive; gaining a lot of random sexual experiences.

Act IIb: Proactive; from randomicity to control and sexual empowerment.

Act 3: Now she knows what she wants: From loveless sex to romantic love; the conclusion.

3

Competition

Our manly stud has a rival who is equally manly and studly, but downwardly mobile. Rather than being born in the manor, he was relegated to the stables. Wait, did they have the same father? If so they are true equals in one sense. (Or it is reversed and the rival is wealthy.)

Alternately, the innocent lamb is competing against a trampy vixen who knows her way around a man's… um, anatomy. Also can be reversed, but this is unlikely as the protagonist needs to return to innocence.

Holding back

One of the partners is unwilling to commit. Alternately they are unwilling to "release the beast" of true passion.

False pretenses

Someone has been lying. They are not what they seem, or their background would make them an unworthy or unacceptable mate. In a just world this would not be an issue, but (like the stable boy) fate was enacted long ago, and nothing can change that now.

Also, disapproving royal family does not want their bloodline to be compromised by a commoner.

Insincerity

One has been dishonest, but this time it was for calculated reasons. They were in it for financial gain, or deliberately seduced the partner to ruin them. Now feelings are different, but once the truth comes out can the other ever trust them again?

Incest

um… yeah. The heart does not always respect the laws of nature, or society.

Maybe she slept with his brother/father/son/mom that one time. It still crosses the taboo family barrier and the family holidays will be awkward.

In love with someone else

Sex (without love) is like an obsession or a drug. They know it's wrong, and they hate themselves. They even resent the other and try to avoid contact, but when they come together their bodies explode with fire and passion that their "nice" partners would never know.

Unlike a rival, the innocent-party is unaware of the relationship happening under their nose. They are a best friend or mentor, or a publicly respected figure who is morally superior to both of them.

Role / Gender Reversal

Whatever the traditional sex/gender roles are, reverse them and explore the new unfamiliar dynamic.

Power Play

One pursues, the other resists – then it switches. Who tops and who bottoms?

Dom/sub

Similar to Power Play, but in this case the roles are well-defined and separate. It's not about fighting the duality but pursuing the extremes.

Math

She'd like another penis sometimes, but it's a slippery slope to orgy ad infinitum. I suppose "contests" like The Bachelorette are math-oriented too. (So are STD stories.)

Corrupt the Innocent

There's a Radley Metzger film called Score that is about a jaded swinger couple who make a bet which can "corrupt" their sweet newlywed neighbors. It's sort of a softcore Dangerous Liaisons, and a comedy.

Exhaust every possible combination until it kills you

Anyone who has tried to read 120 days of Sodom at some point realizes it is less a novel and more of a very long "bucket list".

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    "Holding Back" might even be subconscious and lead to psychologically induced impotence. If you're writing erotica, getting past that is a scene in itself, possibly several. – Paul Hodges Dec 27 '18 at 16:43
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I'd like to frame-challenge this notion of a "purely erotic story." What is that? As with a romance, your work as a writer is to delay your characters' mutual bliss, and you're welcome to use any narrative tools available to do so.

It's quite possible for there to be satisfying narratives where the obstacles are entirely internal and/or psychological. But this doesn't making them somehow "more pure" than any other kind of narrative.

As far as what you're talking about, the closest I've seen to this kind of a book is André Aciman's Enigma Variations, about a man whose erotic fixation is always on his next lover, and never on the one with whom he is currently with. But again, the fact that his challenges to happiness are purely psychological doesn't make this different in any essential way from any other book.

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+500

Allow me to start with conflict. There are authoritative definitions of conflict out there, but let's keep it simple: conflict is an obstacle. Typically, a character has an objective and the obstacles that lie in the way represent the conflict.

Now that we have conflict defined, let's look at a purely erotic storyline.

If I may be so bold, I'll bring forward my own definition: a storyline where the aim is sex. Forget the finer, fuzzy feelings for now: purely erotic = sex. One may claim that romance makes sex more involved and, therefore, more satisfying. However, 'purely erotic' makes those fuzzy feelings become nothing more than a tool to make sex better, because sex is the one and only objective.


So what can cause conflict in a purely erotic storyline? Anything that keeps the characters (mainly the protagonist, but definitely not the only one) from enjoying fulfilling sexual experiences.

Personally, I feel both external and internal obstacles are valid, as well as mixed external and internal.

External: If the female character's goal is to get laid with whomever she fancies but is part of a society where women must be chaste, then she must concoct careful plans to fulfill her goal without being punished for it.

Internal: Let's say a character has been involved in an accident that left them invalid. Perhaps they feel sexually crippled and must learn to accept their limitations while not giving up on sexual bliss, whether there's love involved or not.

External & Internal: A young man's identity was defined by societal rules he fully embraced... until the moment he moved to a different place, with different societal rules, and realised his sexual needs lay outside the accepted in his previous society and within the taboo... which turns out is not a taboo in this different place. It is not simply a matter of society's external imposition, as that society exists elsewhere. The external imposition has become internal as the young man discovers foreign societal rules. The imposition is a part of who he is and he must first of all accept he does not conform to the old imposition, then discover his true sexual identity and finally embrace it.


I'd like to repeat and emphasize that in the context of this question a "purely erotic story" is one where the protagonists aren't hindered from achieving their goals by external obstacles such as rivals or social segregation, as they commonly are in romance novels.

The real problem is touched upon in this sentence: romance novels.

If I may be so bold, one is conditioned from birth to associate 'socially valid sex' and love. Love is one's great aim in life, and you will only find real meaningful sex in the embrace of true love.

Not to be a cynic, but forget all that.

Sex is sex, love is love. Mixing the two can be great, but it does not negate the fact that sex can exist for and by itself while being very gratifying.

If an erotic story ends up in 'the couple lived happily ever after', then it's very likely 'erotic romance' or 'romantic erotica' (my own terminology, here). If one wants to split hairs, there are differences, but it basically boils down to the same: lots of sex that ends up in socially accepted true love. Maybe even kinky sex being rescued and led to the good side. Very likely, the protagonist will realise that sex without love is not as gratifying, or that sex with the same partner becomes even better the moment true love is confessed to.

Don't get me wrong: I see absolutely no problem with mixing erotica and romance. However, it does annoy me that most erotica [I've come across] will inevitably end in happily ever after.

Let's go back to the purely erotic storyline.

It seems to me that the development of a purely erotic plot [...] must lack all turning points and therefore all suspense.

The protagonist wants mind-blowing sex. Whatever stands in their way is conflict. One could have a serial-killer hunted by the most recent Holmesian recreation as the background of such a story, but stopping that evil stock-character is not what is upping the tension. It's the fact that the guy's killing spree is stopping you from having the action you're dying for. Even if you end up with your head nearly chopped off, being rescued by the hottest detective on earth is still not the high point. In fact, the dramatic rescue isn't even close to being a climax because the true conflict isn't whether you'll die or live, but whether you'll get laid or not.

Now, I admit this might sound like the protagonist is a bit obsessed and needs a reality check. Perhaps. But one could come up with a character who enjoys their freedom and simply wants a friendship with benefits. Unfortunately, there are obstacles to connecting with the people who physically attract them. Perhaps they've had a bad experience and fear rejection.

Or maybe the character simply has a high sex drive and wants to find the perfect sexual match. No strings attached.

The point here isn't whether the conflict is external, internal or a mix of the two. The point is the aim of the protagonist / story: what really matters? Great sex.

The turning points for a purely erotic storyline are exactly the same as for any other. Eg.: The protagonist is unhappy with their current sex life. They make an attempt to fix the problem but they fail; double-edged frustration mounts. Then someone takes the first step and things look up... but it was a trap and now the protagonist is being blackmailed. In despair, they miraculously stumble upon someone who's willing to help. At the same time, there's sexual tension and... could this be it? Can the two of them not only save the protagonist's reputation in a puritan society but also find a common interest in acrobatic sex positions?

The tension comes from the exact same source as in every other story: will the protagonist succeed or fail in their search for a purely physical, orgasmical connection?

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    +1. I think a happy ending doesn't have to be romantic; if the objective is just mind-blowing sex, perhaps the happy ending is finding the way to achieve that reliably with a variety of partners. A sex club, for example, or organizing one. Or she organizes a kind of sex training camp. Like many novels, the opening is on "the normal world" of the MC (in which she is not satisfied), the finale shows "the new normal" in which she is completely satisfied. The story is her setbacks and successes while teaching herself how to get from A to Z; which is typical of a "character-driven" novel. – Amadeus Dec 28 '18 at 23:39
  • @Amadeus: Oh, absolutely! When I say 'happily ever after' I'm usually thinking of the typical princess story where the couple gets together in the end. I'll edit the answer to clarify. – Sara Costa Dec 29 '18 at 11:38
  • @Amadeus: just wanted to add that I completely agree with your last two sentences in the comment (as well as your answer as a whole). I believe what is giving the OP a hard time is the word 'erotica', which I agree is very charged and can distract one from the main point. If they can see it as simply the definition of the end goal in a story, they'll understand how conflict and tension work in that type of setting. [No judgement here: everyone ends up missing the forest for the trees, it's a normal part of growth. I do it all the time which, hopefully, means I'm growing a lot. :) ] – Sara Costa Dec 29 '18 at 11:50
  • Well, definitely judgment here -- I'm fine with erotica, whether it is a little or a lot in the story. I will judge it like any other writing, the writing can be good or bad, but the subject matter is not a problem for me. I think part of the reason it is often bad is precisely because sex overwhelms the mind; and authors lose track of the craft of writing to create their own personal masturbatory aids; forgetting their readers aren't seeing what they imagine, remember or feel. It is like writing drunk! But that issue can be conquered in rewrite if they are aware of its power. – Amadeus Dec 29 '18 at 12:15
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    @user57423: I'm glad I could help. :) – Sara Costa Dec 30 '18 at 14:52
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I think it may be a good idea to first look generically to the possible types of conflict, to then look how well they fit to your definition of a purely erotic novel.

I think the most important distinction in this respect is between obstacles and decision problems (note that I just made up that terminology; I don't know if there's any established terminology for this distinction).

  • An obstacle is something that hinders you from getting what you want. The conflict is resolved by removing the obstacle, by circumventing it, or by accepting the limitation. Obstacles are typically outer conflicts (the obstacle is in the world around you), but can be inner conflicts as well (for example, the obstacle can be your fear).

  • A decision problem is when you have several goals, wishes or desires that are or seem mutually exclusive. The conflict is resolved by deciding for one of the options, by finding a way to fulfil both, or by recognizing that neither actually satisfies you, and what you really want is something else. A decision problem is typically an inner conflict. It may be an outer conflict if someone presents you with the choice.

Now let's try to apply your criterion that a story is not purely erotic if it contains non-sexual narrative elements which could also be told without their sexual or erotic turn.

I think that pretty much rules out obstacles. This includes some you classified as purely erotic, such as

A character is afraid of sex and overcomes their fear.

A character is afraid of swimming and overcomes their fear. The non-sexual narrative element here is the fear.

A character learns to have sex or to perform certain sexual practices or to enjoy them.

A character learns to swim or to perform certain swimming techniques or to enjoy them. The non-sexual narrative element here is the learning.

A character has sex in circumstances where sex is not allowed or taboo (in public, with a family member, etc.)

A character has a romantic relationship where a romantic relationship is not allowed or taboo (with someone of different social status, with a family member, etc.). Or even, a character has friendship where friendship is not allowed or taboo. The non-sexual narrative element here is the forbiddance/taboo.

Basically the only of your examples that survives is rape, but that one you explicitly excluded from the list of things you want to write about.

So what remains is the decision problem. And for that I don't see any fundamental reason why it cannot be purely erotic. It just means that the conflicting goals, wishes or desires are all to be purely erotic in nature.

For example, the protagonist might want their first sex to be perfect, and believes this can only be achieved by learning as much as possible about different sex practices before actually having sex. They don't feel they've sufficiently studied sex practices yet when they meet someone with whom they desire to have sex now. Suddenly there's a conflict: The only perceived way to have the desired perfect first sex is to not have the desired immediate sex.

  • +1 excellent answer: it nails down the point of understanding general properties of storytelling. – NofP Jan 2 at 15:21

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