HERE’S THE THING: Adult Content in Fiction

ADULT-CONTENT. Noun. Content, such as pornography or violence, that is not generally thought to be appropriate for viewing by children.

As a writer, beginnings are important to me. Where a story starts, regardless of the genre or the plot, determines where it will ultimately end up. Of all the topics I could choose to discuss (read: ramble about) for my first post on this blog, why on earth would I go with adult content?

For starters, I consider it to be my roots. No, you didn’t read that wrong. I don’t mean that I wrote adult content before I wrote anything else – years ago, on a DeviantArt page that will remain unnamed*, I wrote a journal entry about an experience I’d had in a creative writing course. We’d been warned by the professor at the beginning of the semester that as we were college students, we would be encountering adult content of all kinds. That being said, our professor also warned us to not be unnecessarily gratuitous with that content, or our classmates may not like us much.

Fast forward to a couple months later, we had finished our rough drafts of some short fiction, and we’d been randomly assigned workshop groups. We didn’t get the chance to speak to one another before we went home that day, so I didn’t get the chance to mentally prepare for what I was about to read. I’ll just let 2015 Allison tell the rest of this story:

“I personally love doing peer reviews, and receiving them. I find them helpful and constructive, as long as everyone involved is open to criticism and free to disconnect from their story so they can fix it.

What I hate is reviewing horrible stories. And when I say horrible, I mean a prologue about a hungry black hole, and a first chapter about a fat man having sex with a beautiful woman who seems to have a fetish for unwashed feet. Did I mention this was supposed to be a three to ten page short story? Did I mention that this ‘prologue’ and ‘first chapter’ came out to a grand total of two pages? What in the actual…?

Let me state that I do not mind reviewing someone else’s erotic material in a classroom or workshop setting. We are adults and therefore will be expected to be mature enough to review adult material. Basically, I’m okay telling you what you did right and wrong with your erotica. However, if the intent of this unnamed person’s short story was to ‘arouse sexual desire’ (the actual definition of erotica), then they failed mightily. If they were trying to disgust or make the audience feel unpleasant, then they succeeded. “

This experience caused me to write a short list that I dubbed “Allison’s Tips and Tricks to Writing Sexy (and everything else)” out of pure frustration at what I’d read. I’ll get back to that list in a minute, but first, let me explain what it made me realize. I had a few writer friends on the site, all about my age or younger, and they actually took my advice. And it worked.

I ended up joining the staff of my college’s literary magazine, The American River Review, that fall. I spent the following two years working in various capacities on the staff, discovering more about student writing and editorial work than I’d ever thought I could. In that time, I’ve helped friends edit their short fiction, novels, poetry,  and creative non-fiction, completely immersing myself into the in-between world that is a LitMag. Somewhere along the way, I forgot to write.

That brings me back to my aforementioned list, which can be broken down into four key ideas:

  1. Don’t get too complex right away.
  2. Use language that fits the mood you’re trying to invoke.
  3. Characters should be more than flat puppets.
  4. Focus on the craft over the genre.

Ironically, even after the last two years of hard work, I would give the exact same advice today. Even though the original post was about sex and sexuality in short fiction, these ideas can be applied to all sorts of adult content.

If your story is violent or sexual, easing the reader into the world can make them more apt to pay attention and continue reading. Game of Thrones is a fantastic example of this – George RR Martin’s novels contain an immense world, full of grotesque violence and explicit sex. When you speak to someone who hasn’t read the books or seen the show, those are the first two things they’ll bring up. When speaking to someone who is a fan of either iteration of the series, they’re more likely to theorize about who will sit on the throne at the end of it all (my bet’s on Jon Snow).

In regards to the second point, language choice and combination is everything. This is a fact that’s been solidified for me through studying poetry. For example, if I say I drank tea this morning, that isn’t very descriptive. If I say I went into my kitchen, lit only by the little light coming in through the window, to brew myself a cup of off-brand hibiscus sweet tea, I’ve given you far more information. I’ve set the scene and given you implications about my behavior and character.

That idea goes into the third point and fourth points: characters and plot are more important than the genre. To quote angry 2015 me again:

“Is anyone being presented as a living sex toy? Write it again. Unless it’s fetish work, this is not appropriate. Characters have personality- they are supposed to be believable. Give them lives, backgrounds, morals, preferences, then throw them into a sexual situation with characters exactly as well rounded as they are. The reader doesn’t need to know all these things about them outright; your writing ought to take care of that for you. The reader should be able to garner personality from dialogue and actions, regardless of the scene. . . Even if it’s an erotica, focus on the sex LAST. Surprisingly enough, people like to read good books. If you want to be a good writer, regardless of your genre, your characters, plot, and everything else should come before whatever world they’re being placed into. Even if your book is all about the nasty, nasty sex two (or more) characters are having, it will be the better book if there is conflict, plot, and general interest. If people want to experience bad porn, they’ll Google it. If they want to experience bad erotica, they’ll pick up 50 Shades.”

The most important thing I want anyone reading this to take away is this: genre doesn’t have to be (and shouldn’t be) your main priority. Yes, if you know your novel/poetry/short fiction/creative non-fiction is going to contain extreme violence or explicit sex, you should keep that in mind. My point is that you should never allow your writing to suffer because of the themes you’re choosing to include and explore.

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! You’re more patient than I would be. Thank you for reading, and if you have any requests for topics for me to explore, please feel free to comment them here or on my Instagram (@allisonheartslife).

*I’m sure if you looked hard enough, you could find it. Good luck.

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4 thoughts on “HERE’S THE THING: Adult Content in Fiction

  1. I agree with what you said and the tips you gave. I have a question, do you think that the author of such novels have to be well informed and well experienced or do you think that an amateur can fabricate the same result; And I don’t want to step over the line but are you well aware of the theme to the point that you feel as though you can give others pointers. Before you answer think about it Perceiving or reading adult content is not the same as writing them. Specially when it comes to erotic themed Novels, stories ETC …

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    1. It all depends on your definition of informed and experience. In the long run, research will be your best friend when discussing any topic you feel uninformed about. Specifically in regards to sex and sexual behavior, it’s important that you do your research into the “genre” of sex you plan to include and focus on. For example, if your goal is to write about BDSM, there are hundreds of articles online about people’s personal experiences. The same can be said for other preferences – the best advice I can give you for writing your own work is to take it seriously. Make sure your information is correct, and don’t feel like you have to go over the top to make your writing arousing. I don’t have a ton of experience writing the material myself, but I write and read all the time. My recommendation for you is to pick out your personal favorite stories (erotica or no) and figure out what makes it work. Is it the characters, the language, or what? Next, pick out what doesn’t quite work. What would you change about it if you were editing for the author? I say if you’re inexperienced with writing the subject, start small. Write short, simple scenes that focus on body, relationship between characters, and the physical and emotional feelings. I hope this helps some!

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