“Is not the most erotic portion of a body where the garment gapes?”
French literary critic Roland Barthes poses this question in his 1973 The Pleasure of the Text, and I find myself pondering it frequently—not only to understand the nature of desire, but as a fiction writer who aims to create stories full of suspense and intrigue.
Desire manifests itself around hints and signs, those feints and teases that keep us captivated by the mere suggestion of future fulfillment. Indeed, it’s like living in the tension of a riveting story, where suspense is created by an author’s loving flirtations—a game of seduction meant to draw the reader in through a coil of thrills and dodges. In a sense it’s an erotic relationship—the author calculating just how much and when to touch or reveal.
A novel is similar to sex, in fact. Most of a novel is essentially foreplay, and after the climax you’re left wanting more, sad that it has all ended (at least, if it was a good book). Reading is a uniquely intimate relationship—a melding of two, reader and writer.
That’s why every writer must learn the art of seduction—to be a lover. Seduction means “to entice or beguile into a desired state or position.” A good writer lures the reader from the first sentence of a story. A question is posed, but not answered. The reader is invited into another world—a world of mystery and excitement. The lyrical allure of a writers’ words attract like the aroma of a fine perfume. A good author is always offering peeks into the garment, but doesn’t strip off the clothing—or doesn’t do so until exactly the right moment. The moment of complete seduction.
So, how might you become a Casanova on the page?
FIND YOUR INNER SEDUCER
“Above all, a great writer is always a great enchanter,” Vladimir Nabokov said in a 1948 lecture.
When I first read that quote, I had to question my identity as a writer. I knew when I put words on the page, I certainly didn’t conceive of myself as an enchanter. Instead I inhabited my “natural self,” as most writers do, and my words on the page flowed from that self. As a result, my stories lacked the tantalizing allure that spawns enchantment.
I considered how seducers take pleasure in the artistry of their performance, in their flourishes and nuanced touches. They aren’t weighed down by the limits of their identity. They decide to be, as the famous Venetian author and playboy Giacomo Casanova put it, “the flame, not the moth.” I needed to transform.
There are countless ways to be enchanting—through a riveting plot full of red herrings and cliffhangers, or by way of complex characters who are not as they seem—but your persona as a writer influences how you engage the reader. Are you a siren who lures her subject with titillating teases and a seductive pose? A rake who promises decadence, abandon and sin? Are you a dandy whose ornamental prose attracts? Or perhaps a combination of the above?
You can be dangerous or fanciful, vulgar or quietly alluring, depending on the nature of your aims. The main rule: Don’t be ordinary.
As Oscar Wilde said, “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.”
REMEMBER WHO YOU’RE WOOING
Don’t forget the target of your stimulations: the reader. Readers want to be seduced. When they open a book and read the first sentence, they’re offering themselves up to love. They want their emotions to be touched—to be overwhelmed, to lose themselves. How will your words penetrate their defenses? How can you provoke such surrender?
Casanova was a great seducer not because of his looks, his dress or his riches, but because he focused on the happiness of his mark. His goal wasn’t just his own pleasure, but for his beloved to cherish their relationship forever. He described a kiss as “an attempt to absorb the essence of the other person”—to truly meld with them.
A writer seeks a similar oneness with the reader, a similar immortality. The relation between writer and reader is one of mutual yearning and desire, and in such intimacy, the reader’s world is re-drawn.
How can you write your story as if your reader is the object of your desire? What will move your reader in surprising ways? What turn of phrase will spark a smile across her face? How can your words beckon with a tantalizing promise of fulfillment? Think of your novel as a love letter meant to be absorbed, puzzled over and devoured.
PRACTICE THE RULES OF ATTRACTION
Play the coquette.
Pleasure doesn’t necessarily come from the satisfaction of a desire so much as from its pursuit. A writer’s materials are the wiles we conjure with words—and what we choose to omit, or subtly suggest. As Casanova said, “Love is three quarters curiosity.” Storytellers must think with the mischievous mind of a flirt, writing with clues and signposts. Never tell all.
Flirting is a silent language, a way of signaling interest and attraction in the space that exists between lover and beloved, writer and reader. The best flirts can strike the right balance between sending a signal and then withdrawing, knowing how each gesture changes the storyline. A smile, a lingering glance, the brush of a hand. You’re left with the question: Did that mean what I think it meant? How can you be open and vulnerable on the page, yet not disclose too much?
A veil exists between writer and reader, and it’s up to you to decide to lift it. If you reveal too much information, you leave your readers no room for imagination. But if you’re appropriately coy, the reader will crave more.
It’s like playing with a cat with a string. If you dangle a piece of string in front of it, the cat will try to catch the yarn over and over again, even as the string slides through its paws. But when you stop, the cat loses interest and wanders away. Every paragraph you write is like the string with which you tease the cat. Every paragraph needs to have the quality of a come-hither gaze, teasing out a question that goes as yet unanswered.
A good storyteller has to master this “art of the bluff.” Bluffs move through insinuations. Once an idea is planted, we crave to find the answer, and our craving intensifies according to the elusiveness of the hints. The best horror writers know that monsters are scariest before they’re seen, that their threat is most acutely felt through the noises they make, the shadows they live in—not in the sharpness of their teeth or claws.
That’s why in Jaws, Steven Spielberg kept the great white shark unseen for so long. The anticipation of horror tends to elicit a stronger reaction from the audience than the horror itself. Focus on how to be suggestive, not revelatory.
I often think of the tagline from the TV show “The X-Files”: The truth is out there. Each episode brings the main characters, FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, closer to the “truth,” yet as soon as the answer to the web of paranormal phenomena seems within reach—just as the viewer begins to feel tingles of fulfillment with the revelation of a final puzzle piece—the story shifts, and the ever-elusive truth slithers away. Mulder and Scully are back on the trail following bread crumbs.
Thriller author Lee Child posits that the fundamental question a writer must ask is how to cook a meal for a reader and make them hungry at the same time. The answer? Make them wait for hours to eat. Says Child: “The basic narrative fuel is always the slow unveiling of the final answer.”
In other words, on the first date you don’t say “I love you”—and maybe not even the 10th date. The more you relinquish the air of mystery in a story, the more you lose your power on the page.
“Once certain of arriving, why hurry on the journey so fast?” says the seducer Valmont in Les Liaisons dangereuses. Shine the beam of your words on the story like a flashlight in the darkness, but then keep moving the beam along so that the story becomes a series of luminous dots. Delight in your story’s subterfuge.
Ratchet up the stakes.
Such a slow reveal isn’t enough, though. We need to escalate the tension until, at its most taut moment, a thoroughly satiating climax wins over the reader. Love and desire exist in a perpetual “What If?”: What if I call? What if I lean in for a kiss? What if I ask her to marry me? A novel moves within a similar pace of hypotheticals in the intimate collaboration that forms the relationship of reader and writer.
Raise the stakes by making the threat in your story more imminent and potentially devastating. Make promises to the reader at the same time you threaten to foil those promises. If tension doesn’t escalate, the suspense you’ve been developing will evaporate.
Consider this: If you’re writing a romantic comedy, and the obsessively disapproving father decides to go fishing instead of spy on his daughter, the rivets in your riveting story will begin
to loosen. There’s a dramatic reason Romeo and Juliet had to maneuver through several acts to truly be together.
The peaceful love they seek against the odds infuses each scene with suspense and hope, yet, at the same time, this anticipation is fraught with the encroaching threats of the Montague-Capulet feud that promises to destroy all.
Ask yourself, How can you create a state of anguished desire in the reader? How can you lead the reader into a crisis, a moment of danger or an uncomfortable position? How can you press your reader to cling to desperate hope in the face of looming peril? How can you stir up taboos to take your reader to the enticements of their dark side?
Give them your heart—in the end.
Without a rising trajectory of tension, without anxiety and suspense, there can be no feeling of release, of true pleasure and joy that the denouement of a story provides. It is your task to create tension in the reader, to lead them to and fro, so that the culmination of the story has real weight and intensity.
Help the reader climb slowly up the roller coaster, and then, just as they feel that spike of adrenaline, let them fly with the rushes of fulfillment you’ve been holding back as they tip over the crest and plunge downward.
When we exist in the suspense of falling in love—whether with a person or a novel—it eclipses our entire world. It speaks to a greater truth, one that can be both beautiful and terrifying, one we pursue despite its perils.
Through art we achieve an intimacy we might not be able to attain in real life. We live in the poetics of our primal drives. Now you’ve been schooled in the art of seduction. But to be a truly good lover, in the end, you must give the reader the heart of your story. After all that holding back, you can finally say, “I love you.” You can finally tell all.