Well, since I’m working on an episodic surreal detective novel called “Liminal Rites” at the moment, I thought that I’d write down some of my thoughts about writing surreal/bizarro/slipstream fiction and what I’ve learnt so far about it.
Although I haven’t really written explicitly in this genre for a while, elements of it seem to creep into almost all of my creative work in some way or another (I mean, just look at my “Damania” comics for starters).
One of the things which I really love about this genre is the sheer amount of creative freedom it gives you, literally anything can happen. The only limits are your imagination and subconscious mind.
But, saying that, it can be a genre which is difficult to write well (and I’m still learning at the moment), so I thought that I’d offer four pieces of advice on the subject for people who are thinking of experimenting with this genre.
I should probably point out that this article will probably deal with the “lighter” types of surreal/bizarro/slipstream fiction – the kind of stories which are very strange, but which are still readable. Whilst not everyone will probably agree with this, I’m firmly of the opinion that – even if it’s very well hidden – stories should at least have a theme or a meaning of some kind which can be found after a lot of close reading and thought.
1) In its own way, your story must make sense and mean something: This may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s something which is important to remember. Whilst there probably are people who are interested in avant-garde stories which are written to be completely nonsensical and meaningless, people are hard-wired to look for sequences and patterns in things. For starters, this means that your surreal story will probably be a lot more readable if it progresses in something approximating a logical chronological order for most of the time.
Likewise, all of the important elements of your story must have some kind of meaning or theme to them – even if it’s just a personal meaning which only you understand. This isn’t so much for the sake of your readers, but to help you as a writer. If you know what your story is about, then you will be able to structure it in a way that actually means something and is recognisable as a story by your readers.
This doesn’t mean that literally everything in your story has to mean something or that you even have to explain anything. But, your story, as a whole, should at least have a theme or a meaning which your readers can at least partially work out after looking at your story closely and thinking about it. Anything less than this is cheating.
2) Think visually: I cannot emphasise this enough! Surreal and bizarre fiction relies very heavily on imagery and descriptions. If you can’t conjure up all of the strange imagery in your story in your own mind and imagination, then how do you expect your readers to do the same?
There are probably a lot of reasons why imagery is so important in surreal fiction, but one of them is the fact that the human mind (especially the subconscious mind) tends to function in a primarily visual and emotional way (don’t forget that humans existed before language did). This can be seen best in dreams – although dreams often contain a meaning or a theme or some kind, this is often conveyed through symbolic imagery and emotional reactions rather than words or dialogue.
So, if you’re writing a story which reflects or evokes the unreliable and shifting reality of a dream, then it makes sense to think about your story in visual terms even though you’re using words to tell it.
3) Narrative voice is everything: Since surreal fiction often focuses on seeing the world in a very subjective and distorted way, many surreal stories are written from a first person perspective.
If you choose to do this, then developing your own narrative voice is especially important – since, although the story may be bizarre or difficult to understand, the narrator is the only constant presence throughout the story. So, it is extremely important that your narrator is a suitably interesting and strange person.
It’s entirely up to you whether your narrator is a reliable narrator or an unreliable narrator (or whether this is left ambiguous) but, regardless, your narrator needs to have a very good narrative voice.
4) Read around: One of the best ways to get a good sense of what does and does not work in surreal fiction is to read a lot of it and watch a lot of strange films too.
As well as helping to put you into a more creative and inspired frame of mind, it’ll also show you what kinds of themes and surreal imagery resonate well with you (which might give you a clue as to what kind of imagery and themes to put into your story).
Although hopefully you can find other examples too, I’ll provide a short list of recommended reading and viewing to get you started..
Anything by William S. Burroughs, Clive Barker or Kathy Acker
“Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas” by Hunter S. Thompson
“Crooked Little Vein” by Warren Ellis
“Vurt” By Jeff Noon
“Ubik” By Philip K. Dick
“Drawing Blood” by Billy Martin (under the pen name of “Poppy Z. Brite”)
“Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland” By Lewis Carroll
“eXistenZ” (Dir. David Cronenburg)
“Paprika” (Dir. Satoshi Kon)
“Spirited Away” (Dir. Hayao Miyazaki)
“Naked Lunch” (Dir. David Cronenburg)
“A Field In England” (Dir. Ben Wheatley)
“Jacob’s Ladder” (Dir. Adrian Lyne)
“Waking Life” (Dir. Richard Linklater)
“1408” (Dir. Mikael Håfström )
“Inception” (Dir. Christopher Nolan)
“Tokyo Gore Police” (Dir. Yoshihiro Nishimura)
“Total Recall” (Dir. Paul Verhoeven)
“Beetlejuice” (Dir. Tim Burton)
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂