From the confusingly brilliant to wonderfully mad, writers have been painting surreal scenes with words as much as artists do with paint. It’s in the nature of many writers to create dreamlike scenes to add to the madness of their story or make the reader feel that childlike curiosity.
Here are my seven tips for writing surreal scenes and stories!
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1. Use Your Dreams as Inspiration
The first and most obvious piece of advice when creating a dreamlike story is to use your dreams for inspiration.
Nothing can match the wacky creations we create in Morpheus’s embrace. Our mind is fuelled by our happy moments, our sad moments, our memories, our subconscious expectations, what we eat, how we feel and what we talk about just before we shut down for the night.
It’s no wonder many dreams are a sequence of weird and sometimes meaningful moments in a land that’s prone to warp when you are not looking. Whether it be your dreams or someone else’s, dreams are a wonderful base for any surreal story.
The only problem is most dreams tend to fade in our memories soon after we wake up. Experienced dream journalists know that the best way to keep track of these dreams is to immediately write them down, a habit that can be difficult to get into when you’re still a little groggy from your slumber.
Personally, I have used a few dreams of my own to inspire a scene or two in some of my stories and novels. Most of these dreams stemmed from my thoughts on the stories I used them in, which helped make them fit the theme and storyline. While there is no guarantee of this happening with every dream you dream, any dream you might have can easily become a story with some conscious creative thinking.
2. Lose Yourself in Writing Descriptions
I compared writers creating surreal scenes to artists painting surreal scenes at the start of this article.
The similarity between the two is that creating such scenes in literature requires a certain artful skill. One needs to ensure that the important aspects of the scene are there to form the shape, while also ensuring that the scene isn’t so firm and defined that the reader doesn’t feel that surreal atmosphere. It’s a balancing act, but not one that someone can maintain with intense focus. Rather, it is one that is maintained by losing focus.
Let the lines blur.
When creating these scenes, it is better to establish the essential aspects as soon as possible, so you can take a step back from the necessary and delve into the unnecessary. Dreamlike scenes need to have a weirdness to them, they need to be unbelievable. The believable needs to be framed in the bizarre.
When writing these scenes, lose yourself in the descriptions. Be as flowery as you like. What you can’t capture in visualisations, capture in your writing style. Use personification and other poetic methods to create the feeling, if not the scene. Experimentation is more than welcome; it’s recommended.
It also helps to be a little bonkers to create something bonkers.
3. Make it an Upside-Down Pyramid
Much like an upside-down pyramid, your story must barely be grounded.
Popular surreal stories, such as Alice in Wonderland, are barely grounded in reality. There are various oddities, contradictions and unbelievable characters, but to the wise reader, that is carefully contained madness.
There is a fine line between a superb surreal story and a mind-numbing nonsensical novel. That fine line is the plot, the characters, the story! Without these things guiding the reader, making some sense of the madness, the story would lose its charm. That fine line is easy to remember when constructing a plot, but easy to forget when constructing certain scenes.
If at any point in your story the reader loses interest, it is most likely due to straying too far from the logical that they no longer feel a sense of urgency, or relatability, or any other human emotion other than wondrous confusion.
Although it might sound strange, your unbelievable story relies on believability. If your reader loses that, if you take them too far, or forget the purpose of the story for too long, your story will come off as a rambling farce of little interest.
No doubt that isn’t what you want your reader to think. You want to keep them intrigued, you want to test their suspension of disbelief. To keep them feeling a sense of wonder without boring them or taking them too far from the border of reality.
Like an upside-down pyramid, that requires a delicate balance.
4 .Keep the Story Centred in the Madness
Speaking of the balance, let’s discuss the story!
The plot, one of the elements that can be used to ground the world, also needs to play on the madness of the story. The surreal scenes and bizarre nature of the world and its characters should be key to the plot and not serve as a side-show to what is a realistic story.
Instead, the weirdness should be the key feature of your plot. Like a fine string, your plot connects the objects, people and scenes together. It is hard to see but very much there. A reader should be able to follow its effect, connecting all the strange happenings you have created,
As stated earlier, you should have your descriptions relay the essential features of a scene, but then you should lose yourself in the unnecessary. You need to approach the plot in the same manner. You should be able to establish the essential aspects of your story and then lose yourself to the surreal atmosphere when creating the rest.
After all, surreal stories shouldn’t be written so seriously.
5. Humanize at Least One Protagonist
Like with most genres, it pays to have a protagonist who sees things the same way as the reader. A confused character, trying to make sense of all the bizarreness.
Character’s such as these serve a purpose in almost every genre. It gives the reader a character to relate to as well as a character to make sense of any confusing aspects of the story, both for the plot and the reader’s sake.
Not only are these characters a handy-writing tool, but often they are enjoyable to read. A character a reader can sympathise with goes a long way. It gives the reader a character they can worry about in the tense moments or enjoy reading in the lighter moments; something that is truly important when your other characters are comfortable and feel no need to explain or make sense of anything.
6. Have Others Read Your Story
Now, this is a piece of advice that applies to any form of writing, not just surreal literature.
Feedback goes a long way when writing a book. It lets you know what works in your story and what doesn’t. It helps you to find the problems you wouldn’t normally notice. After all, as the writer, you have a better understanding of your world and plot than your reader. If you find your surreal story is confusing your readers, rather than intriguing them, then you need feedback to find the problem area.
In addition to these fundamental aspects of writing a book, it also is a great way to better understand what your market is looking for. It will help point you in the right direction, be it writing-style-wise or plot-wise.
For the business-oriented writer, such information is key for maximising your time and effort. The last thing you want to do is waste your time writing a way you think is right for your book. You want to know what is right.
Of course, that knowledge is essential if you’re new to writing this genre.
7. Make the Main Character Grow
Finally, make sure your main character/s grow throughout the story.
As your reader comes to grips with the madness of your surreal story, your main character should as well. No main character should be so blind throughout the story. There need to be scenes where they put what they learn into action, have the upper hand, triumph in some scenes.
Much like Alice eventually grew to understand Wonderland, your main character needs to find their footing as well. It might mean them taking a few shots in the dark, missing the mark and taking a few knocks, but eventually, they will comprehend the incomprehensible.
If paced properly, your reader will learn with them, strengthening the relatability between your main character and your reader.
I’ve dabbled in surreal writing more than once. It’s a subject that fascinates me almost as much as horror.
Dream sequences have appeared in writing in many forms. In some cases, it’s through the eyes of the insane. In other cases, the characters have been drugged, dazed or hypnotized, resulting in them seeing the world differently. These sequences are short or realistically subtle to maintain the realism in stories.
However, the stories centred around bizarre plots and/or strange worlds are normally written humorously. It makes sense for writers to abandon logic and reason in such illogical and unreasonable settings, using their humour to maintain the story.
Writer’s such as Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett come to mind.
With that said, I hope these tips help you write your surreal story!
Good day, goodnight and happy writing!