How to Write Surrealism

Some of the most unforgettable stories and novels that we’ve read are the ones that skillfully incorporate surrealism into their style and storyline. It’s a technique or a genre, whatever you want to call it, that makes things seem just a bit off. The world is slightly skewed, either physically, or emotionally, or magically, and it highlights what’s really at stake in the story, making it clearer, more urgent, more beautiful. While I usually avoid surrealism, preferring the standard realistic fiction, I tried my hand at surrealism recently and it ended up being a rousing success. If you’re new to surrealism, I urge you to try using it in your own writing as a way to make things stranger, more dreamlike, and ultimately more unique and memorable. Here are a couple of rules to keep in mind when trying surrealism yourself.

Keep it Real.

A professor recently told me that “the best surreal writing is 90% real.” I heartily agree with that. If your story is too strange, the reader will begin to feel uprooted, disconnected from the characters and the problems of the story. If it’s a story where people can fly and monsters are just illusions, then where’s the danger? Why doesn’t your character just fly away from harm, for example? The most chilling or ominous surreal stories are where everything seems normal — until it gradually becomes clear that something is wrong, something is inescapable out of your character’s control. The story that I found inspiring was a science-fiction short called “Tourists” by Lisa Goldstein. In the story, a man wakes up in a hotel room in a strange country. He vaguely thinks he remembers getting there — but he just can’t remember how or why or where he is. The story follows his attempts to figure out just where he is. The entire concept is a inundated with the surreal, yet Goldstein keeps the action and milieu thoroughly realistic. What is frightening about the story is the possibility that this could happen to any of us. It’s real in its fear, and thus the rich opportunity for metaphor in this story feels accessible and relevant.

Don’t Make a Dream.

The surreal has things in common with dreams, but it’s a lot more compelling. As Henry James said, “Tell a dream, lose a reader.” People love to talk about their dreams, but nothing’s more boring than hearing about someone else’s. What makes a surreal story work, however, is that it has the potential to be anyone’s dream, not just the reflection of one person’s memory and neuroses. Don’t write a story that has your character wandering down a misty hallway and finding her own face looking at her from all the windows. Don’t have Aunt Gertrude chasing your main character through a haunted house. Don’t choose the seemingly random, impossible details that seem possible in a dream, like suddenly being someone else or being in a different place, or losing your arm and not being worried about it. Dreams don’t work well in stories because of this randomness, but also because they’re inherently self-absorbed, fully introverted, concerned only with one person’s psyche and how it has gotten scrambled in sleep.

Keep these guidelines in mind when introducing dream-like elements into your story, and you’ll find your writing injected with a new energy and spark of life.

5 comments

  1. One of the best ways to learn how to write in a surrealist manner is to read surrealism that has worked for other writers. In Slaughterhouse 5, Vonnegut penned a celebration of the anti-hero, the story of an unwitting man who takes a winding, chronologically non-linear dash through the space/time continuum. Billy Pilgrim experiences combat in Europe during World War II while simultaneously experiencing life as a successful optometrist in Ilium, New York twenty years later. Complexity to complexity, in 1967, Billy is kidnapped by aliens and kept captive in a zoo on the planet Tralfamadore, naked and with a porn star for his cellmate. Did it work? Yes. The novel’s a mixture of anti-war sentiments and social commentary, with themes and events that tease, humor, shock and entertain. In expanding the topical and structural boundaries of the American novel, Vonnegut effectively gave a new generation of writers permission to experiment. Surrealism works when it’s anchored in compelling, instructive and relevant themes, when it’s written with a larger point that the abstract beauty of surrealist prose.

  2. Jessie says:

    I can’t say I’ve read a lot of surrealism, but thought GOING BOVINE was a hilarious bit of surrealism. The places and characters all seemed real, but the things going on around them were totally whacked.

  3. Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte were both surrealist painters but Magritte’s work is more disturbing. In Dali’s vision, everything is distorted. The paintings are visually stunning but all the impact is achieved on the surface. In Magritte’s work, everything is normal but one element is displaced, creating a sense of unease and dissonance. For me the best surrealist writing is like this. I’ll always have a soft spot for William Burroughs, whose writing reminds me of Dali’s painting, but his work evokes the distortion of reality rather than the subversion of it. I prefer work in which everything is real but something is out of place: something, however, that you can’t quite put your finger on. The best surrealism is also very funny. If you don’t know it, try a book called The Restraint of Beasts by Magnus Mills.

  4. “What is frightening about the story is the possibility that this could happen to any of us. It’s real in its fear, and thus the rich opportunity for metaphor in this story feels accessible and relevant.”

    That makes enormous sense! Very interesting piece, thanks, Kristi

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