Anyone can write smut. Whether they can write good smut is another thing entirely. There is no right answer to, “What makes good smut?” But I have opinions on what makes good smut. Several opinions.
1. It’s never just sex.
A story that only describes a sexual act is not a story.
It may be porn, which is fine, but it’s not a story. (Please note, I’m not referring to the fanfictional phenomenon known as the PWP, Plot, What Plot? or Porn Without Plot, because sometimes, because of the shared knowledge of the readers about the characters, there often is something going on besides sex.)
There needs to be a reason these two (or more, or fewer) characters are having sex. That reason does not need to be stated explicitly. The characters want something; if they only seem to want pleasure, then why now? With this person or persons in particular?
I always ask myself that at some point in either thinking up or when actually writing or editing erotica. Why? It’s best if the character has more than one reason. Again, you may know what those reasons are, but they don’t have to be in the story. The character might not even know what those reasons are. But they should be behind why, and also how the sex is taking place.
I’m saying, circuitously, that I think erotica stories need to have theme. Theme growing out of character, not plot. Because the plot in an erotica story is already set, in the most basic sense: characters meet or have met; they have sex; it goes well or badly; they will be together again or they won’t. It’s elements other than plot that make an erotica story good.
2. Smut is not a diagram.
An erotica story does not need to describe every single gesture in the entire act of sex. The story is not an engineering manual, nor an instructional one. I’ve read far too many stories that don’t leave out a single thrust or minuscule shift in position, and they usually don’t vary their tone throughout.
The sex scene has pacing and plot just like any other aspect of story. It progresses, usually to a “happy ending,” but not necessarily. It should ebb and flow and follow the feelings of the character; in a short story, it’s usually best to follow only one character, from the inside, so the reader experiences the story more directly. The slowing and speeding up can be linked to what the characters want, and why, and when, and how. It should all come together [heh] into one glorious whole, and leave the reader with a sense that she knows these people.
3. Let’s talk about length.
My speculative erotic stories are, mostly, short. Why? Because I don’t think they need to be longer. This is partly an artifact of my market, which is usually mainstream. Someone reading mainstream erotica doesn’t want to see too much worldbuilding, or at least the editor who’s paying for the erotica usually doesn’t. They want an intense sex scene, so that’s what I try to give them.
The trick in being short and intense, I believe, lies only partly in the strength of the prose style. Characterization is key.
I can hear the questions now from my imaginary audience–how do you establish a character in 2000 words and write a sex scene that is different enough to grab an editor and, later, a reader, oh, and also have plot?
In short erotica, I feel the plot is mostly a given. 1) The characters meet and exchange pleasantries (if they already know each other, we learn why they’re together now); 2) the characters fuck, with or without conflict beforehand (that’s Plot conflict, not necessarily personal conflict); and 3) the characters Climax. (Yeah, yeah, it’s funny to say “climax” with two meanings…I know, I know, get over it….) Optional ending 1) afterglow; 2) potential for future sex.
So, on to characterization. I think, for this sort of story, characterization reduces to want versus need. If you know what the character truly needs, and what they only think they need, you’ve got automatic plot, because usually there’s conflict between what a person wants and what they’re actually going to get. Just knowing that one fact (well, maybe it’s two facts) can be most of the plot, especially if you’re sticking to a single point of view. And in a story of 2000 words, it’s generally wise to stick to a single point of view.
The second character (and third, if you’re ambitious) can then be created simply as opposition to the first. His or her dialogue and action are there to thwart the pov character and, since this is erotica, eventually resolve into collaboration/compromise, resulting in Climax.
Simple example: POV character Joe is lonely, but afraid to sleep with Mary. So he needs sex, but doesn’t want it. Which leads me to ask why? Mary is really experienced, and Joe isn’t. Mary’s opposition could be that she both wants and needs sex with Joe. Why? Because she’s been in love with him for ten years, but thought he didn’t want her, but now can’t wait any longer and wants to push him one last time in the hope of achieving a lasting relationship.
I now have a starting point for the story. I only need details that link into and further that conflict. I don’t need to say that Mary likes to wear New Balance running shoes; I can use that word count to have her grab Joe in desperation and then tenderly brush his lips with hers, when he was expecting her to stick her tongue down his throat. Makes sense?
I always think I’ve really quantified techniques when I write them down like this, but in reality I’m not so mechanical. A lot of this activity takes place subconsciously for me, and the development of plot and characterization and the substance of the sex scene are intertwined tightly as a ball of twine. Your mileage may vary.
Preliminary Thoughts on Two Types of Erotic Novels.