JoD: Essay

What Hits the Mark?

by Bradley Stoke

A question that is often debated on ASSD is exactly what makes a sex fiction story hit the mark. What is it that makes a story popular amongst readers? What's the secret formula?

What I'll try and do is answer that question.

Every week Lazeez Jiddan provides a list relating to Stories On Line of the top twenty serials in progress and the top twenty completed stories. For the purpose of this exercise, I took just one week, the week ending 28 May 2006, and I analysed this Top Forty.

There are many ways in which this list is not a very exact or reliable list of the forty most popular stories. Here are a few reasons:

  1. The list of top twenty serials in progress necessarily does not include shorter stories.
  2. The statistics are unrepresentative because they only reflect the opinions of those who vote.
  3. Popularity is no guide to quality.
  4. The votes are skewed by `voting inflation', a phenomenon whereby voters push up the scores to higher and higher levels just for a story to be noticed at all.
  5. There is potential for voting fraud.

In actual fact, I don't believe any of these objections really hold water except perhaps the second one, which is that the votes only represent the opinions of those who choose to vote and not the actual opinions of everyone who could vote. However, that has never been considered sufficient reason to disqualify a government from holding office in the United States and Britain.

Whether or not these objections are justified, these statistics are, I believe, as good a set you'll ever find. I also think that, give or take a few minor adjustments, they actually are a fairly accurate reflection of the tastes of those who read sex fiction on the internet, and most specifically on Stories on Line and ASSM. It is likely that at Ruthie's Club and elsewhere on the internet, there may be a different set of preferences but, like it or not, the majority of readers of sex fiction do not subscribe to pay sites and probably do not hunt out web sites that feature only a half dozen or so new stories a week. They are more likely to flock to sites like Stories on Line and Literotica which have rather more than half a dozen new stories a day.

Photo (c) Copyright 2006 John Nemeth. All Rights Reserved.

So, what does my analysis tell me?

Well, the truth is that my overriding sensation after looking at the forty stories was that there was a terrible degree of sameness about them. This is not a criticism, just a statement. Indeed, one story I read was refreshingly different and I thought, hey, there are still surprises in the world. Then I realised that I had accidentally started reading something that wasn't in the Top Forty. But kudos nonetheless to Hyulhyulhyul for his short story `What's in the Jar?'

So, how are the stories so similar? Well, principally by virtue of being set in America, with American values, American references and a strange belief that the rest of the world somehow cares about America more than their own local concerns.

Another area of similarity might just be the writing style. There does seem to be a tendency for stories to have a huge amount of dialogue and never go short on exposition. Explanation often alternates in strict turn with conversation in the text, ensuring that the plot proceeds steadily through a sequence of dialogues, with the occasional intercession of sex scenes to give the story some kind of resolution and movement.

The point I am making, however, is not that this style of writing is in any sense wrong or bad. There are plenty of writers in the huge canon of published literature who write exactly like the top authors on Stories on Line. It is that this style of writing is the one most in accord with what the readers want and perhaps any deviation from this style is just not very popular.

Anyway, what are the elements that make a sex story successful? Here's a go at a kind of analysis:

1. Popularity of the Author

In the world of published fiction, when an author is popular, his or her fiction will inevitably attract attention and be rewarded for previous success by yet more in the future. Certainly amongst the writers who scored well in May 2005, there are many who have a long past history of popular success and continue to garner votes as a result. However, almost half the writers in the sample week do not have such a long history of smash hits. Indeed, S-Des, JimWar and eviltwin have scored remarkably high with their first ever stories on Stories on Line. So, being an established author helps but isn't entirely sufficient. In fact, some authors like dotB, Jeremy Spencer and Frank Downey did incredibly well from the very first stories they contributed and continue to do so.

2. Story Length

It does seem to be true that long stories and novels dominate the Top Forty. This is partly because the top twenty on-going serials are necessarily longer pieces of work, but then these are also the highest ranking. Only two of the completed stories (by S-Des and Lazlo Zalezac) would have made it into the Top Twenty of all stories and they are both a relatively modest 105 kilobytes in length. The fact is that longer stories just are more popular than shorter ones. The evidence of published book-sales is all the proof you need of that. Short stories may be satisfying and well-constructed, but most readers prefer the wider sweep and the greater depth of character and plot that you get in a longer story. Indeed, seven of the ten longest stories score more than 9, and one, `Ed Biggers' by Lazlo Zalezac, at nearly 4 MB, is firmly amongst the top stories of all time on the site.

3. Story Codes

There is a common and persistent complaint from some readers that they can't find what they want because the stories aren't coded especially well. Since the evidence is that the most overwhelmingly popular stories are romantic ones (45%) and Science Fiction (17.5%), a search on these codes would probably harvest an unmanageable number of stories. The most popular story on the Top Forty, `Greenies' by Al Steiner, is coded `ScFi', which is about the bare minimum it could possibly get away with. The truth is that the most popular stories are relatively lightly coded. I suspect that those stories that attract readers in pursuit of rather specific kinks are not going to appeal to the average reader and unlikely to be very popular. Indeed, very few stories in the Top Forty have much in the way of extreme or perverse sex, and where it occurs it is generally portrayed as life-enhancing: perhaps even something an especially liberal doctor might prescribe.

4. Genre

The most popular genre is romance. Science Fiction, Fantasy, Coming of Age, Thrillers, ESP, Historical, Humorous and Naked in School stories all appear in the Top Forty, but even most of those are overwhelmingly romantic. And romance in the world of sex fiction is often rather sickly and sentimental. There is little space for the bitter and twisted in this world, unless by good fortune such protagonists discover the error of their ways through the magical qualities of true love and multiple orgasms, As someone whose stories most often attract complaints that they are insufficiently romantic, it is difficult for me to understand the appeal, but it is there and very much so. Those writers who do not have much romance in their stories do not tend to dominate the Top Forty.

However, amongst the popular sub-genres are stories that have a military angle, as in the stories by Al Steiner and Argon-3, stories featuring sports like golf and soccer, and stories whose protagonist are parents with teenage children and live in American suburbia. Exotic though that may seem to people who do not play sports, were never in the military services and don't live in rectilinear streets and avenues, it doesn't really qualify as science fiction or Lord of the Rings type fantasy.

5. Universes

One of the many innovations introduced by Lazeez Jiddan was to recognise the prevalence of `universes' in so much sex fiction. And in truth a lot of the stories in the Top Forty belong to `universes' most often devised by the authors. I can understand that. Many writers from Isaac Asimov to Thomas Hardy, from Irvine Welsh to Iain M Banks, have written several stories that exist in the same universe of their imagination. If you've enjoyed a story in a particular universe, you may well be hungry for more. But the universe has to be one that appeals in the first place for it to work a second time. That might explain why so many writers are attracted to the Naked in School universe. On the other hand, only one story, by Mr Freeze, deals with this genre in the sample week so maybe this particular trend has passed its peak.

So, what have I learnt by analysing the Top Forty stories? Do I now know what formula to follow so that I, too, can make it to the hallowed zenith of the Weekly Downloads?

In a way, I'd like to do exactly that. The more popular any of my stories are the more likely they are to appear in any searches and the more likely to be read. The truth though is that I am not actually capable of writing a story that makes the grade. I don't write romantic stories or, more to the point, what I might consider romantic doesn't quite chime with the mainstream of sex fiction. I don't write in the style of the most popular writers and I don't write stories that have a great deal in common with the predominant subject matter.

However, it is easy to dismiss fiction by successful writers as somehow being too popular and too likeable, as if there were something wrong with that. If I've gained anything by my brief survey it to recognise that there is a lot of skill required to write the sort of stories that do so well. The fact that it's not a talent I care to turn my hand to is more a criticism of my own shortcomings than of the writers who week in, week out, entertain the many thousands of people who read their stories.

And let's not forget the readers. On the week I looked at the downloads, nearly 11,000 people had downloaded hammingbyrd7's `Kinetic' and nearly 320,000 readers have now downloaded Old Fart's `Jack and Jill', a story distinguished by being about 80% dialogue and the top downloaded story in Stories On Line's history. These are big numbers by anyone's reckoning. There is a very real sense that the readers of sex fiction are always in the right whatever we might privately think.

After all if it weren't for the readers, what possible value could any of our stories have?

The Journal of Desire Volume 3, Number 2