The Plot Thickens

by | December 21, 2021 | General | 9 comments

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Does erotica need to have a plot?

Some people will answer with a resounding negative. If it gets me off, they’ll argue, then I don’t care whether there’s a story – a plot would just distract me from the dirty details.

I respect those whose opinions differ from mine, but as far as I’m concerned, erotica sans story is just sex, without anything at stake – and that, to me, is boring. To keep me interested – and aroused – the sexual activities in an erotic tale need to have some kind of impact on the characters involved. The characters don’t have to be in love; indeed, some of the most fascinating erotica I’ve read involves people who detest one another. There doesn’t need to be any sort of commitment; a one-night stand can offer the most luminous, intense sex you’ve ever experienced. But somehow, the sex has to matter. At least one of the characters needs to be changed by the erotic encounter. They need to feel something new, want something that’s different from what they wanted before – often something wilder or kinkier or more extreme. Without this, sex becomes repetitious, mechanical and uninspiring.

Plot is essentially a set of events that causes characters to change. In erotica, those events often (though not always or exclusively) involve sex.

All plots are driven by conflict, which in the simplest case can simply be a discrepancy between the current situation and the desired situation. Jim is a virgin consumed with hopeless lust for his voluptuous next door neighbor. Jenny has discovered her boss’s stash of femdom porn, but doesn’t know how to let him know she’s ready to be his mistress. Maria and Marilyn have been best friends for years, but neither dares to take the next step toward intimacy.

Erotica can also involve external conflicts, for instance a kidnapping by a cruel but horny villain, or a plane crash in the middle of the jungle that leaves the characters struggling for survival. In many cases, though, erotica plots focus on the sexual trajectories of the protagonists.

One common and effective erotic plot pattern is initiation. The main character is gradually introduced to new activities or desires that at first seem shocking or scary, but which soon become central to her sexual identity. My first novel Raw Silk falls into this category (as do many other BDSM-themed books). It’s a journey of discovery as the heroine Kate comes to understand her submissive side and learns to surrender to her Master. One of my favorite erotic novels is K.D. Grace’s The Initiation of Ms Holly, about a seemingly ordinary young woman who’s sucked into the twisted world of a secret sex society, only to find that their outrageous behaviors unexpectedly match her natural inclinations.

A related plot outline is seduction (or perhaps, “corruption”), in which an innocent character is, in Larry Archer’s words, “brought over to the dark side”. Sometimes the innocent is actually a virgin, but often he or she is sexually experienced but “vanilla”: a married and monogamous couple turned on to swinging; a straight man or woman lured into a same-sex relationship; an all-American male tempted into donning lingerie and high heels. My Sin City Sweethearts is a classic seduction tale. Eighteen year old twins Marcella and Madelynn move away from their small-town, overprotective family to attend college in Las Vegas. Annie and Ted, their polymorphously-perverse upstairs neighbors, take it upon themselves to give the inexperienced co-eds a true education.

A third familiar erotica plot might be labeled liberation. After divorcing her cheating husband, a woman blossoms into a sexually insatiable MILF. A shy, nerdy IT guy gets a new roommate who’s irresistible to women – and who’s happy to share. I’ve used this plot pattern in The Slut Strikes Back, among other tales. Lauren is a faithful wife, until her husband complains about her powerful libido. He tells her to find someone else to satisfy her, setting her free. Before long, she’s getting it on with the pool guy, the UPS delivery man, a pair of strangers she picks up in a bar, even her son’s wrestling team.

One aspect shared by all these patterns is escalation. All three provide motivation for increasingly intense, extreme or taboo sex scenes. As I’ve argued in another post, escalation is an essential ingredient for effective erotica. Readers continually want more. They also want variety. Hence you need to lead both your characters and your readers deeper into depravity, step by step. If you start off with a double penetration or a severe caning, what will you do for an encore? The patterns I’ve mentioned naturally lend themselves to increasing levels of intensity – both physical and emotional.

Sometimes, of course, plot can get out of hand. I have a feeling that’s what happened in my steam punk series The Toymakers Guild. There are aspects of all three patterns – initiation, seduction and liberation – in the two novels I’ve written so far, but there are many other plot elements, including mind-control, recalcitrant sex toys, cut-throat competitors, romance, murder and revenge.

I may have gone overboard. On the other hand, there’s one advantage to not sticking to the patterns: unpredictability. There are thousands of erotic initiation tales; readers know what to expect. I like to think that my readers will be continually – and pleasurably – surprised.

I really don’t think that would be possible without plot.

Lisabet Sarai

Sex and writing. I think I've always been fascinated by both. Freud was right. I definitely remember feelings that I now recognize as sexual, long before I reached puberty. I was horny before I knew what that meant. My teens and twenties I spent in a hormone-induced haze, perpetually "in love" with someone (sometimes more than one someone). I still recall the moment of enlightenment, in high school, when I realized that I could say "yes" to sexual exploration, even though society told me to say no. Despite being a shy egghead with world-class myopia who thought she was fat, I had managed to accumulate a pretty wide range of sexual experience by the time I got married. And I'm happy to report that, thanks to my husband's open mind and naughty imagination, my sexual adventures didn't end at that point! Meanwhile, I was born writing. Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration, though according to family apocrypha, I was talking at six months. Certainly, I started writing as soon as I learned how to form the letters. I penned my first poem when I was seven. While I was in elementary school I wrote more poetry, stories, at least two plays (one about the Beatles and one about the Goldwater-Johnson presidential contest, believe it or not), and a survival manual for Martians (really). I continued to write my way through high school, college, and grad school, mostly angst-ridden poems about love and desire, although I also remember working on a ghost story/romance novel (wish I could find that now). I've written song lyrics, meeting minutes, marketing copy, software manuals, research reports, a cookbook, a self-help book, and a five hundred page dissertation. For years, I wrote erotic stories and kinky fantasies for myself and for lovers' entertainment. I never considered trying to publish my work until I picked up a copy of Portia da Costa's Black Lace classic Gemini Heat while sojourning in Istanbul. My first reaction was "Wow!". It was possibly the most arousing thing I'd ever read, intelligent, articulate, diverse and wonderfully transgressive. My second reaction was, "I'll bet I could write a book like that." I wrote the first three chapters of Raw Silk and submitted a proposal to Black Lace, almost on a lark. I was astonished when they accepted it. The book was published in April 1999, and all at once, I was an official erotic author. A lot has changed since my Black Lace days. But I still get a thrill from writing erotica. It's a never-ending challenge, trying to capture the emotional complexities of a sexual encounter. I'm far less interested in what happens to my characters' bodies than in what goes on in their heads.


  1. Chaz

    I agree. One could write sex scenes one after the other. Some readers may like that. 🙂 I write MMF, bisexual and cuckold stories so the initiation theme works for many of my stories. My character has ignored or suppressed his bi side until it is brought out by a situation beyond his control. Also the unwilling woman who finds herself the object of attention by two lovers. A husband who desires to see his wife with another man and finally embraces the cuckold lifestyle. So, yes, I think plot or story is important.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Hi, Chaz,

      Surrendering to suppressed fantasies has a powerful emotional kick. As erotic authors, we can take advantage of that impact.

  2. Shaz Addison

    Indeed a story beckons our mind to follow the path with the subject, and it expands our experiential knowledge mmmmm

  3. Jean Roberta

    When I first starting writing sexually-explicit stories, I really thought that readers of this stuff wanted sex, and more sex, with no “filler” in between. Then I thought about what I liked, as a reader. I wanted to read unfolding plots about characters who change in response to circumstances, and who, in turn, influence the way their lives turn out. I also found other readers who like sex to occur in some sort of logical context–mostly here, in ERWA. Plots definitely get readers engaged.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Some people definitely share that view, Jean.

      They’re likely to find my books slow and boring. But that’s okay. There’s room in the world for many perspectives.

  4. Brian

    Plot does matter for many readers – especially those who for whom reading erotica is a way of learning about different styles and experiences of sex.

    My first exposure to erotica was (fortunately) with books that emphasized plot and character development, like Lisabet’s Raw Silk and Anne Rice’s Beauty series and Exit to Eden. Of course, these novels have strong BDSM themes. I hadn’t been deliberately looking for those, but the quality of the stories made me want to keep reading. Even though I’m not nearly as kinky as those characters, I came away with a better appreciation and understanding of people who are, and that’s helped me better relate to the kinky people in my life.

    I also came to appreciate another topic explored (to various degrees) in those books – male bisexuality. Again, it wasn’t something I’d deliberately sought out, having been a (then) straight-identified man who just wanted to enjoy a good, sexy read. But in the words of a gifted writer, and as part of an engaging story, male bisexuality sounded exciting and beautiful. When I began to understand and explore my own desire for men, I came to appreciate the complexity and quality of that writing on a deeper level, too.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Wow, Brian! It’s really thrilling for an erotic author to hear that her work was partly responsible for a sexual awakening ;^)

      Thank you so much!

      And as you mention it, my attraction to male bisexuality — to bisexuality in general — had definitely earned me criticisms from Romance readers.

      Well, that’s just too bad…

      • Brian


        I’m not surprised that your treatment of bisexuality hasn’t been to the liking of some Romance readers. Their discomfort with the theme in your writing no doubt mirrors attitudes and misunderstandings that are more generally present in society.

        I think that well-written bisexual characters can do much to help dispel those stereotypes, just as we as bisexual people can help dispel them by being open with people in our own lives.

        When characters who enjoy sex with men are also shown to be as fulfilled in their sex with women, it chips away at the belief that bi men don’t truly exist. And well-written descriptions of same-sex intimacy do much to dispel other myths. I’m glad that you’ve chosen to disregard the criticism and to explore both female and male bisexuality in your writing.

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