Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Dialogue Part 3 - Romance Erotica vs. Porn

I was in a Romance writing discussion on Google+ and somehow the subject of porn came up. 

The question distilled from the discussion was: "How can a writer confront sexuality as a component of Romance with pure honesty, and still avoid writing porn?"

It seems obvious to me, and probably seems obvious to you as well -- but I've read a lot of Romance in various genre-mixtures, and I've only seen this done full-out, no holds barred, once -- and that was in a fanfic! 

But that's where I learned to look for this subtle but extremely distinctive signature that divides erotica from porn.  I believe the writer was a professional fiction writer who was writing fanfic because the story was organic to the TV show universe it was derived from.  But maybe she (or he? who can tell?) was simply a good writer who had never felt like writing professionally (I've known many fanfic writers who work that way).

The technique is very simple to say but very difficult to do.  In that, it's like the rule "Show Don't Tell" -- every writer presenting their work for evaluation and expecting praise believes with absolute conviction that they have indeed shown not told their story!  Even when they have not.

And this simple distinction between erotica and porn is just exactly like that.  Erotica writers believe they have in fact done this, when they have not.

The reader may not even notice the failing! 

That's because it's a technique which combines most of the craft techniques we've explored in these Tuesday posts on this blog.

You've seen an accomplished portrait artist doing an oil painting, comparing the painting to the subject, putting down one brush, picking up another, dousing the brush with this and that, daubing on a bit of color, putting that brush down and selecting another -- considering, and selecting another, daubing, etc. 

Writing a great sex scene is like that, at least the first few times you do it because you have to train yourself to the technique mixture.  In that, writing sex scenes is just exactly like writing "action" or "chase" scenes -- an artform within a precisely defined structure. 

Writing a great sex scene that isn't porn is just like painting a portrait.

A portrait isn't a photograph of reality; an erotic sex scene isn't REAL sex. 

Exactly the same thing is said of dialogue -- good dialogue is not transcribed real speech. 

Exactly the same thing is said of action  -- good fight scenes are not REAL fighting. 

Like a good portrait, a good sex scene is a selective representation of reality. 

But above that and more than that, a good sex scene is a SCENE. 

A "scene" is a clearly defined unit, a building block of story. 

Like a "chapter" a scene does not start in an arbitrary place nor does it end in an arbitrary place.  The "middle" point of a scene is not arbitrarily determined by dividing the number of words in half.

Like a novel, or a story of any length, a scene has a beginning, middle and end defined by what happens. 

Here's part 2 of an entry here on scene structure with a link to the previous part. 

http://aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com/2009/07/6-tricks-of-scene-structure-part-2.html
Here's a post with links to Verisimilitude vs. Reality series:

http://aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com/2011/10/believing-in-happily-ever-after-part-4.html

Here's Plot vs. Story
http://aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com/2009/08/plot-vs-story.html

Shifting Point of View
http://aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com/2009/01/shifting-pov.html

And what you can do in a Novel that you can't do in a Film:

http://aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com/2008/09/what-you-can-do-in-novel-that-you-cant.html

All of these blog posts introduce  concepts and techniques that must be orchestrated when you construct a sex scene that is not porn.

But we're talking here about the sex scene.

First and foremost, it must be a SCENE -- with all the components of a scene in their proper places and proportions as delineated in those previous posts.

Secondly, this peculiar scene, the sex scene, usually (not always) delineates an encounter between two people. 

These two people do certain things to, with, beside, and for each other -- they interact.

Read that last sentence again, carefully and think about it hard.  What does it really say about what the two people in the sex scene are DOING? 

One acts, the other reacts by doing something, to which the first reacts by doing something, to which the second reacts by DOING something. 

Read that last sentence again and think about it.  What does it describe?

Does it describe a fight scene?

Does it describe a conversation?  High Tea?  A waltz?  A chase scene? 

It describes any and all of the above -- including a red-hot-steaming sex scene.

Just like a conversation, a sex scene can be in total private, in complete public (such as on a stage before an audience), in private but overheard or peeped at, etc. 

So what exactly is a sex scene?  What distinguishes it from other scenes in a story? 

Is the distinguishing characteristic that the two people have, mimic, or approach and retreat from intercourse? 

If that's the case, what exactly is intercourse that distinguishes it from a) violence b) chase c) conversation? 

From the dramatist's point of view, strictly speaking, nothing distinguishes the sex scene from any of these other kinds of scenes. 

All of these types of "scenes" (violence, chase, conversation, dance, -- anything two people do) is fundamentally sexual in nature.

The key to good drama of all kinds (mystery, suspense, wargames, strategy-and-tactics of say, Napoleon, Civil War, Helen of Troy, King Arthur)  -- all of these kinds of drama are fundamentally sexual in nature, and the dramatic component takes its power, its fuel, from the basic human sex drive.

Watch some Indiana Jones movies with your finger on pause, and note down what happens in sequence in the chase scenes.  Strip that out into RISING and FALLING tension -- look at the pattern.  Use that pattern in a sex scene.  DYNAMITE.  Because that's what it is.

Or at least that's one way of looking at the world, or perhaps just the human world. 

Personally, it's not my way of looking at the human world, but it is a way that I learned to look -- as a portrait artist has to learn to see light and shadow instead of a person.  For me, it's an optical illusion, but a very useful one to a dramatist. 

So if all dramatic art is essentially just a sex scene, what's the difference between eroticism and pornography?

It must be a very fine line because most people don't see it and don't really care.  They either throw out all eroticism as porn or imbibe all porn as if it were mere eroticism. 

To me, that's like saying a novel that has a Vampire as a character must be a horror novel. 

That's actually a pretty good analogy because one easy way to get a handle on the difference between porn and eroticism is to understand the difference between "dark" and "light" in drama.

What is the difference between Romance and Horror? 

In publishing jargon, Romance is a genre and Horror is a genre, and you can't mix them because their formulas are opposite.

All good Romance has to have an HEA - a Happily Ever After ending. 

Romance may dip a tiny bit into the dark side of life, just for dramatic contrast, but the fundamental assumption of the nature of reality behind the Romance is the existence of the HEA, that it's real, permanent, attainable, and a final ending.  You get to win. 

All good Horror has to have an Equivocal Ending -- the nature of the universe is such that Evil can not be conquered by Good, nor can Good ever permanently be separated from Evil.  All happiness is "just for now" -- and Evil Will Rise Again.  Virtue, Honor, Good Deeds, etc do not exempt anyone from being wontonly destroyed by Evil.  Horror lurks in the basement of reality.  You can't win.

Which is true?  Probably neither.  These are marketing requirements, genres, not livable philosophies. 

But understanding these two views of reality can give you a start at grasping the difference between erotica and porn.

Erotica is of the Light.  Porn is of the Dark. (genre wise; not reality-wise).

To make the HEA possible, the couple involved in the sex scene has to achieve communication.  That two-way flow of emotional understanding is the essence of Love and of Happiness.  "When I tell him how I feel, he knows what I mean."  That's erotica.  It arouses the hope of fulfillment on a soul-level. 

In a reality where the HEA is not possible, nobody can achieve communication with anyone else.  Communication on an emotional level as well as a spiritual level is a thing of the Light - it makes us one with each other.  Porn is a thing of the dark.  It is self-gratification using another person without understanding that person's humanity or respecting the divine essence within the other human.   

Humans, possessing an animal body, can have sex without communicating with each other.  The exercise can go on and on, or repeat, without achieving an HEA, just as all animals do.  Humans can go through the gymnastics of sexual intercourse without communicating.  It even results in procreation!  Or not. 

And here's the shocker.

Humans can say words at each other without communicating, too. 

Think of a punch-and-judy-puppet show.  Round and round and round, with no resolution, no progress in the RELATIONSHIP, no change at the soul level.  That's porn personified.

Now think of one of those scenes where the feuding couple get trapped in a collapsed mine in the dark, or imprisoned in adjacent cells with only a hole to talk to each other through -- the raw, defenses-down-communication with rock-bottom confessions, self-admissions, etc, -- true honesty.  The relationship changes -- even if later, they deny it. 

Now here's the secret I learned from a fanfic writer about sex scenes.

A Non-Porn Sex scene is a DIALOGUE SCENE, even when no word is spoken.  

Caresses, movements, positions, shifts, touches of this part to that part, pauses for sensation to rise, fall, rise again -- it's DIALOGUE.

It's like sign language, a dialogue in movements. 

And like dialogue in spoken words, it's not transcribed reality. 

The rules for constructing such a conversation of caresses are the same as for constructing dialogue.

It's a discussion of problems.  If it's just hitting, venting, yelling and using the other person as your emotional garbage pail, then it's porn.  If it's a two-way dialogue, a problem solving session that results in a CHANGE IN THE SITUATION (as every scene must in a story) then it's erotica.

A sex scene is a scene first, sex later. 

It must advance the story, and must do so in a limited number of words (based on a percentage of the total number of words in the piece) or it will distort the pacing.

The same is true of a dialogue scene where the characters only pace the room and talk, exchange information, duel innuendo, threaten, plan together, whatever they're doing -- if it's done in dialogue, it is still a scene first, dialogue second, and must conform to the structural requirements of a scene. 

So there's the definition in a nutshell:

A sex scene is erotica if the participants communicate (albeit silently) to advance the plot and the story at a well-paced scene length toward a definitive resolution of the initial conflict.

A sex scene is pornography if the participants fail to communicate, and/or fail to advance the plot AND the story at a well-paced scene length and the activity does not lead to a definitive resolution of the initial conflict. 

I saw this video series on YouTube which crystallizes these notions precisely.

The screenwriting teacher (famous for his screenwriting) says a writer doesn't write dialogue, a writer writes STORY.



And that's it.  A writer doing a sex scene isn't writing sex, but STORY. 

Now go analyze the movie DIRTY DANCING -- the older versions are better for this exercise.  It's erotica, but by the standards of a culture long gone and buried, so you should be able to see the silent conversation with an alien's eye.  By the older cultural standards, this film was "edgy" -- i.e. on the edge of what is publicly acceptable.  Compare the older and newer versions for another lesson.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg
http://jacquelinelichtenberg.com

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