Hoo man. Touchy, touchy subject. I read a lot of erotica for reviews on Erotica Revealed and the Erotica Readers and Writers website and for personal pleasure and have judged a certain contest (which shall remain nameless as I pledged not to tattle), so it's no surprise that I often see themes repeated. Every time I mention in a review how much I hate certain erotica and erotic romance clichés, I get heated responses from people who love that particular set up. For example, redacted to save me from a shitstorm of hate mail.
What I always try to keep in mind as I read a set up that strikes me as all too familiar is Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch's comment that there are only seven stories: Man versus man, Man versus nature, Man versus God, Man versus himself, Man versus society, Man caught in the middle, and Man and woman. Others have argued that there are only three: Man versus Man, Man versus Nature, and Man versus God. However many you think there are, what that comes down to is that there's no truly original story theme. But, and this is a massive junk-in-the-trunk butt, every telling of a story is original. So no matter how many times I see what I think of as an erotica cliché, I have to force myself to get past the eye rolling "oh dear lord, not that old redacted, again" and focus on how the
hoary chestnut story is delivered. If the writer is skilled at his/her craft, I can usually forget every other version I've ever read. Many times, the story as a trip, not the destination, is all that matters. After all, when we read a mystery, we expect the mystery to be solved. So knowing how a story will resolve doesn't make it a less worthy read.
Recently, I saw an ad for a Red Riding Hood movie. My first reaction was, "Why retell that story? Everyone knows it already." But on reflection, I decided that was the wrong way to think about it. Maybe the movie maker had such a compelling version that s/he had to share his/her vision. Movies cost a lot of money. Getting a green light means that the pitch had to make it seem like a decent enough bet that the studio would put up the money, so at least in theory this movie version should be interesting.
I'm going to throw out a weird thought here. If we focus on the characters and not on the events of a story, it's possible that no matter how many times it's been told by other writers, it won't read like a cliché. (Experience proves otherwise, but I'm trying to be positive here.) You could probably recite Little Red Riding Hood to me right now, but your version, I would bet, wouldn't be exactly the same as another person's version. Maybe on the surface, Red Riding Hood is always some chick in a red cloak who wanders through the woods to visit her grandmother and inadvisably chats with a stranger along the way, but sometimes, she's a brave and resourceful young girl, a mirror of our better selves to hold up as an example of what we're capable of when we rise to the occasion. Other times, she's a young woman on the verge of discovering her sexuality and the consequences of choices. She may be a seducer of wolves, or huntsmen, or an axe-wielding sociopath who commits matricide. Who knows? There are a few "facts" of the story, but everything else is up to interpretation. There is no one right way to tell that tale. Through exploration of the character of Red, we can take many paths through the woods. All those paths may end up at the same place, but from the first sentence, they are all very different stories.
(Whew. Dodged a few bullets there. If you want to know the stories that make me cringe no matter how artfully presented, send me an email. Just don't get upset if I mention your favorite theme.)