Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Writing a sub's distress

I’m in the middle of writing a scene in which a sub-type is genuinely distressed. It’s a thorny and step-picking process, getting a consensual nonconsent relationship down on paper The relationship dynamics themselves are tricky, fraught with apparent risk and ambiguity. If readers don’t buy into the full subtext they can see the dom as an abuser, the sub as pathetic and sick.

So if an author isn’t into shock or horror it pays to make the consent as explicit as possible, and to make sure that consent is stated not just once but repeatedly. (Despite several Amazon reviews, if shock or horror were my thing I’d be writing in another genre.) It works to have characters weigh the issues, discuss the pitfalls, grapple with the tough questions. Oh, and when something hurts, the sub has to be turned on, big time.

But then come the problems. Consensual nonconsent thrives on ambiguity. The reason it’s hot is because there’s some actual power being imposed. Consent isn’t always fully present. In the short term the sub may not like what’s being done to them. They’re not consulted; their preferences aren’t part of the equation. What matters is what the dom wants. And if that involves suffering for their sub, then so be it. What merits exploration is that strange space between willingness and distress; that odd tightrope between sadism and self-restraint.

One could keep hammering on the consensual theme at each and every pang. (“She twisted and writhed in her bonds, hating the pain, but joyful at offering her suffering to Master.”) Done well, it could probably work. But only with the risk of disappointment for that kinky coterie of Dom, Author and Reader Who Gets Off On Suffering. With all meaning explicit, all layers exposed, what is there to discover? Where is the lip-biting, guilty arousal at the sight of another’s pain? Where’s the growth, for characters whose questions have long since been answered?

Sometimes suffering needs to be just that. Sometimes the sub needs to writhe and not feel joy. Instead there will be doubt, indignant anger, resentment. Fear. Especially fear. For the reader as well as the sub. There’s no experiencing the sub’s journey without it. If the reader hasn’t bought into the basic dynamic, the book will become a nightmare. And I’m not sure there’s anything to be done about that, except to warn the reader in every way you can:

CONSENSUAL NONCONSENT. ACTUAL DISTRESS INVOLVED. NOT FOR EVERYONE.

4 comments:

  1. *laughs* That last paragraph put a grin on my face that's in no hurry to leave.

    Perhaps this falls into the grey area of "oh, you must be such a sick person to enjoy things like this", but I enjoy it when it feels real. Yes, it's a book. Yes, I bought it knowing it was classified 'fiction'. Yes, it's completely fabricated.

    Yet not. I sink into reading like a stone into water. If there's suffering and it's being faked even within the scenario, I'm going to feel vaguely cheated, and immersion will be -- to whatever degree -- broken, or at least fractured.

    I often find that scenarios where consent is hammered into the reader's brain, over and over, begin to feel plastic and awkward. "I get it. I'm reading a BDSM-themed book. SSC, etc. etc. ad nauseum." If I were only reading to buy into a nice, safe lie, those kinds of books would be fine.

    But I read (mostly) to escape, thus my method of escape needs to feel real. Real enough to make me squirm, and not always in a 'good' way. Nobody's perfect, and nobody's desires are perfect ... the more you edge onto that line where dreams meet reality, the more engaged I'm going to be.

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  2. You echo my thoughts exactly. I'd just like to be able to write such a scene without anyone saying, "well, she didn't agree to THIS!"

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  3. I think people are coming around…
    I remember myself a number of years ago, and even the stuff in regular romance novels sometimes freaked me out! Fast forward to today, and here I am a semi-active member of the kink community.

    Though the uninformed reviews can be frustrating (I hang out on Amazon a bit, and see plenty of those negative reviews from the PC Bible gang!), it is also a good thing that these stories are reaching a wider audience. The more people read in this genre, the more accepting they become. Or at least I did!

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  4. The answer is simple. Keep the BDSM completely out of it. Write your fantasy as you want to write it, entirely outside the normal and real BDSM context. Then you need not bend over backwards to establish the Dom isn't committing any crimes and the sub not ripe for the next therapist.

    Otherwise what you'll write is an impossibility and people will know or be dissatisfied. Extremist fantasies worthy of erotic arousal and BDSM realities do not mesh well. I don't think the BDSM context is necessary at all in such stories. I even prefer the setting to be somewhere or something which makes perfectly clear I can switch off my inner BDSM-WTF-meter because it's not relevant. Instead of detracting I find the lack of BDSM liberating for such severe scenarios.

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