The romance industry topped £2bn in 2015, the year Britain voted to leave the European Union. Romance writers have benefited from the growth in popularity of historical, biographical and adventure novels, as well as vampire, paranormal and fantasy series. Amazon’s top 100 best-selling books for 2015 are almost entirely romance novels, with the bestselling title, Fifty Shades of Grey, also being an erotica novel. However, success in the industry doesn’t just depend on writing a commercially successful book; it also entails learning how to write an erotica novel.
Why an Erotica Romance Book?
Whether you call them romance novels or erotica, all sex-related literary genres centre around a similar narrative structure and vocabulary: the love story. Indeed, the two genres are often confused with each other. But, while erotica features explicit sex scenes, romance novels deal more with the emotional and physical attraction between two people. An erotica romance book, therefore, combines the sexual tension of an erotic novel with the heartwarming story arc of a traditional romance novel.
The Growth of the Genre
When it comes to portraying sex, literary genres can be very limited in their scope. Consider the difference in vocabulary between a romantic comedy and a literary romance; the language surrounding sex in a romance is frequently far closer to pornography than it is to Shakespeare. While many literary novels revolve around mental and physical attraction, traditional romantic comedies generally prioritise the physical side – emphasising the ‘honeymoon stage’ of a new marriage, for example, or the ‘hump’ of a reluctant groom – and downplay the mental aspect. This can make for dull reading if you’re looking for a page-turning story.
It wasn’t until the latter part of the 20th century that literary novels began to experiment with more graphic sexual content and language. Some of the earliest notable examples of this are John Cheever’s The Wapshot Twins (1962) and John Cleland’s Fanny Hill (1748). But it wasn’t until the 21st century that the trend really took off. And since the publishing platform, Kindle, made all fiction easy to access and affordable, the market for literary erotica has grown exponentially.
Different Forms of Literature
While many celebrated literary writers have dabbled in erotica from time to time, it wasn’t always their primary focus. Consider William Shakespeare’s relatively tame works – mainly consisting of romantic comedies and historical dramas – compared to his French counterpart, Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre, in turn, was more influenced by existentialism and the works of Friedrich Nietzsche than he was by the works of William Shakespeare. This comparison highlights the influence of the cultural context in which a writer lives and the extent to which they are receptive to or influenced by this context. It’s likely that, had Shakespeare penned a romance novel, he would have toned down some of the more risqué elements. But this doesn’t mean that his work would have lacked substance or artistry.
The same goes for Toni Morrison. The Nobel Prize-winning author is famous for novels such as Beloved and The Bluest Eye, both of which centre around race and gender issues. While the subject matter of these novels often includes graphic sexual content, the language used is still relatively tame in comparison to her other work, the jazz-fuelled, stream-of-consciousness novel, Song of Solomon.
These works represent a significant departure from the norm when it comes to traditional literary fiction. But this doesn’t mean that all literature revolves around sex. Consider Edgar Allan Poe’s Telltale Heart, a gothic romance published in 1846. The novel tells the story of a young woman who is driven to suicide after being deserted by her lover. While it is, in part, a tragic love story, Poe uses language that would not be out of place in a salacious romance novel: “The room was a pleasant room; it was large and airy, and the window was open… The paper was the customary thin blue paper, and the pens were of the usual shape and size… The room looked as if it had never been disturbed… It was perfectly neat, and yet it looked as if it had never been touched by a woman – even by the aid of a maid.”
It is, therefore, incorrect to assume that all or most literary novels are, in some way, related to sex. Instead, one could argue that literature is a reflection of a society’s values and how they manifest themselves in everyday life. If these values are positive, so too will be the literature that depicts them. It’s a subtle but significant distinction, and it’s one that contemporary literature scholars, such as Professor Donna Williams, are looking to foster, in order to represent a more diverse range of experiences in fiction.
The Elements of a Good Romance
When crafting the perfect romance, it’s important to bear in mind the universal appeal of this genre and the elements that make for a good storyline. Above all else, a good romance needs a compelling narrative built around a sympathetic main protagonist and an arc of emotional growth – which, in turn, drives the plot in an unerring arc to a satisfying conclusion.
The protagonist – often referred to as the ‘heroine’ or ‘main character’ – should be a person of interest, possessing both charm and, perhaps, a quirky personality. They should also be somewhat morally ambiguous so that the reader is motivated to learn more about them, forming a connection with the character that extends well beyond the confines of the narrative. This ambiguity can be conveyed through their actions as well as their words – demonstrating that they are a three-dimensional character who, despite their ‘good’ qualities, also has ‘bad’ qualities that need to be understood and dealt with by the reader. An engaging and sympathetic protagonist enables the reader to identify with the character, which, in turn, makes the story more compelling.
As the story progresses, the protagonist should undergo a change – whether this is physical, emotional or both. In many romances, this change is tied to their progression through life, as a result of which their perspective on the world around them evolves and they become more rounded individuals. Life experiences, such as educational background, social status, travel and work environment, influence the way that a person perceives the roles that sex and love play in their lives. A good romance will consider and incorporate these influences – whether they are conscious or not – so that characters’ development, and the story’s progression, naturally evolve through interaction with the reader.
Where Do I Start?
Deciding where to start can be difficult. Any introductory guide to writing a novel will point you towards an ‘easy’ beginning – a story about a young, carefree protagonist waking up one day and realising that their life is perfect, for example, or about a group of friends who decide to spend a night away, at a luxury hotel, to celebrate an important birthday. While these narratives may not seem too complicated to write, they’re idealistic and unrealistic, and, ultimately, not very effective when it comes to starting a new story.
If you are fortunate enough to have a keen ear for narrative, you may discover that you have an excellent story inside you. But if the characters seem flat, the dialogue wooden and the plot contrived, the simplest, most obvious answer is: you don’t. Take the time to develop your characters and give them depth, and the plot will naturally follow suit – bringing you a story that is rich in content, believable and engaging.
As with any form of writing, rewriting is extremely important – both initially and throughout the developmental process. A key piece of advice for any author who is new to the genre is to read widely and, above all, to listen – to other writers and to the public – in order to obtain an unerring impression of what is working and what needs to be changed. Aspiring authors should also consider entering either short-story competitions or writing for the web – both of which can, potentially, lead to publication.