Your plot is the engine that drives your story. It’s why your characters are there and it’s what’s motivating what they’re doing. At its most basic, a plot is about a) a character who has a goal and b) faces obstacles achieving his/her goal and either succeeds or fails to achieve it at the end. Every character and obstacle that you add to that formula complicates the plot. At the same time every story has to have at least this much of a storyline to make it a real story instead of a collection of words on the page.
When it comes to writing erotica, many people, even other writers, will tell you that erotica doesn’t require much of a plot. And it doesn’t, if you’re not writing to get published and build a larger audience for your work. But if you are, you’ve read countless guidelines that say that the editors want to see storylines that involve more than sex. Something else needs to happen too; the characters need to grow or the situation needs to change around them. For many writers, this is one of the lines that separates erotica from pornography: erotica has a fully developed story line, including a plot. For most writers, this is also the difference between a good story and a bad story.
That said, having a plot that is geared toward erotic situations is quite helpful if you’re writing erotica. An erotic plot can be as minimal as character A meets character B, they develop a brief relationship, then part never to meet again. Or as complicated as full-length novel in which the characters become increasingly intimate over the course of time and events.
Defining your plot before you start writing can be helpful for determining what your characters are like and how the story will play out and end. Some plots are inherently erotic, such as attending a sex party, for example. Others require some effort to make the situation erotic, like having your characters meet in a laundromat.
First consider the length of the story that you want to write. Is it a short story in the 3000 to 5000 word range? A novella in the 20,000 word range? Or a full-length novel? The longer the work, the more plot it requires to keep the story afloat. Otherwise, you end up with pages and pages of filler or worse, something repetitive and dull. On the other hand, if you’re writing a shorter piece, you don’t want to end up with an overwhelmingly complicated plot. Cramming a huge plot into a short story leads to loose ends and reader confusion. Either way, it simply doesn’t do justice to your writing.
Once you’ve decided on length, look at what kind of story you are writing. Science fiction and romance erotic plots are often relatively complex, pure contemporary erotica is often less so. The readers of the former will expect to find out something about the society the characters are living in as well as what it is that brings them together. Readers of contemporary erotica are participating in some version of the same society in their daily lives and won’t require the same context to understand what is going on.
After you’ve defined your story length and genre, try outlining some of the goals that your character(s) are striving toward and the obstacles in their way. This outline can be as simple as a list of questions or as complex as multiple paragraphs of description. The important thing is to establish what the story is about for you as an author. Ask yourself the following questions: what do your character's goals tell you about the characters themselves? What kind of situations would best enable your characters to achieve their goals? What kind would make it most difficult?
You don’t have to begin your story with the plot, of course. For some writers, myself included, it can feel as if the characters themselves are running the plot. I start out with the character and the character’s voice. Once that’s fleshed out in my head, I come up with a plot that the character can become enmeshed in. The positive side of this approach is that the plot flows more naturally and I don’t have to do as much tweaking of the character(s) to make it work since it’s a more or less organic whole. The downside is that if I get carried away with plot complications (at the instigation of my characters, of course!), the story balloons out of control and becomes something very different than the one I set out to write.
What I do to control this is to make lists of all the possible endings to my story and what it would take to get the characters to those ends. For example, my main character is a warrior assigned to guard a princess on a perilous trip to meet her betrothed in another land. The obstacles to reaching the objective are a warlord who wants the princess for himself; the princess, who isn’t sure that this wedding is such a great idea; and the warrior’s own internal conflicts. Possible endings include: the princess runs off with the warrior (option one); the warlord is defeated and the princess marries her intended (option two); the princess falls for both the warrior and the warlord and they all go off together (option three); or everybody dies (option four).
Generally speaking, the last option is the least viable one for erotic fiction, unless of course everyone gets laid a lot before they all die. It can be done, but generally I’d go for one of the other plots. Options one and three are good erotic setup situations, potentially fraught with sexual tension. At the same time, something needs to happen to happen to convince the princess that she wants to leave a life of luxury for option one to occur. For option three to work, she needs to have feelings for both the warrior and the warlord and something needs to motivate her to pursue those feelings. In order for the option two story arc to be interesting, something needs to happen along the way. Does she fall in love with one of the other two characters but decide to marry her intended to keep the peace? Is her betrothed just a better catch after she’s played around with one or both of the other two on the way there?
Once I’ve selected a plot that appeals to me, I start working with the characters and figuring out how they’re going to achieve their goals despite the obstacles. I usually begin with the How. All these characters have to be brought together to make any of the plots described above work. How becomes the warrior deciding to serve as the princess’ guard. How is also the warlord deciding on a plan of attack, but this can occur offstage unless he’s my point of view character.
Along with the How, is the Why. Is the warrior signing up for guard duty because he, she or they (because a warrior or a king doesn't necessarily need to be a dude) is broke? Because she has the hots for the princess? Because the King is blackmailing them into guard duty? For that matter, why does the princess have reservations about marrying her fiancé? Is there something about him that makes the warlord or the warrior or both look good in comparison? Remember that something needs to motivate your characters to do the things that they do.
Something else to bear in mind here is that some plots have been done so often that they have become cliché. Think about the plots you’ve read in the past; if it sounds familiar and you don’t have a new spin on it, figure it’s been done before. In the story example above, for instance, having the princess fall for the warrior after being rescued from the warlord is the easy way out. It’s predictable and the reader will see it coming a mile away. As a result, it’ll need something else: strong dialogue, unusual characters and higher stake obstacles to make it stand out.
Your plot should also be coherent. One action should flow from another in a logical way. Deviations from that flow need to be explained. The key to plotting erotica is not to lose sight of your goal, namely the story that you set out to write. Your characters need to end up in a situation that makes sense in the context of the rest of your story. You have to build up to it and develop your characters along the way. Remember that your plot helps your story stand out and highlights your writing and all the effort you put into it so don’t neglect it.
Check out the writing columns and other resources at ERWA for more suggestions and thoughts: