Writing Good Erotica, Part 7: The Madness of Modifiers

One thing that seems to characterize bad erotica, and bad writing in general, is an overabundance of adjectives and adverbs. Weak writers often get into the habit of larding up weak nouns and verbs with strong modifiers, instead of just starting with strong nouns and verbs and not trying to amp them up even further.

I’m not in the business of calling out other writers, but I have to share a snippet of something I just came across, which illustrates well the point I’m trying to make with this post.

She took solace in the hard, gray walls and thick iron bars that held her there. The chaotic thoughts of her overactive mind eased away. Her mind was consumed by an acute awareness of her shivering body covered only by a transparent white chemise.

We have here two sentences and 44 words, of which a whopping 10 are adjectives (I’ve bolded them above just to make things clear). Of the nine hapless nouns in this passage, only two have escaped some sort of modifier. Three of the poor things are carrying two adjectives on their backs.

This is a writer trying to do way too much of her readers’ work for them.

There are two problems going on here.

The first is stuffing too much into your readers’ heads. Perhaps the hardest part of fiction writing is letting go and understanding that your readers are going to envision things differently than you did when you wrote them. There is simply no way you can avoid this, and trying to stop it by sketching out every possible detail of every single scene, as the writer above appears to be trying to do, is just going to slow them down and annoy them.

The other, larger problem is that weak nouns and verbs cannot be strengthened to any great degree by strong modifiers. Since we’re discussing erotica, a metaphor that might work here is trying to cure erectile dysfunction with a penis extension. Simply put, it’s no replacement for a good solid hard-on.

Nouns and verbs are the framing of your writing; adjective and adverbs are just window-dressing: okay in moderation and when carefully placed, but not capable of holding up the house on their own.

If you want your writing to feel strong and vivid, you need to start with a strong, vivid frame. When you feel yourself reaching for a modifier to shore up a weak noun or verb, stop and ask yourself if there is a strong noun or verb that could stand alone without the decoration.

How might one have drafted the passage above without all those modifiers? Here’s my attempt:

She drew comfort from the stone and bars of her cell. Her mind was stilled, drawn instead to the chill of the dungeon, which her chemise did little to ward off. 

I’ve cut this from 44 words to 31, largely by excising every single modifier. Instead of trying to describe what’s going on here, I’ve merely suggested it. We don’t know what color the stone is, nor what the bars are made of, nor the details of the chemise, but do they really matter? Stone is usually gray and always hard, and bars in these situations are typically iron. Chemises by definition are thin, and the color here is irrelevant. We don’t know that she’s shivering, but the reader can easily imagine it—what else would she be doing in a dungeon, dressed in nothing but her underwear?

Making your readers work for their supper is how you get them engaged in your story. Don’t force feed them; make them come to the table and serve themselves. That’s how you get them coming back for more.

 

6 comments

  1. I understand your point and agree to an extent, but it’s hard to really get a feeling for whether there are too many (or too few) modifiers without the full context. While the edited version is a cleaner and more direct version, the tone and the tenor is completely different.
    If I’m reading a gothic-tinged piece, I want the musicality of those double modifiers, the throbbing suggestiveness of hard and thick confinement. It reads “dungeon” to me, while the second reads “prison” – similar, but not the same. Similarly, the white and transparent modifiers are extraneous in this paragraph, but without a sense of the larger piece, it’s hard for me to say they are completely useless. I could see there being a stab at symbolism or some other use where color and hyper-emphasis on transparency is called for.
    The real weakness in that first piece – to my eye – isn’t the modifiers but the repetition of “her mind” and the odd distance between body and mind. That’s the part that creates a repetitive beat and also kills the immediacy of what should be direct and sensual (the chill, the vulnerability).
    Anyway, long reply, but I’m loving these. I’m so happy to see people seriously discussing the need for strong writing in erotica.

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    1. Your thoughts bring up another key point here, and that’s that there’s a time and a place for everything in writing. Certainly there are times you want long strings of modifiers because of the resonance you can create in doing it. And I agree with what you said about the disconnect between her mental and physical states here. You could fix that, as you said, and create a very different tone. It’s just that that sort of writing is trickier than being sparing with your modifiers, and I’ve seen it trip up a lot of novice writers. As I think I said elsewhere in this series, learn the rules before you start breaking them.

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  2. Points all well taken. This series of posts presents a lot of good tips, but also raises some good jumping off points for deeper discussion. I look forward to more!

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