Erotica author, aka Elspeth Potter, on Writing from the Inside

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Making Stories Stand Out

Be Different. Be. Different.

I was talking about experimentation and difference in the last post. I think my attention to difference is one of the reasons I manage to sell stories consistently.

Erotica stories, by their nature, are somewhat the same. The gender or sexuality of the participants, and the sexual acts involved, are barely an issue in the structure. I will break this basic structure down into an outline. Your mileage may vary.

Basic Structure of an Erotic Story

1. Introduction of the characters to the reader.Are they an established couple? Have they known each other for a while, and this story shows a change in their relationship? Are they meeting for the first time?

2. Establishment of conflict.Some stories skip this part; I call those “porn.” This is, essentially, the plot’s fuel. What does one character want, and how will he or she obtain it? Will it be obtained? What obstacle is in the way of either consummation of the relationship or pleasant consummation of the relationship? Etcetera.

3. Actual sex scene, which mirrors classic plot structure: rising action, climax, denouement. Frequently, the denouement includes the possibility of the relationship continuing into the future.

Therefore, because the structure is very similar across the board, the differences–the more salable differences, that is–are other than plot.

Characterization is my favorite. Write about people with problems. They’re more interesting, and more memorable.

The other choice, especially applicable to genre writers, is setting. Two people meet in a bar is a common plotline, but if the bar is in, say, a spaceship, or in Napoleonic France, it’s automatically standing out from the crowd. This technique can be especially useful when submitting to themed anthologies, because standing out is more difficult when not only plot structures but themes are already set.

Working on Difference

The writing process starts with an idea…well, if you want to be philosophical, the process really starts with the desire to write…or perhaps the writer’s birth. Or conception. But anyway. My ideas sometimes come out of my head, randomly, the desire to write about a particular action in an interesting way, or a particular sort of character, or a particular setting. More often, the desire to write and thus the idea are sparked by a call for submissions. When I said I sold most of what I wrote, part of the reason is that I am often writing to a specific market, which helps improve my chances. Taking that initial idea and identifying the approach that will make it different from most of the other submissions, or at least more appealing to the editor, is the harder part.

Setting is one thing, as I mentioned before. So far, I have written and sold stories set in a spaceship in the middle of a war; a futuristic prison planet inhabited by giant people-eating turtles; an aid station in World War One; a fairy tale land with sea monster; and a pseudo-historical version of France.

Whenever I see an opportunity to write a genre story, I take it. I could write a story about a girl on vacation, or I could write it about a girl on vacation In Space. Easy decision. If I happen to be doing research for a bigger project, as I am with WWI, why not use that research for a short erotica piece? In fact, why not use it more than once?

As for characters, I like to vary them in their basics as well as in their more esoteric qualities. “Twisted Beauty” features a man with paralyzed legs; “Worship” an older couple, one of whom is becoming crippled with arthritis. The story can be more intensely involving if the characters have something specific to overcome. It needn’t even be the obvious. In “Worship,” declining physical condition was part of the problem, but the protagonist’s own doubts were even more so. Trusting her partner, and herself, was the solution. In “Twisted Beauty,” the protagonist’s paralysis wasn’t the issue for him as much as continuing with his sex life as it had been before, finding someone who would see him not as a cripple but as a man, who, incidentally, enjoyed a little domination.

I’m Too Sexy for This Story

Another way to make stories stand out from the slush is style. The problem is identifying which style will work in a given story and for a given editor; there’s no absolute method of quantifying style factors. I can talk about style, though, as a method of making stories different.
In “Worship,” for example, I was trying to indicate the character’s distance from her own crippled body and from her own life. I think the presentation of the story was at least or even more important than the events of the story.

I’ve tried first person several times. “Free Falling” was the first. Since I wanted a lighthearted, breezy story, that’s the voice I used. Also, the narrator could use sfnal slang to aid in the worldbuilding. In “Poppies Are Not the Only Flower,” first person enabled me to mimic early twentieth century formality, integral to the story’s setting during World War One.

“17 Short Films About Hades and Persephone” is laid out in small sections partly because of the disparate nature of the myths about Hades and Persephone. There’s not much continuity involved in the original sources, so writing an uninterrupted narrative would’ve been difficult and involved transitions that I didn’t really think were necessary. Some of the sections are only a couple of sentences long, adding rhythm to the narrative and serving as summaries of intervening time, for instance showing that things hadn’t changed in the relationship, or briefly recounting a failed attempt at change for humorous effect.

And Now?

Right now, I've had to put short stories aside while working on novels for Harlequin Spice, but in the meantime, I’ve continued marketing my unsold short stories as well as reprints. I hope to write more short stories in the future. In the meantime, keep your eyes out for The Duchess, Her Maid, The Groom and Their Lover and Moonlight Mistress by Victoria Janssen.

Related posts: Pithy Writing Advice.

Novel Beginnings: On Opening Sentences.


  1. Can't wait to read The Moonlight Mistress! :-) Good luck with the short stories!

  2. Interesting blog. I like to read things that open my mind.


  3. I love how you lay it all out. And "Hades and Persephone" is one of my personal muses - I love the tragic romance in that tell me more about this project!

  4. Thanks, Crystal and Carly!

    Jeannielin, the Hades & Persephone story is currently in Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica, but you can also read it for free online at's a direct link on my webpage, towards the bottom.