Friday, November 7, 2014

Plausibility


by Jean Roberta

(Note: An earlier version of this piece was posted on the Erotic Readers and Writers Association blog, May 26, 2014.)

My latest erotic story (see explanation below) was written in response to a call for submissions, and it involves the kind of plot/situation that erotic editors often ask for: sex with a Bad Girl/vampire seductress/or Lone Wolf/outlaw dude. Exciting sex between a character with whom the (supposedly average) reader can identify and a mysterious, unsettling Other sounds like a marketable concept. Whether this plot is believable on any level depends on each reader’s level of skepticism.

Persuasive character development depends on convincing the reader that this character would actually do that thing. Some writers, especially those who write first-time erotica (innocent youngish character loses his/her virginity in some sense by doing some sexual thing for the first time) try to pre-empt the reader’s skepticism by putting extreme ambivalence into the character’s consciousness. (“OMG! Did I really just accept the handsome stranger’s invitation to let him take me to his chateau alone? I can’t believe I’m doing this!”) The virginal character’s attempts to hang onto a clean and cautious image of herself (and usually this character is a her) ring false after awhile. Either she will or she won’t go to the home of a strange man. While there, either she will or she won’t take off all her clothes for him and let him tie her up. If she goes “all the way” (as it used to be called) and has incredible orgasms, then clearly she is the “kind of girl” who does that kind of thing. She can no longer honestly claim to be a virgin. Of course, she could still be a good person who treats others as she would like to be treated (and who harms none), but in that case, she needs to reject a shallow definition of “goodness” as sexual ignorance.

Erotica is often about transformations and epiphanies. Doing new things involves acquiring new knowledge, especially knowledge about oneself. This is part of the reason why character-driven erotica is interesting to read. However, critics will criticize a change that looks unbelievably extreme, OR a series of sexual adventures that leave a central character absolutely unchanged on the inside.

Writing plausible erotica is harder than it looks, especially since different readers have different thresholds for the suspension of disbelief.

Crits and complaints often focus on whether Character A would really be attracted to Character B, and what action, threat or proposition can or should be regarded as a deal-breaker. If Character B (the handsome stranger) says, “A pretty girl like you should be stripped naked and tied up,” and if Character A (the ingĂ©nue) then falls into his arms, some readers will complain that she is Too Stupid to Live, and others will say that in real life, she would rush out the door and resolve never to return to the bar – and for good measure, she would stop speaking to the mutual friend who introduced them.

Some readers will ask, “But why would Character A (law-abiding citizen) be attracted to Character B (rake, seductress, criminal, spy, visitor from another planet) when they are so different?” (Obviously, opposites never attract in the real world, even on the rare occasions when they cross paths.)

Sexual identity is actually a slippery thing, but some readers expect clarity: Lance is a gay-male porn star who was performing in the nude since birth. Bob is less flamboyant, but he knows he is attracted to men, and this is made clear to the reader from the outset, even if he won’t admit it aloud. Bob could possibly be seduced by Lance, but Bob wouldn’t make the first move. Bob couldn’t be married with children, and he could never enter Lance’s profession.

Some heterocentric critics have commented on the general acceptability of female/female sex scenes in sexually-explicit writing – but only if at least one of the characters finds Mr. Right or stays happily married, because she is not really a lesbian. (The real ones always wear labels, or strap-ons.)

During the period of suspense between sending a story to an editor and getting a response, I worry about all the possible reasons why the story might be rejected. A perceived lack of plausibility is high on the list, even if the call-for-submissions asked for vampires, werewolves, zombies, or a Romeo-and-Juliet romance between members of different supernatural species. (But would any self-respecting bloodsucker really . . . ?)

If and when I write my memoirs, I expect them to be rejected by the first 36 publishers on grounds that 1) the story lacks continuity, and 2) it lacks plausibility. For one thing, even if the author/narrator really lost her virginity in her teens, this can’t be stated in print without possible legal repercussions. And would she really have been attracted to the older brother of her Mormon friend? Why did the attraction not develop into a relationship? The plot trajectory needs editing.

I suspect that a certain incoherence is actually typical of real-life narratives, especially if written while the subject is still alive. A fictional version of the story is likely to be pared-down and simplified rather than expanded. Embarrassing, unlikely or seemingly irrelevant events and characters need to be weeded out to give a story the coherence which would give a comforting impression of logical cause-and-effect. I can imagine an editor’s comments on the complete, unexpurgated, five-volume version of my life-story to date: What is the theme here? Where are you going with this?

So I’m waiting to hear what an editor has to say about my story about a passionate encounter between mismatched acquaintances, one of whom needs to escape from the police as well as from a criminal gang, while the other wants to experience the “wild side” just for a night, without taking any big risks. A safe apartment, a safe job and a safe income look almost unbearably desirable to one who never had them, but the one who takes them for granted can’t see it.

What is realistic and what is not? The longer I live, the harder it seems to write fiction with the unmistakable flavour of life, especially if it is based on reality that is stranger than fiction.

(P.S. "Shelter," my story about the passionate encounter between mismatched acquaintances, was published in Forbidden Fruit: Stories of Unwise Lesbian Desire.)

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7 comments:

  1. I remember the earlier version of this post! Still very true and great to read. Please forgive me if my comment is that same—I suspect I'm reacting to a similar section of the post.

    I, too, worry about plausibility all the time, and find that both important and amusing for the reasons you describe. I'm also pretty sure my real life would be rejected as implausible. Certainly incoherent. I think it's interesting that this is the nature of real life, but not of our fiction.

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  2. Jean:
    I don't worry about plausibility when I'm writing from my heart or my collections of personal fantasies. My six word biography, "Got the girl, forgot the money" is as implausible as time travel based on the arc of my life. Fiction only approaches the implausibility of reality.

    I love this: Some writers, especially those who write first-time erotica (innocent youngish character loses his/her virginity in some sense by doing some sexual thing for the first time) try to pre-empt the reader’s skepticism by putting extreme ambivalence into the character’s consciousness. (“OMG! Did I really just accept the handsome stranger’s invitation to let him take me to his chateau alone? I can’t believe I’m doing this!”) The virginal character’s attempts to hang onto a clean and cautious image of herself (and usually this character is a her) ring false after awhile.

    It's not just new writers, this internal dialogue is a common trope in romance from established writers. It drives me bonkers, especially when it is compounded by switching POV to the other character who is doing the same thing. I recently read a 300 page novel that won romance writers awards where the only dramatic tension was the two characters misunderstanding each other-experienced through their internal dialogue rather than dialogue and action. Some readers just love it.

    I kinda like mismatches. I've got a story out about a laid back surfer who is smitten by a hard driving woman who is six feet-seven inches tall.

    Best wishes on your submission.

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  3. Fiction, at its best, must make sense. The story must satisfy our need for continuity and closure. Life doesn't work that way.

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  4. Thanks for commenting, all. I'm sure I'll continue trying to write stories that are more believable than my actual life, lol. I'm sure many of us do that.
    Spencer, my story submission was accepted & published. I was relieved.

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  5. For the record, I found your story in Forbidden Fruit completely plausible. I could imagine myself in the narrator's place. Although I was always the good girl, I was drawn to the rebels. I craved the freedom they seemed to experience. Someone like Razor would definitely have been able to push my buttons.

    Despite my comments in my kick-off to this topic, I rarely worry about plausibility. I'm much more concerned that my writing will be viewed as ordinary or hackneyed.

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  6. I liked that story a lot. In fiction, and especially in erotic fiction, being plausible shouldn't mean being ordinary. We need the reader to be able to identify with a character on some level enough to be stimulated by what happens, but if there isn't anything beyond the reader's day-to-day experience, why bother to read it?

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