Four Tips For Writing Surreal/Bizarro/Slipstream Fiction

2013 Artwork Surreal Article Sketch

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.

If you’re still puzzled by this, then be sure to check out my article about mysterious metaphors and strange similes and my article about writing dream scenes.

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..

Books

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

Films

“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 HΓ₯fstrΓΆm )
“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 πŸ™‚

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12 comments on “Four Tips For Writing Surreal/Bizarro/Slipstream Fiction

  1. […] Story“ – “Suggest More Than You Show In Your Drawings“ – “Four Tips For Writing Surreal/Bizarro/Slipstream Fiction“ – “One Trick For Starting A New Chapter If You’ve Got Writer’s […]

  2. Greetings. I stumbled upon your blog about surreal fiction. And as a new author of the novel Tetragrammar, I completely agree with your four tips in writing bizarre fiction. All of your points you listed I took into account when writing my first novel, so I wanted to say you provided very good tips on those writing surreal fiction. Also as a new author, I’m trying to branch out and make connections with other writers, especially those writing in this genre of fiction. If my novel Tetragrammar sounds interesting to you please spread the word. It features a writer named Seven who has to kill The Authors who live in the Moon. The Authors are trying to steal Seven’s unwritten novel for some vague purpose. Meanwhile, Seven has writer’s block, in which his stagnancy in the creative process is beginning to maim the skin of the world. Seven has to work together with his violet-haired muse Fable to try and complete his novel so he can take out The Authors. This may sound like a pitch to you, and it is, but I’m not one to be pushy with my ideas. However, this is my sincere attempt to make a new author contact. Hopefully you will check it out and/or stay in touch. I also look forward to reading some of your works.

    • pekoeblaze says:

      Wow, I’m glad that the article was helpful and congratulations on finishing your novel too πŸ™‚

      “Tetragrammar” sounds like a pretty cool novel and I really like how all of the things in your description are connected to each other. It sounds really imaginative πŸ™‚

      Although I don’t know when or if I’ll get a copy of “Tetragrammar”, from what I’ve read of the sample on the Amazon page, I really like the narrative voice and narrative style in it πŸ™‚

      I don’t know, it’s been quite a while since I even wrote any fiction, let alone anything surreal (and I’ve read much more surreal fiction than I’ve actually written) -but, the last time I wrote anything surreal was probably when I wrote a somewhat badly-written novella last year called “Liminal Rites“. I don’t know, I’ve kind of turned into more of a non-fiction writer and artist these days – I don’t know, it’s probably the worst case of writer’s block I’ve ever experienced LOL!

  3. Good post! I agree Imagery is so important, I try to think of a strange one and work around it

  4. Malini Misra says:

    Isnt Murakami’s major work, like ‘The elephant Vanishes’ also Surrealism?

    • pekoeblaze says:

      Although I’ve heard of Haruki Murakami (and have got a copy of “After Dark” somewhere, which I really must find and read sometime), I haven’t actually read any of his novels.

  5. Batmansbestfriend says:

    Keep in mind that if you don’t know where you’re going or what you’re doing…guess what…your reader won’t either. Surrealism is not random words or sentences pulled out of a hat (although it can feel like that sometimes). The reader may get lost along the way, but at some point the reader should at least feel like, even if they don’t get it, there is ,meaning behind what they’re reading.

    • Batmansbestfriend says:

      I’m currently working on a novel with heavy surreal elements and I’m thinking about it like a conventional story that just isn’t told conventionally. I know what I want to happen, in the broadest sense, but I don’t want to just give it away (make it painfully obvious to the reader, or even the MC…who’s the one experiencing the surrealism). I wan’t the reader to be going on a journey with the MC in order to discover what in the **** is going on. It’s not just weird for the sake of weird…although it is weird.

      So, I think about the surreal bits of the story in as a very broad overview. “Okay, what’s happening here?” I ask myself. In the broadest sense, I might answer with: “The main character learns…(fill in the blank)…but doesn’t understand the significance of it yet”. “Okay, how do I have the information presented to the MC in a way that would obscure the understanding of it?” And I continue in that fashion while building the surreal elements until they feel like they’re about something even if I know the reader will be asking themselves “what in the ****?!”

      Now, not every single element in every surreal sequence I write is going to mean something tangible. Some of the elements and imagery are simply there to build a cerebral experience that creates an emotional journey for the reader (emotional does not always equal crying, lol). However, as a whole the sequence does feel like it is about something…not necessarily something tangible, but something. And that’s the key to a good surreal experience…you feel like you’ve experienced something meaningful…even if you’re asking yourself “what the **** was that ****?!”

      The point is, the surreal elements of any story should feel like they have a purpose and are about something, even if you don’t understand them even after they’re explained.

    • pekoeblaze says:

      Thanks for the comments πŸ™‚ I’d almost forgotten about this old article (and the surreal novella I was writing back then).

      But, yeah, I agree with what you’re saying. Plus, the idea of presenting something that the main character doesn’t understand as a surreal scene is an absolutely brilliant technique too.

      I’d agree about surrealism having meaning too. The TV show “Twin Peaks” is probably a good example of surrealism done well – a lot of weird stuff happens, but there’s usually some kind of logic behind it all (even if it’s just dream logic or whatever).

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