Often, when I ask erotica authors the theme of their story, they say, “Sex?” If you want to sell more work, make more money, and receive more recognition, that's a bad answer. Your story has to contain other elements. Here why:
1. Every compelling story has a theme, usually tied to common human issues and emotions. The Shining? Ignore your problems (or try to hide from them), and they’ll come back and bite you in the ass—hard. Gone with the Wind? Don’t be so focused on what you want today that you sacrifice what you need tomorrow (because, Scarlett, though tomorrow is another day, you might wake up and find what you want most doesn’t give a damn about you anymore).
2. It’s difficult to write an interesting story where sex is the whole story. We’re adults. We’ve had sex. We’ve seen it and read about it. Most of us have had issues that impact our enjoyment of sex, our comfort level surrounding fetishes, discussions about sex, or our relationships with people because of sex. Despite our familiarity with it, sexual desire still embarrasses or shames many people. It delights the hell out of others who've managed to get past all that. These things are always more intriguing than the sex bits. Even if you write straight-up porn, you can elevate it by adding thematic elements to your plot.
Few stories linger in my memory because most erotica writers today ignore everything but the sex. A favorite story, Normal by Charlotte Stein, is full of sex, but the theme is sexual fear—what if you find you enjoy edge play a little too much for comfort? Another erotica writer who gets the power of theme is Remittance Girl.
3. Okay, so why don’t more erotica writers use themes? Some writers have trouble with themes because they don’t understand what they are or how they work. Some resist sending a message or conveying a moral. They confuse subjects and opinions with themes. Drug addiction and death are subjects, not themes. Sex is a subject too, not a theme. A theme contains the story’s controlling idea, emotional lesson, or moral argument (though no moral judgment must occur). A theme is not a box or a rule. No one likes those. A theme is like a thread, tying things together and giving the sex meaning.
Some writers are lazy. They want to write a story and be done with it. The idea of editing, developing, or (god forbid) changing anything, sounds like work. “It’s just a story,” they say. “My narrator is unreliable,” they insist, to cover weak writing. “If I rewrite things, it won’t be my story anymore.” To all that, I call bullshit. Professional writers know the real story (and the theme) emerges in the editing. It’s hard work but worth it when you create something of substance, not just another story about doing it.
4. Themes give us familiar images and comforting signposts along the way. Think of any Disney movie (yes, even though we’re talking about writing sex). The stories might involve evil circus-owners, or talking lions, or princesses with enemies, but they all contain elements we’ve come to recognize—abandonment, happily-ever-after endings, mommy/daddy issues, fairy tale and mythology touch-stones. We plunge right into Disney’s worlds because so much is already embedded in our memories. They tap into common themes. Use themes wisely, and you help readers fill in the blanks, so you can focus on the meat of your tale and on your character’s development. You won’t have to resort to lengthy explanations, back-stories, long descriptions, or dull dialogue to tell your story.
5. Themes tie together otherwise disparate elements. With a well-thought-out theme, you can write from multiple perspectives, in first person and/or third. You can flash forward, backward, or sideways, and your reader will follow your theme breadcrumbs and walk away feeling as if they’ve read one solid piece of writing. Themes are stepping stones to better writing. Well-done themes enchant readers and editors alike. Anita Shreve masterfully shows this skill off in her excellent novel, The Weight of Water, jumping back and forth in time, perspectives, and tense. Though considered mainstream, this work contains many erotic elements, most of which would not have worked without such a strong theme and command of writing.
Feel free to chime in, or ask questions in comments, if you'd like help figuring out how to start using themes in your writing.