Erotica Readers & Writers Association
Home | Erotic Books | Authors Resources | Inside The Erotic Mind | Erotica Gallery
Adult Movies | Sex Toys | Erotic Music | Email Discussion List | Links

'10 Authors Insider Tips

Cooking Up A Storey
by Donna George Storey
Have More Good Sex
I Can Do Better ...
Trying to Get the Feeling
Plotting and Planning
Character Profiles
Discovery Draft
Be Bad to Be Good
E-Book Revolution
Naked for Halloween
Sex With Pilgrims

by Louisa Burton
The Music of Words
The Balancing Act
Your Fictional World
Backstory & Foreshadowing

The Fine Art of Submission
by Shanna Germain
Nailing the Query Letter
Banish the Boring Bio
Becoming a Market Master
Become a Market Master, 2
Backstory & Foreshadowing
Enticing An Editor, Part 1
Enticing An Editor, Part 2
Contracts, Money & More

Serious about Smut
by Vincent Diamond
No More Horsing Around
Short Stuff
Selling Short Stories
Editors' Pet Peeves
Settings: Beyond Time & Place
Beating Up Your Scenes
Selling Your Books in Person
Staying in the Saddle

The Write Stuff
by Ashley Lister
Broken Rainbows
Talk the Talk
10 Commandments for Writing
Plotting to Avoid
Cover Story

'10 Smutters Lounge

Ashley Lister Submits
by Ashley Lister
St Valentine's Day
Renaming Body Parts
Sex, Cigarettes & Erotic Fiction

Between the Lines
with Ashley Lister
C. Sanchez-Garcia
Kathleen Bradean
Lucy Felthouse
Neve Black
PS Haven
Tracey Shellito
Tresart L. Sioux

Cracking Foxy
with Robert Buckley
Plenty of Miles Left
Don't Worry, Be Happy
Fly the Unfriendly Skies
Coffee Time
Castrated Words
Virtual vs. Actual Romance
The View from Gallows Hill

Get All Worked Up
with J.T. Benjamin
The Fashion Industry
The Same Old Same Old
Writing Porn
About the Closet
... About Spirituality
Making Sense of Religion
Worked Up About Monogamy
What's Next
All Worked Up About Nature
Still All Worked Up...

Sex Is All Metaphors
by Jean Roberta
Holiday Ghosts
Love and Romance
An "Interracial" Epic
Trying to Make It Go Away
Sexual Etiquette
Sex and Children
People Against Bad Things
Virtual Acceptance
His Cold Eyes, His Granite Jaw
A Flash of Northern Light


by Louisa Burton

The Balancing Act


In nearly all stories, regardless of genre—suspense, romance, literary, mainstream, science fiction, whatever—the essential conflict is introduced, dealt with, and resolved by means of a series of events conveyed through action, dialogue, and narrative. These events can grip your reader, transport her into another world, propel her on an intense and unforgettable emotional journey...

Or not. For the events in your story to engage your reader on that kind of visceral level, she needs to be so immersed in your fictional universe that she almost forgets she’s reading a book. You want her to live the story as she turns the pages. Those are the books that keep readers up all night and send them rushing back to the bookstore for more titles by you.

A caveat: Obviously, there’s no magic bullet for creating this kind of fiction. As I so often say, writing is an art, not a science. Every author has his or her own style, and every novel has its own unique chemistry. Advice on how to write great, absorbing novels always needs to be taken with a grain of salt, because what works for most stories most of the time won’t necessarily serve the story you’re writing. Nevertheless, I’m going to offer some guidelines for writing action, dialogue, and narrative that, more often than not, will strengthen a work of fiction.

Action. Your characters do stuff that moves your story forward. How you express what they do—the language you use to describe it—can make the difference between a story that feels as if it’s happening to your reader and a story she has to force herself to finish. The most important concept to bear in mind when writing about what people do is to keep it, for the most part, active, not passive.

With active language, someone is doing something. With passive language, something is happening, and although we may realize intellectually that someone is doing it, it doesn’t feel that way. In fact, it doesn’t really feel as if it’s being done by anyone. The character taking the action feels oddly removed from it, which has the effect making him appear reactive rather than active, and flat rather than three-dimensional.

Passive: Our house was burned down by my son.
Active: My son burned down our house.

Passive: She was lifted in his arms and carried to the bed.
Active: He lifted her in his arms and carried her to the bed.

It’s best to strive for active language even when the action isn’t being taken by a particular character;

Passive: The platoon was ravaged by gunfire.
Active: Gunfire ravaged the platoon.

The past progressive tense (“Thus-and-such was happening”) should be reserved for occasions when it’s important to indicate ongoing action. “I turned around and he was slitting the cop’s throat” isn’t the same as, “I turned around and he slit the cop’s throat.”

The past perfect (“Thus-and-such had happened”) is useful for illustrating a jump backward in time, but use it judiciously or it could impart a passive tone.

Dialogue. Dialogue, when it’s done well, can really enhance the entertainment value of a work of fiction. When considering whether to buy a particular novel, bookstore customers will often flip through the pages to gauge the proportion of dialogue to narrative. Some genres, like mystery and romance, are dialogue-intensive, others less so. But even if your characters don’t have a lot to say, what they do say should feel as natural as possible.

“Natural” is not necessarily synonymous with “realistic,” not entirely so, anyway. Real dialogue is full of “uh’s” and “um’s.” Conversations meander off-topic, they can be unduly long-winded, and they’re not always terribly entertaining. Every conversation in your story should serve a purpose and entertain, while sounding as natural as possible. (For examples of great natural dialogue, read anything by Elmore Leonard.)

Listen to your characters talk and transcribe their conversations without doing a lot of editing, at least in the first draft. And for heaven’s sake, don’t apply the rules of good grammar to your characters’ dialogue unless they would really speak that way. I wrote a novel in which an uneducated 19th century Irish-born servant said, “Me and my cousin Liam sneaked into the theater.” My publisher’s well-meaning copy-editor corrected it to “My cousin Liam and I...” Needless to say, I corrected it right back.

Each character’s way of speaking should reveal something about him and make him sound distinct from other characters. People’s personalities come out in their speech, in what types of epithets they use, how they show anger and happiness, how complex their sentences are, how witty or hard-nosed or shy or pompous or whatever they are. The better you know your characters, the more in keeping with their personalities their dialogue will be.

By all means use dialogue to convey information (see my “Show, Don’t Tell” harangue below), but beware the infamous As you know, Bob syndrome: “As you know, Bob, our parents died when we were both young. You quite school and worked two jobs so I could go to college. I graduated with honors and went on to law school...” Naturally, you want to salt information into your dialogue with as subtle a hand as possible.

One of my biggest pet peeves in fiction, and one that marks the writer in my eyes as something of an amateur (yes, I know that sounds snooty and I don’t care), is the dreaded Funky Speech Tag. Oh. My. God. How I hate them:

“Marla, you vixen,” he growled seductively (and don’t get me started on unnecessary adverbs) as they fell together onto the sun-dappled grass. “I must have you.”

“Raoul!” she gasped as her gown was torn from her nubile body. “Here? Now?”

“I can’t wait!” he ejaculated. (That was uncalled for. Sorry.)

And yes, “her gown was torn” is totally passive. You get a gold star for noticing that.

The moral of the story: When you actually need a speech tag (you can dispense with them if it won’t cause confusion) use the wonderful, all-purpose, all-but-invisible “said” about 80-90% of the time, with “asked” and non-hilarious descriptive speech tags taking up the slack. Use the latter only when they leap out of your fingertips and onto the computer screen, demanding to be deployed.

One thing that bugs me about certain romance novels is when the hero’s dialogue sounds pretty much like the heroine’s. In general (of course there are exceptions) men and women speak differently. Men tend to speak in shorter, more straightforward sentences. They are less likely than women to end sentences with interrogatories such as, “Isn’t it?” or “Don’t you think?” and also less likely to preface their speech with a disclaimer like, “I’m not sure, but...” For the most part, they eschew the kind of euphemistic, go-along-to-get-along language that’s drummed into girls from a young age—“I’m not really pleased about that”—for more direct statements: “That sucks.” You’re also less liable to hear the more expressive adjectives and descriptions—“fabulous, gorgeous, magenta”—from the mouth of a man. Men often use conversations to relay information, solve problems, or compete with each other, rather than for entertainment or emotional support, as is the case with women. Again, these are generalizations. People talk the way they talk, and it’s theoretically possible that a man might say, “I’m not sure, but don’t you think I should really not be pleased with this magenta tie?”

I’m reminded of the Seinfeld episode in which Jerry has bought the expensive new suede jacket with the pink-striped lining. George says, “Jerry, I must tell you—and I say this with an unblemished record of staunch heterosexuality—that jacket is fabulous.”

Narrative. Say it with me, now: “SHOW, DON’T TELL!” Yes, that ubiquitous old saw. You hear as nauseam it in every writing class you take, because it really is an incredibly important concept. As a rule of thumb (see the caveat above), the most successful fiction concentrates on action and dialogue. Narrative of all kinds—exposition (info-dumping), description, and backstory—is usually most effective when it’s kept relatively minimal. Much of this material can, in fact, be incorporated with a light hand into the action and dialogue, where it will be digested by the reader without her being too consciously aware of it—and thus getting yanked out of the story.

A preponderance of narrative can make your story feel sluggish, wordy, and remote, but the most important reason to focus on action and dialogue is that it forces the reader’s mind to fill in the blanks. Once again for my perennial refrain: Show-Don’t-Tell writing is the most powerful because it allows your reader to arrive at his or her own conclusions based on the evidence at hand. Ideas that the human mind creates for itself are much more powerful and affecting than ideas that are spoon-fed to a person.

That said, there are novelists who are incredibly gifted at description and the like, and can keep their readers enthralled through pages and pages of brilliant non-active prose. I envy these writers more than I can say, and if you’re one of them, and you feel that your work is best served by including epic chunks of exposition, go for it!

Chances are, though, that your story, like most, will benefit from an emphasis on showing rather than telling—editing down the non-active bits and conveying that information through what your characters are doing and saying. If this is a difficult principle for you to put into practice, consider how it’s done in cinema. In a movie, unless there’s voice-over narration, every emotional nuance and critical piece of information is communicated to the audience through action and dialogue. If you’re having trouble whittling down the narrative in a particular scene, try rewriting that scene as a screenplay. It’s a useful exercise that can be quite enlightening!

Louisa Burton
July 2010

If you have comments or questions about this column, please send them to Louisa Burton

Read more of Louisa Burton's FictionCraft in ERWA 2010 Archive.

"FictionCraft" © 2010 Louisa Burton. All rights reserved.

About the Author: Louisa Burton is a multipublished author of some two dozen erotica, romance, and mystery novels for Bantam, Berkley, Signet, NAL, Harlequin, and St. Martin’s. A former publishing professional who is in love with the sound of her own voice, she has also taught numerous fiction writing courses and workshops. Way too much info about her current project, the Hidden Grotto series of erotic fantasy, is available at

  E-mail this page

Search ERWA Website:

Copyright 1996 and on, Erotica Readers Association, Inc.
All Rights Reserved World Wide. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or
medium without express written permission is prohibited.

'10 Book Reviews


Apocalypse Sex
Review by Ashley Lister

Bare Souls
Review by Ashley Lister

Best Women's Erotica 2010
Review by Jean Roberta

can’t help the way that i feel
Review by Ashley Lister

Coming Together...C. Sanchez-Garcia
Review by Ashley Lister

Coming Together...M Christian
Review by Kathleen Bradean

Coming Together...Remittance Girl
Review by Kathleen Bradean

Erotic Brits
Review by Lisabet Sarai

Fairy Tale Lust
Review by Lisabet Sarai

Like a God's Kiss
Review by Kristina Wright

Like a Sacred Desire
Review by Lisabet Sarai

Like a Veil
Review by Lisabet Sarai

Making the Hook-Up
Review by Ashley Lister

Review by Kristina Wright

Peep Show
Review by Kristina Wright

Please, Ma'am
Review by Ashley Lister

Spark My Moment
Review by Ashley Lister

Three In One Blow
Review by Shanna Germain

Review by Ashley Lister

Erotic Novels

Backstage Passes
Review by Kathleen Bradean

Review by Ashley Lister

Fire in the Blood
Review by Jean Roberta

Freak Parade
Review by Jean Roberta

I Came Up Stairs
Review by Jean Roberta

Marianne! A Journey...
Review by Lisabet Sarai

The Marketplace
Review by Lisabet Sarai

The Memorial Garden
Review by Lisabet Sarai

On Demand
Review by Ashley Lister

Once Bitten
Review by Shanna Germain

Rock My Socks Off
Review by Ashley Lister

The Tower and the Tears
Review by Lynne Connolly

Sensual Romance

Coin Operated
Review by Lynne Connolly

Review by Lynne Connolly

I Spy a Wicked Sin
Review by Harriet Klausner

Libertine's Kiss
Review by Lynne Connolly

The Master & the Muses
Review by Lynne Connolly

Review by Lynne Connolly

Review by Lynne Connolly

Review by Lynne Connolly

Tangled Web (MM Romance)
Review by Vincent Diamond

Tucker's Sin
Review by Lynne Connolly

Review by Harriet Klausner

Gay Erotica

Best Gay Erotica '10
Review by Vincent Diamond

Best Gay Romance 2010
Review by Vincent Diamond

Biker Boys
Review by Jay Lygon

Necessary Madness
Review by Kathleen Bradean

Personal Demons
Review by Lisabet Sarai

The Royal Treatment
Review by Kathleen Bradean

Silver Foxes
Review by Vincent Diamond

Review by Jay Lygon

Special Forces
Review by Vincent Diamond

A Sticky End
Review by Jean Roberta

Wired Hard 4
Review by Lisabet Sarai

Lesbian Erotica

Best Lesbian Roamnce 2010
Review by Jean Roberta

Fast Girls
Review by Ashley Lister

Girl Crush
Review by Jean Roberta

Sometimes She Lets Me
Review by Jean Roberta


Best Sex Writing 2010
Review by Ashley Lister

A Brief History of Nakedness
Review by Rob Hardy

Condom Nation
Review by Rob Hardy

Dictionary of Semenyms
Review by Donna G Storey

Doctor of Love
Review by Rob Hardy

Florida’s Purge of Gay & Lesbian...
Review by Rob Hardy

John Holmes
Review by Rob Hardy

How Sex Works
Review by Rob Hardy

The Orgasm Answer Guide
Review by Rob Hardy

Screening Sex
Review by Rob Hardy

Sex at Dawn
Review by Rob Hardy

Whip Smart
Review by Rob Hardy