Thank you to everyone who came to Sex in Flash Fiction. It was lovely to put so many names to faces. For anyone who wasn’t able to attend, this is the presentation in written form, along with the slides that accompanied it. It’s fairly long, and I cherry-picked a great deal, so it includes information that didn’t end up in the session. Feel free to view the slides on their own, or read them in conjunction with the text. Either works
However you do it, use what works for you and ignore what doesn’t. My only agenda was to give you tools to help you to sound like you at your writerly best. This session was about skills—not requirements. Play with them. Experiment. Keep what works and ditch what doesn’t. Trust your gut. No one knows as much about your writing as you do.
- The ability to make the most of a limited word count.
- A sense of how to use sex to convey meaning and impact.
- The ability to set up and subvert the reader’s expectations.
- Five concrete tools you can tailor to your own style.
Erotica can be divided into countless subgenres, but when you boil them all down they tend to fall into one of two categories—stories in which sex is the point, and stories in which sex makes a point. While this session focuses on the latter, you can just as easily apply it to the former or any other kind of fiction for that matter. But, before digging into this skillset, I want to talk terms.
WHAT IS FLASH FICTION?
Flash fiction is a story stripped of everything that isn’t fundamental to its story-ness. Picture a lush, fairy tale wood full of poison apples and snow queens and pretty ladies with long, long hair. That’s a novel. Now, picture a broken slipper on the forest floor. That’s flash.
Flash fiction takes a microscopic view. Because of that, everything counts. In flash, unlike in novels, what you don’t say means just as much as what you do. That’s why it’s such a powerful form for eroticism and sex.
Concision doesn’t leave room for extensive description, which actually great because we all know how sex works—you don’t have to waste time on thrusts per minute. We get it. What we won’t get is why it matters. In flash, context is king—it’s much more important than sexual mechanics. I know that might sound limiting, especially for an inherently descriptive genre, but there’s actually a lot of freedom in that restriction. It pushes you to find eroticism in the mundane and unexpected, and that’s a good way to connect to the reader.
SEX IN FLASH FICTION
Sex is everywhere, from the bend of a neck to ice cubes melting in a glass. The pressure of a limited word count demands specificity. You’re aiming for maximum impact in a story distilled to its essence. So, how do you do that with sex?
Surprise the reader.
You’re not going to do that by describing a blow job step-by-step. Remember, this is erotica, not a how-to manual. The impact isn’t in the mechanics. It’s in the significance. You have to make the blow job matter. Mine the characters for motive and meaning. Find the erotic in unexpected places. Sexualize things that aren’t normally sexualized. Set up the reader’s expectations. Then narrow your focus and twist the lens.
That’s how you make a story out of sex. Let sex seep into everything. Let it guide or subvert the reader’s expectations. That’s how you make a story out of sex. Make her horny. Break his heart. Anything goes, but first you have to assume the reader has a baseline understanding of how sex works, (and if they’re reading erotica, they probably do). The assumption will let you surprise them. That’s where the impact is.
THE FIVE TOOLS:
Pacing & Rhythm
All of these tools affect one another—Imagery leans on Details; Details lean on Negative Space, etc. There’s a lot of overlap, but details form the foundation the rest are built on, so that’s where we’ll start.
It’s not enough to paint a pretty, sexy, gritty, hot picture—the picture has to do something. The details can be as porny as Friday night on the Vegas strip, but they also have to reveal something fundamental about the story. If your details are generic, then your story is generic, no matter how well your characters get fucked.
Details are also a great way to subvert the reader’s expectations. Don’t tell me your protagonist is a “curvy blonde”. Tell me her nickname was Fuck Me Barbie in school…and then tell me she’s a virgin. Now, dig deeper. What if she’s hired an escort for her birthday? Does the escort know it’s her first time? How would that effect the experience? What if the escort was a woman? Would it matter?
Ask yourself questions and let your instincts give you the answers. Those answers are where you’ll find the details that give sex meaning in a story. It doesn’t matter if that detail has to do with a glass dildo or teacup. Details are the key to impact.
Kiss me a question, ask me again with your eyes and I’ll answer with my fingers, trailing reasons down your spine. There’s a theory behind your knees and postulate in that sweet spot on your neck, and I’ll respond to your query with a smooch and a holler, roll you up against the sink and wash your hair, make love till the plates fall off the shelf
-Lou Beach (from 420 Characters, p. 77)
Lou Beach is really good with details. The narrator is going to roll her up against the sink and wash her hair. What does that tell you about this couple? How about the smooch and holler? I get a lot more information out of that “smooch and holler” then I would from a “kiss and a smile”.
While it’s true that it would’ve been more efficient for the narrator to say, “I’m gonna to fuck you up against the sink,” that statement doesn’t tell this story. “I’m gonna to fuck you,” belongs to a different couple. This story and this relationship come alive in those falling plates.
With a super limited word count, you just don’t have room for generic prose. The reason Beach pulled that story off is because every word had effects the whole. Just as with details, words give a story momentum and punch, but only if you choose them carefully. You have to make every word count.
And now, a note on euphemism.
Euphemism can be tempting, especially when you’ve already used the word “cunt” fifteen times on a page. But instead of sucking up word count with passion petals, try rephrasing the action. Whereas euphemisms yanks the reader out of the story, rephrasing is less likely to distract. As an added bonus, it usually results in tighter prose. And less cringing.
In her excellent post on flash fiction, writer, poet and editor, Adrea Kore, recommended that you “work your verbs hard” and she’s right. The same goes for nouns. Regardless of whether you’re writing a sentence or a novel, strong, specific words make tight prose. Hit hard with your nouns and verbs, and half your description is taken care of.
Muscled nouns and verbs also let you be sparing with adjectives and adverbs. I’m not saying don’t use them. All I’m saying is choose where and how. If every noun comes with an adjective, the picture gets muddy, but if you’re selective, the few that you do use make the details pop.
Another thing you can play with is reflective words. Think about your characters or situation. Is he trapped in a seedy hotel room? Or does he live in a seedy hotel room? Let his circumstances show in the words you use. Does he have “a nicotine grin” or a “church-lady grimace”? Reflective words show us who he is more efficiently than paragraphs of background.
it always comes back to you
its way back to you.
– Rupi kaur, (from Milk and Honey, p. 114)
Like flash fiction, poetry demands concision. The poet, Rupi Kaur is a magician with concision because she wrings the most out of her words. Boils…circles…itches…. Her feelings for this person are not easy or comfortable, but she’s going to do it anyway because this person has a pull. It’s inevitable, regardless of how she feels about it, and we know that because of the words she chose to describe her compulsive attraction.
PACING & RHYTHM
Pacing and rhythm effect how your reader engages text on a visceral level. Play with rhythm and you play with the reader, but before you can do that, you have to jump start the story.
In flash fiction, there’s no room for build up, so don’t be afraid to start in the media res. It doesn’t matter if it’s an argument, seduction, an orgy, a date, a trip to the grocery store, whatever. Start in the middle of the action. Dropping the reader in gives the story urgency, and urgency is a very good hook…which brings me to rhythm. Rhythm is a great way to pull on that hook.
You know how every conversation has a rhythm? Those rhythms are dictated by details, everything from how well the people know each other and whether or not he’s wearing knickers. The same thing goes with prose, except a story’s rhythm is dictated by details in context and narrative rather than by life.
You can play with rhythm in a lot of different ways, but one of the easiest is word choice. Use alliteration and assonance. Pay attention to the way a word feels in your mouth. Slither, crack, liquid. What does the sound imply? Good words set a tone. The reader won’t consciously know what you’ve done, but you’ll grab them by the brain stem if you choose words that establish and mirror the rhythm of the action.
Another good way to play with rhythm is to vary the length of your sentences. Use fragments, and long winding sentences. Punctuate long winding sentences with fragments, or even single words. If a character’s getting off, let the prose mirror the sex, her orgasm or her state of mind—long and drifting or hard and biting? Again, the reader won’t necessarily notice but, subconsciously, they’ll feel it as they read. That’s how you get under the reader’s skin.
When she closed her eyes she felt he had many hands, which touched her everywhere, and many mouths, which passed so swiftly over her, and with a wolflike sharpness, his teeth sank into her fleshiest parts. Naked now, he lay his full length over her.
-Anais Nin, from Delta of Venus.
One long, rolling sentence, followed by a short, sharp one. That first sentence, with its dreamy build and “many mouths” cuts off with “wolflike sharpness”. Then she follows it with a straightforward statement of fact—“naked now, he lay his full length over her.”
That rolling rise to blunt statement mimics her emotional experience while they’re having sex, and it’s all executed through pacing and word choice. The rhythm lulls the reader right in—your there before you even know how it happened.
Negative space is subtext that functions on the same principle as rhythm—it forms a visceral connection between the reader and the story. Think of it as a doorway into the text, one you deliberately leave open. There are a lot of ways to do this, but two of the simplest are ambiguity and implication.
Casually speaking, ambiguity and implication do roughly the same thing—they allow for more than one interpretation, but they do so in two different ways. Ambiguity blurs the reader’s ability to draw a definitive conclusion, and implication sets the stage for multiple conclusions.
Ambiguity is all about the deliberate use of details. Unless it’s relevant to the core of the story, don’t waste word count describing her tits, or her hair, or her big brown eyes. Instead, use active description to invite the reader into her sexual response—the peaky, unfamiliar ache of the clamps on her nipples, or how she feels her heartbeat in her cunt.
Ambiguity is not about leaving details out. It’s about creating space for the reader in the details you give. Lack of specificity in some areas paired with great specificity in others leaves the story open so the reader can slide in, and that’s exactly what you want.
Implication, on the other hand, is about interpretation. It works off the same basic principle but, whereas ambiguity leaves a door open for the reader, implication sets up multiple doors, and then allows the reader to choose. This leads me to writerly kryptonite—the impulse to control and explain.
When I first started writing, I wanted the reader to completely understand EXACTLY what I meant, so I tried to explain everything.
Ages ago, I wrote a story about a guy who didn’t answer a text from his crush. I went on to explain that he’d just had a really bad break up with his ex, Michelle, who left him for his sister’s best friend, Tammy, who was from Wyoming, where they now live and raise llamas on a ranch next to a chicken farm and when they aren’t raising llamas and selling boutique llama wool, they’re having amazing lesbian sex that he can hear from three states away.
I put all of that in, just in case—even though it was supposed to be a 100-word story about regret. Needless to say, Tammy and the llamas did nothing to distill that story’s core. All I did was clog the negative space and spoon-feed the reader a pile of useless information. In trying to control the reading, I lost the point.
Negative space is an act of trust. You cannot control how a story is read. You can only control how you write it. So, basically, you have two choices. You can either make the reader complicit and let them interpret your story through the lens of their own experience, or you can fill the negative space with a single, magical meaning. Unfortunately, single magical meanings lock the reader out and risk losing their interest. That’s risky under any circumstance, but even more so when you don’t have enough word count to reel them back in.
They walk hip to hip, knuckles brushing, as they measure their potential in the rhythm of their feet
-“A Love Story in 18 Words” by Malin James
I posted this a few months ago. It’s an extreme example of negative space. The characters are unnamed and ungendered, all we know is that they’re trying to sort out whether or not to keep dating. The entire story takes place between the lines. My job, when I was writing this, was to create a frame for the reader to fill in. My priority was emotional resonance, so I wrote a story that was mostly negative space with that goal in mind.
If there were one tip I’d give anyone on writing flash fiction, it would be the one in that quote—start with one, strong, central image and build the story from there. It can be an image from a dream, a painting, a photograph—any kind of visual prompt. A woman writing on her skin, a tall, narrow house, a girl on stage at an auction. Each of those images became a story that wouldn’t leave me alone.
Imagery is the culmination of all of the other tools we’ve talked about. It’s made of specific, telling details and painted with words; it propels the story forward and invites the reader in. It sets up expectations, and just as easily subverts them. It is, in fact, the distillation of a story to its core. So, how does it work, especially with sex?
Start with one, strong central image. With erotic flash, that image can be obviously sexual or, just as effectively, seemingly innocent. This brings us full circle, back to finding sex in everything. Find it, and you’ve got the germ of a story.
Take the obviously sexual image of a couple fucking in a hotel window. You’ve set the reader’s expectations right out of the gate, so now you’re free to mine the characters and situation for unexpected details. What if this isn’t their hotel room? What if they stole the key? What if she’s setting him up? What if he knows?
Dig into the details around that overtly sexual image, and surprise the reader. Take what they expect—exhibitionist sex in a window—and make it significant in some way. Take the reader’s expectation and turn it on its head.
Now, let’s take an image that has nothing to do with sex—like a pair of striped socks. Where is the eroticism in a pair of striped socks? Is it in the memory of the first time they fucked? Did he leave the socks on when everything else came off? Did his partner teased him about it? Or does she wear them under a pair of spiked, patent-leather boots? Are rainbow striped socks her clean little secret?
Imagery taps right to the reader’s expectations—set them up, and then confirm or subvert what you’ve implied. It’s a way to directly engage the reader, give the story impact and distill the story’s core all at the same time.
Here’s an example of imagery at its flash fiction best:
She pulled up my sleeve and bit me ‘til it left a mark. She left me a scent of giggles and a note on my skin saying: “Now you’ll remember me.” I walked around for five days with a bruise that had the backside of a rainbow and screams of My oh my. I’ve never been so angry before.
-from “Mine” by Szilvia Molnar, Quick Fiction)
This fragment illustrates how an image can pull all five tools together. A bruise that has “the backside of a rainbow and screams My oh my”…there’s our central image.
Given the playfulness of the bite (the scent of giggles and the “now you’ll remember me”), the reader gets a sense that this was a pivotal experience, laid over with the kind of unspoken eroticism you get with a first crush. But then that last line—“I’ve never been so angry before.” There are acres of negative space in that statement, which has double the impact because of that bruise—that bright, back-sided rainbow of a bite.
The story swings from Coca-Cola sweetness to confused betrayal in less than two lines, all because of details, word choice, rhythm, negative space and imagery hang in meaningful balance. Even more importantly, the author trusts the reader to find that meaning for themselves.
It’s a brilliant piece on all fronts and, while it’s not deliberately erotic, the image it centers on—the bruise—is deeply erotic. Even better, that eroticism underscores an overall effect that is complicated and deeply human. That is eroticism at its most powerful. Human complication is right at home with sex.
While the tools I’ve talked about have a place in all writing, flash demands a little extra focus in how they get used. But there’s no magic formula. Anyone can do it, especially if you’re willing to surprise yourself. Surprise yourself, and you surprise the reader.
Unlike long-form fiction, flash isn’t about dating the reader. It’s about giving them a hard, smacking kiss. It’s up to you, as the writer, to provide the chemistry. Sometimes it takes experimentation to get the balance right, but when it works it’s immensely satisfying.