Hello everybody! I’m sorry for missing the previous two weeks, but at the time I was overrun by a horde of finals week assignments and wiped out by semester fatigue. With luck, I’ll be able to maintain my commitment to this blog and post consistently.
This time around, I’d like to touch on surrealism in fiction writing. We will tackle what surrealism is, the many ways it can be used in narrative writing, and my thoughts on the value of utilizing it.
Surrealism can be thought of as artistic expression that embraces irrationalism and abandons conventional logic. This is most often seen in visual art looking to depict the human mind or abstract concepts. Have you ever had a dream in which you reach out for something, only for your arm to stretch out like puddy and fall limp? The artistic depiction of such a scenario would be best labeled as a surreal piece. This style can be found in illustrative art, music, cinema, play, writing, and even video games.
The Surrealist Spectrum
There is a two-ended spectrum in which written surrealism is seen: Minute Presence and Total Presence. Minute Presence is when surrealism is utilized to the smallest possible degree. Say that in your story, the sky is neon green without any explanation or recognition of this fact as bizarre. Little attention is paid to this feature within your story, its just another mundane fact to the characters and narrator. It’s a feature that’s easy missed, and ultimately unimportant in the narrative, but if the reader spots such a detail, they are likely to feel at least a brief sense of confusion. That ability to confuse, however small, is a key element of surrealism and puts your story at the minute end of the spectrum.
Total Presence is surrealism in its maximum utilization. The bizarre traits of the world you make are impossible to ignore, not only in the background but in the foreground as well. At the absolute end of this side of the spectrum, everything is surreal— every feature, creature, and character abandons common logic in some form if not every form either to display a hidden message, carry an emotion, or simply to embrace irrationality.
For the most part, works that incorporate surrealism mostly sit somewhere in the center of this spectrum if not leaning a little to the left. This is most likely due to the fact that the safest project to dedicate time and effort to are the most approachable ones. The more surreal, the harder it is for the average reader to engage with and invest in. Think of it like poster advertising, a black and white poster is simple, easy to understand, but struggles to grab attention. A bright, colorful poster with contrast and unique elements grabs attention and still offers enough simplicity for most to follow. A poster that is all flash, all color, all wacky, is just as unappealing as the black and white, but for opposite reasons— it grabs your attention, sure, but only for you to roll your eyes and walk away without taking anything from it.
There are of course dozens of ways in which you can inject sweet, sweet surrealism into your story’s veins. I can’t cover everything, but I can give you some rudimentary tactics the brush the surface and span across the spectrum.
The modern take on prose tends to follow a stain-glass window analogy. The writer can make their wording pretty, downright gorgeous even, but your priority is to ensure that your prose adequately convey your story with as little confusion as you can manage. At the heart of surrealism is the abandonment of convention in some form or another, so if your intension is to embrace this meta-style in your prose, its best to be loose with these guidelines. Incorporating unique symbols to sit alongside or even replacing your alphabet is one way of switching things up, but everything from abrupted changes in writing style, to incorporating unelaborated logics in the way you write like references to real-world obscure events to filling pages with a self-invented languages conveying your story or even random ascii art all fit this area.
This application most often leans toward Total Presence as it requires diverging from the conventions surrounding one of the most fundamental aspects of fiction writing.
This is the most common way in which surrealism is applied and spreads across the spectrum. I would argue that fantasy settings, even the simplest ones count as surreal. It teeters on the edge of Minute Presence, but as it often abandons some form of real-world logic, it fits the description. Mountains made of bone or trees that twitch with endo skeletal flesh are interesting things to have, and if you write something like that, make sure to email me and maybe we could share notes.
This most often sits in the center left of the spectrum, as it doesn’t often step on the toes of more fundamental conventions.
This is something near and dear to my heart. I’ve often sung about my love and prioritization of characters in fiction writing, and thus anything that does something new or even wacky in that sphere tackles and kidnaps my attention. One could also call this area of application Surrealist Body-Horror—while not necessarily scary, it can tingle your anxiety when you look at it. Humans are naturally empathic in some degree, so imagining someone you psychologically view as a person having bizarre physical traits will inevitable trigger some sense of uncanny-discomfort. Imagine a person with a beak on the top of their head that occasionally opens up, revealing rows of teeth surrounding their exposed brain. Freaky, right? Mixing and matching human and inhuman features is a classic form of surrealist character description. Mermaids, minotaurs, and harpies all triggered a sense of unease in their heydays.
Why is Surrealism so good?
If you’ve been on the internet in the last few years, you’ve likely looked at some meme or watched some video about biblically accurate angels before. Often, a freaky thing is the focus of the image saying, ‘BE NOT AFRAID’ and a human replies with something like, ‘I’ve never been more terrified’. This meme incorporates surrealism. Not just because spinning rings within rings sporting thousands of eyes and covered in blinding fire would be pants-soilingly terrifying but because it means something deeper. The bizarreness of the image holds a secret message that requires confrontation with the uncomfortable to understand.
In the context of the Bible, overcoming your anxiety to look upon the creature earns you the right to hear what it has to say and ultimately makes you closer to God. The angel, through surrealism, forces revelation.
In the context of the meme, you are forced to confront the deeper nuance of religions that are often oversimplified in media as good versus evil. The angel isn’t a cute little winged baby, but instead an earth-shatteringly scary celestial entity that the ignorant may confuse for demons. It surprises the common internet user and makes them reassess what they felt so familiar with growing up. The meme, through surrealism, forces revelation.
The value of surrealism is that it challenges. You are confronted with the strange and are in the end rewarded with a deeper understanding of what at first appeared nonsensical, but only if you put in the effort to move past your unease.
I hope you enjoyed this deep deeeep dive, and that you’ll be back for more next time!