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I have three variations of the same storyline and cannot decide which one I want to write:

  1. erotic story turning dark and dangerous

    A young adult man and woman fall in love. It is the woman's first time to have sex, and the narrative focusses on the sexual feelings and desires of the protagonists. As the couple discover the woman's sexuality, they find more and more dark and disturbing needs that eventually threaten the life and sanity of the two characters.

    This is the original variant of the story. I abandoned it because the end is too risqué (involving massive sexual abuse and rape). I think it is a great story with intriguing character development and some relevance to current psychosocial developments, but difficult to write and easy to fail as well as hard to publish.

  2. erotic story turning into a spy thriller

    A young man and woman are sexually attracted to each other, slowly tease and approach each other, but before they can have sex for her first time, the progess of their relationship is interrupted by spy thriller complications. Lots of action and a scyfyish plot turn almost destroy their love, but they overcome their emotional difficulties, reconcile, have her first sex, and solve the thriller plot.

    This is the variation I had decided to write instead of the original one. But the problem with this variation is that the first part of the novel would be an erotic story and the second a thriller with love story, and I'm not sure if the two parts fit together. I could write this and see how it turns out, but in my mind there is this disparity and I need to overcome it because the doubt hampers me.

  3. love story turning into a spy thriller

    The same story as no. 2 but without the more sexual tension at the beginning. Could be marketed as YA.

    To solve the disparity of the sexualized first part and the turn to a more loving and supportive relationship during the evolving thriller plot I attempted to describe the desire of the man and woman for each other in more romantic, Young Adult terms, but this removes all the exitement from the story's beginning and I would have to condense it and incite the action more quickly, moving the focus away from the relationship and to the thriller plot.

I like all three variations of the story and would be equally exited to write them all. My question is which variation would be more attractive to agents, publishers, and the reading public? That is, which variations would sell best? The erotic novel, the erotic spy thriller, or the YA love thriller?

I have been struggling with this decision for weeks while outlining all three plots in parallel. How can I decide?


I found two related questions on this site that don't answer my question. The first questions asks about writing and publishing all variations, which is not what I want to do. I do want to decide and write only one. And the answers to that question do not deal with how to decide between variations so they apply to my present problem.

The second question does deal with how to decide, but the answers don't help me because I have done what the accepted answer suggests and not been able to come to a decision.

But thinking about those related questions made me realize that my question is less about deciding between equal variations than about deciding between variations with more or less sex.

So very likely the true questions behind my difficulty to decide are: How much sex can I write if I'm after mainstream success?

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    Many mainstream novels are filled with explicit sex and enjoy great success, including being turned into movies/shows. Song of Ice and Fire, A Discovery of Witches, Fear of Flying, and those are just books off the top of my head that I've read myself. Your question strikes me more as about asking for advice on what to write than about "how much sex" you can include. Perhaps a reasonable edit would be about how to decide the level of sex in a novel for adults. No questions about plot and no pitches of your ideas. – Cyn says make Monica whole Sep 5 at 22:54
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My question is which variation would be more attractive to agents, publishers, and the reading public? That is, which variations would sell best?

Which is the more attractive drink: chardonnay, or cherry flavored Coca-Cola?

You described three wildly different books. Books two and three are only superficially similar; removing the sex doesn't turn an erotic story into a romance, and it certainly doesn't make it YA!

There is no one 'general' audience and it's folly to write a book that will appeal to everyone. Some readers like YA novels and don't touch anything else. There are publishing houses that exclusively stock supermarkets with romance novels. Take a bottle of wine and a bottle of coke to the nearest retirement home and see which is liked best, then go to the nearest playground or schoolyard and do the same. Do you think that if you were to make your own drink, "chardonnay and coke", it would appeal equally to both groups?

Which variation sells best? It entirely depends to whom you market to.

How much sex can I write if I'm after mainstream success?

1969 saw the release of the novel "Naked Came the Stranger." The only three things you need to know about the book are

  1. it features scene after scene of hot, steamy, scandalous (for the time) sex
  2. sold gangbusters, and
  3. a committee of 21 authors wrote it with the specific intent of making the most god-awful book known to mankind

Compare and contrast this success with the thousands of unread books that languish at the bottom of Amazon's top sellers list. A good deal of them are at least equally as lurid as "Naked Came the Stranger" yet others do not feature so much as a kiss.

My point is that the amount of sex your book features is a poor predictor for how much success it sees in the market. Far more important is how well the book is written and marketed. Go through your outline and ask yourself what each of your scenes add to your story in terms of character development or the progression of the plot. Maybe your characters undergo character development while they smoke their post-coital cigarettes. Good. That scene's a keeper. Similar scenes that don't progress the plot/tell us something about the characters/the setting (in case you're going with the SciFi story) can and should be cut. Never write filler because you haven't yet met some arbitrary metric.

Write what you want to write about first, then figure out what audience to go after

  • While no book may appeal to everyone, there certainly are books who do appeal to a larger slice of the reading public while others appeal only to a very limited audience. Think Star Wars versus La Jetée. (If you haven't heard of the latter, you'll know what I mean.) – user41080 Sep 5 at 11:59
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    Doesn't mean there's some sort of magic formula that tells you how far to turn the dial labeled 'sex' in order to write a book with widespread appeal. Economic performance will still be contingent on your writing ability and how well you understand the slice you're going after. – Anna A. Fitzgerald Sep 5 at 12:29
  • There is such a thing as formula fiction. Harlequin has different lines with different formulas, including the specification of the amount of sex and the way it is described. But formula fiction relies on quantity, not quality. Individual titles don't sell spectacular numbers. Authors make it up on number of titles, often writing half a dozen a year, year in and year out. In the mainstream, no one knows why one book breaks out and another does not. If they did, 90% of currently released books would never have been published. – user16226 Sep 5 at 13:33
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I suspect your problem is a lack of story. Sex can be central to your story, but what stories are about is generally a problem the protagonist is compelled (or feels compelled) to solve.

None of the stories you provide seem to fit the profile of a story.

  • MC's normal world (a virgin in love)
  • Inciting Incident (losing virginity) grows into Problem
  • Problem forces MC out of their normal world metaphorically or physically
  • Attempts and failures ensue, the story becomes more complicated with increasing risk
  • solutions begin to be found, the story becomes less complicated
  • The MC knows enough to conquer the problem, but it takes a big risk
  • confrontation and resolution

Losing virginity may be an Inciting Incident that leads to complications, like increasingly wild sex addiction, obsessively in search of ever more powerful orgasms, but it should be presented as a problem, even if the MC doesn't realize what she is doing, the reader should be aware.

If your Inciting Incident is sexual, the story is about sex, in some way; sex creates the problem in some way.

A spy thriller with sex in it would begin differently. The Normal World in the opening should still give some hints about the characters and the problems they will face, but the Inciting Incident (occurring around 10% to 15% of the full story length) should be about the spy aspect, not the sex.

You can still use sex (and love if there is any) within a spy thriller, these are very useful devices for motivations, for character growth, for creating complications. I would say "love" is the most popular of motivational device in novels, the hero saving someone they love. You don't have to explain that motivation at all, and many stories do not.

Sexual attraction and/or gratification are also major motivators, few people need an explanation why MCs take action in pursuit of sex.

If you are writing a spy thriller, you can use sex in it, as a tool, as a motivator, as an end in itself, but the main story arc should be the spy game, not so much the nature of the sex.

IRL Sex is likely a prominent tool in spy craft we just don't hear much about, compromising someone with sexual indiscretion and blackmail, or even with love (or what the victim thinks is love), seems like a no-brainer.

You need to pick a story lane and stay in it.

And FWIW, I would avoid what sounds like an unhappy ending in the sex story; in the modern world, unhappy endings sell at 1/10th the volume of happy endings for a reason, not many people find unhappy endings satisfying. For most people, they want their hero to overcome daunting odds and perhaps become a better person, or make the world safer. So much so that even a lot of horror stories end with a win for the MC, perhaps a Pyrrhic victory, but a victory nonetheless.

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    Do you have a source for that statistic on unhappy endings? It's not that I doubt it, but it would be interesting to see the source and find out how the figure was arrived at. – user16226 Sep 5 at 14:41
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    @MarkBaker I am googling for it; I read this at least 10 years ago in a publishing forum. Here is one bit of support for it, in a recent book by Harry Bingham on writing; page 244, talking about publishers demanding happy endings: books.google.com/… – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Sep 5 at 15:02
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    @MarkBaker More support; from a director making a Stephen King story with an unhappy ending. Refusal to change the unhappy ending made it difficult to sell to a studio, so difficult he turned down $30M and took $17M to be allowed to preserve the unhappy ending. books.google.com/books?id=vtJ0CgAAQBAJ&pg=PA169 – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Sep 5 at 15:12
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    @MarkBaker Alright, can't find it. The prevailing wisdom in Hollywood is that a happy, hopeful, upbeat ending will result in more repeat viewings, more word of mouth, and more box-office dollars, which is why studio executives so often insist on “Hollywood endings.” Of course, the idea that happy endings outsell unhappy endings 10:1 may be a self-fulfilling prophecy of studios and publishers in that they fund/publish Happy vs. Sad 10:1, or 20:1. Test audiences routinely dislike unhappy endings. Box office ends up less; when profits may be 10% of sales, each lost ticket is 10x impact on profit. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Sep 5 at 16:01
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    Which raises the question, what exactly makes an ending "happy." I think I might just have to ask that one. – user16226 Sep 5 at 18:18

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