Themes and Symbolism in Erotica – 5 Tips (and Reasons Why)

I write erotic fiction, not pornography. Often, I share my work here and ask for nothing in return because it allows me to write what interests me. I choose themes that examine the human condition. Symbolism is a way to shine a comforting light into places where eroticism intersects with the familiar in our lives or where dark and scary things lurk.

If you want to sell work to quality publishers, make more money, and receive recognition as a serious writer, your erotica must contain more than sex. Here why:

  1. People like solving riddles. Drop theme clues throughout a story, and let readers put the puzzle pieces together as they read. This keeps them interested and eliminates the need for the boring, lengthy explanations, back-stories, descriptions, or dull dialogue to tell your story. Our brains like figuring out mysteries and riddles. There’s a deep satisfaction that comes when we have a light-bulb moment, and everything clicks into place as we’re reading a story. These stories make readers say, “Wow!” when they finish them. Always good. 

    Wool by Hugh Howey has a killer theme woven throughout and is full of symbolism and riddles. I bought copies for everyone I know. Read part one here free on Amazon.

  2. Themes make writing stronger and give stories direction and focus. If, after you’ve written a story, you can’t pick out threads of a theme, ask why. Odds are you haven’t told a strong enough story. Once, I edited a short story for a new, unpublished writer. It was a straightforward lesbian sex scene with some D/s elements (porn), but it became a literary erotica piece with a strong theme about taking chances with a new lover, sharing secret desires when you’re not sure they’ll go for it. Once the theme was there, it was easy tweaking the story slightly to incorporate more tension, fear, and jumping-off-a-cliff moments. The writer sold her story to a major anthology publisher, and the book won a prestigious award. None of that would have happened had the writer not developed a strong theme.

  3. Amaranthine Rain (a Short-Story Collection) by Zander Vyne

    Themes and symbolism color your story and add to mood and rhythm. Colors help with theme development because they evoke similar responses in people and can define a mood. They are easily recognized symbols. Colors inspire feelings and set the tone for your story. Colors can capture the theme of your story without explanation. Red is my favorite because I write a lot of erotic-horror stories. Purple is soothing, Gothic, and poetic. Black is edgy and mysterious.

    For examples of color used to enhance a mood and carry a story, check out my latest collection of short stories, Amaranthine Rain. The title story (read it here) uses purple to bring together third person, past and present tenses, and to give a lush, exotic feeling to the whole piece. In Souvenirs, red is splashed over everything and contributes to the twisted, scary horror of the mind-bending story. In the noir tale, Tricked, I use blue. Red pops up again in La Belle Mort.

  4. You’ve convinced me. How do I develop a theme? Before spending hours writing a boring story about sex (insert A into slot B and enjoy), ask yourself these questions—what’s the purpose of my story? What do I want the reader to feel when they finish reading? Lead with the theme and the plot will follow. An excellent writing teacher once told me, “Average writers lead with plot. Advanced writers lead with theme.” Great stories are born when a writer has something meaningful to say and they are willing to work to make that meaning clear.

    Decide what central problem your protagonist faces at the beginning of your story, and culminate in a choice that illustrates acceptance, change, or denial. If your problem is based on a protagonist’s weakness (or perceived weakness, like in my story 
    Red House about a gay priest who enjoys cutting), you can create a theme thread throughout your story, ending with a revelation tied to the theme. If an issue strongly motivates the protagonist throughout the story, good. If it conflicts with others too, even better. With a strong theme, symbolism becomes easy to add, like herbs and spices to a stew once it has simmered.

  5. Moral of the story—every story needs a solid theme, and symbolism is to words what paint is to an artist’s canvas. Theme are stepping stones to guide your reader’s imagination.

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