How does porn screenwriting work?

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July 8 2009 5:53 PM

The Penis Mightier

How does porn screenwriting work?

Adult film actress Jenna Jameson. Click image to expand.
Adult film actress Jenna Jameson

Hurt by a flagging economy and changes in technology, the adult film industry is making fewer feature-length narrative movies in favor of shorter, Internet-ready "vignettes," according to a July 7 New York Times article. Is writing a porno feature different from writing a regular feature?

Yes. For one thing, the scripts are a lot shorter. Whereas Hollywood screenplays generally run between 90 and 120 pages, porn scripts clock in at 25 to 28 pages, for obvious reasons. Your average 90-minute porn film will have between five and seven sex scenes. At five to 10 minutes each, that leaves only about a half-hour for dialogue. As a result, there's not as much room for character development, plot, surprise endings, and all the other dramatic elements you associate with feature films.

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Porn writers also get paid a lot less. Whereas Hollywood screenplays sell for anywhere from a few hundred dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars, pay for porn scripts for even big productions generally caps out at around $1,000. (Writers unions don't accept porn writers unless they also work on mainstream film and TV projects.) And since adult films usually have low budgets—a few thousand dollars—writers can't compose scenes that would be expensive to shoot, like fighting sequences atop a moving train. They try to limit the action to the rooms of a house—bedroom, bathroom, kitchen.

In general, the screenwriter isn't supposed to write the sex scenes. Instead, he or she will write the dialogue right up to the moment the sex scene begins and pick up where it ends. The content of the sex scene—positions, dialogue, etc.—is left up to the director and the actors. Exceptions are made, however, when key moments in the story occur during sex. For example, if the movie is about a woman who has never had anal sex, the type of sex in the scene is a relevant plot point. Screenwriters also generally stay away from camera directions. Whereas a regular script will often specify close-ups or establishing shots, porn cinematography is left up to the director. (Although, in the porn industry, the director and the screenwriter are often the same person.)

While many adult scripts are simply porn versions of mainstream films—i.e., This Ain't Star Trek XXX—others have elaborate, original story lines. The recent movie Fallen, for example, is about a woman who goes to heaven and comes back as an angel to help her husband find love with another woman. It's also common for one porno to riff on a classic, older porno. Throat: A Cautionary Tale reimagines the 1972 classic Deep Throat—about a woman with a clitoris in her throat—as a tragedy rather than a comedy. The AVN Awards even has a category for best screenplay. Recent winners include Manhunters, Layout, and Pirates II: Stagnetti's Revenge.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Mark Kernes of the AVN Media Network, Joy King of Wicked Pictures, and Steve Harper of the Adult Business Academy.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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