How To Write a Surrealist Novel

Updated: February 5, 2016 11:15:43 AM

By John Schoneboom

"As I write, I am like some smuggler in the twilight running guns destined for the war I wage with myself."

-- Andre Breton, Introduction to the Discourse on the Paucity of Reality

What is a surrealist novel and why would anyone want to write (or read) one? Well, it's a novel as inventive as dreams, and as full of odd juxtapositions, associations, surprises, and perspective-challenging provocations. It expands the communicative purview of the novel into non-rational territory, challenging comfortable notions of reality and speaking to other ways of knowing. From a writerly perspective, letting go of the controls and chasing notions down rabbit holes is a great way to free up the old imagination and surprise ourselves. But as with all good things, it's possible to have too much of it.

Originally, Breton's Surrealists strove for the purity of completely automatic writing: the directly transcribed outpourings of the unconscious mind, as unmediated by reason as possible. It's worth noting that this method forbids only planning, not narrative; even dreams have narrative. Still, were anyone actually able to produce a novel-length collection of entirely unplanned free association, it is doubtful that its charms would include readability.

The question then becomes how to tap into that surrealist mode and end up with something engaging. Well, it turns out I've thought about this a lot lately and I have a few ideas on the subject. Here's the proposal in a nutshell: plunge ahead recklessly; survey the damage; and continue consciously. Allow me to explain.

The standard advice for crafting a tight, compelling tale usually involves understanding story structure, clarifying your protagonist's needs and desires, and setting out a series of obstacles and causally linked events punctuated by major reversals at strategic plot points, preferably all laid out neatly on index cards. That's one perfectly excellent way of avoiding story pitfalls like the dreaded "sagging middle", which is where inspiration alone generally dumps you like a sack of bruised peaches.

If you are a surrealist, or more generally a seat-of-the-pantser, it may be because you're congenitally obliged to choose death over doing anything half that organized. You might naturally resonate more with advice from somebody like Georges Bataille, who counsels that one must write "as a usually chaste woman getting undressed for an orgy." It's all fine and well to get undressed for an orgy, but what if you find yourself suddenly uncertain in the sagging middle of one, groping in the dark as it were? Where's Mr Bataille when you need him then?

Not to worry. My chief discovery is that uncertain groping in the dark can be made to look very much like a scientific method if one can just represent it in bullet point form. Thus, as a contribution to humanity, I humbly offer my systematic new three-step surrealist writing program:

  1. Write about half the thing without a care in the world. Just keep going, deliriously, fearlessly following even your weirdest impulses until you've got about half your target word count. Plot? Character arc? Ha! You are making a primordial alphabet soup of ideas and styles, the raw material of narrative evolution, and you are making it out of associations that would be completely inaccessible via rational effort. The sagging middle is your enemy no longer; it is your desired destination. When you have arrived at its doorstep, it is time for Step Two.
  2. Go for some pleasantly mindless exercise, such as an unhurried walk or bike ride. Think about what you've got so far. What can you read in your alphabet soup? Who's in there and what are they getting up to? What ideas have come up more than once? Those ideas are themes. Your characters and events will already reflect them. Groupings and patterns will emerge upon reflection. What possibilities exist for pushing characters and events closer together (or pulling them further apart) along your nascent thematic lines? As you think about your characters, what happens to them if you simply love them more?
  3. Write the rest of it. Maintain any stylistic genius that has occurred, but with your newfound sense of direction, gently steer the narrative ship and bring that bad boy home.

After that it's just the usual matter of rewriting from beginning to end to get rid of anything awful or saggy, pushing and pulling it all into something like a satisfying shape. Free-wheeling spontaneity and carefully constructed plot may be two different worlds, but I want the best of both of them and this method encourages a useful collision.

Obviously enough I came up with this idea while engaging in some pleasantly mindless exercise, having written about half of a new novel with free-wheeling spontaneity and only the vaguest sense of direction. I generated some promising ways forward, but the real proof is yet to come in Step Three. I will say that my first novel Fontoon was pretty much written by stumbling through a similar process, so there is some call for optimism. If it pans out again, I may be able to parlay this thing into a separate career doing odious, high-priced How To Write a Surrealist Novel seminars. Look for one down a rabbit hole near you.


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February 5, 2016 04:06:41 PM
What a triumphant method! You have uncovered the key to surrealist mastery and satisfaction.

I think that old Aragon could have benefited from your discovery. Paris Peasant goes downhill after all the lovely dreamy stuff about the arcades (lovely, yet in reading it I was, in spite of my very high tolerance for plotlessness, after a while ready for something more concrete to happen, ready for a firmer glimpse of the protagonist). Could you perhaps give us an example of your technique as applied to that novel or to Nadja or something of that sort?
I'm a writer with an interest in all aspects of how we construct, filter, protect, and subject ourselves to reality. My first novel Fontoon was published...

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John Schoneboom
February 18, 2016 08:27:10 PM
Champignon, I have been remiss in not responding for ages, my apologies! It's a good question and one reason I haven't come up with a response is because I'm uncertain whether my method applies to anybody else who has written surrealist novels. Paris Peasant clearly reflects the part about meandering around imaginatively without regard for plot or narrative tradition, and then also shows a break with that approach at around the halfway point. But instead of keeping on the same basic path in a more directed way, Aragon just writes a completely different book for the second half, as if he had woken up and decided to get serious. Both halves are more like essays or rants than a novel, one half playfully so, the other half less so.

Nadja is more of a traditional novel, or anyway is more narratively consistent from beginning to end and tells a story albeit one whose fictionality leans towards the factual. There's nothing about it that contradicts the method I've suggested. It has plenty of dreaminess and rambling, but has been corralled into something that coheres. Whether Breton first let himself loose and then reined himself in we may never know -- but let's say he did, and that there was an exercise bike involved in the middle at some point!
I'm a writer with an interest in all aspects of how we construct, filter, protect, and subject ourselves to reality. My first novel Fontoon was published...

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February 19, 2016 11:03:19 AM
Ah, now that is marvellous. I have two things to say in particular about the assertion that 'uncertain groping in the dark can be made to look very much like a scientific method if one can just represent it in bullet point form', and they are as follows:

- it just made my laugh out loud in a packed branch of CostaCoffee (I know there are problematic contradictions in reading anticapitalist websites while funding what I suppose must be a suburban outpost of the capitalist-industrial-military complex one overpriced cappuccino at a time, but I don't think the independent place next door has reliable wifi, so what can you do?).
-as a person who is finally coming to realise, perhaps twenty years too late, that they have a- yes- congenital disinclination towards planning which borders on the psychotic (I actually recently didn't get a job for that very reason, an outcome which I now realise was absolutely for the best) I very much hope that this hell-for-leather seat-of-the-pants stuff can come to be passed off in our stultifyingly overprocessed society as something approaching competence, and I will certainly be signing up for one of your overpriced courses as soon as they are advertised.
-ah, a third bullet point (I told you I was no good at planning). The third thing is that I am inspired to the point of thinking about what sort of surrealist novel I could write (well at least of thinking about writing whatever the hell comes into my head and seeing where that gets me on a long day's walk- if it was good enough for your man Breton and for your good self, then it is good enough for me).
I'm a writer with an interest in all aspects of how we construct, filter, protect, and subject ourselves to reality. My first novel Fontoon was published...

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John Schoneboom
February 20, 2016 06:47:16 AM
Psychoanalysts are of course already organizing in an effort to ban my surrealist writing method, transparently out of fear that in its capacity to plumb the depths of the unconscious and reveal themes it will put them out of business (and we might speculate as amateurs also because of childhood traumas and over-attachments to their mothers and some sort of retentiveness associated with the lower sphinctum). Therefore I can only encourage you, Jonathan, and everyone else to put the theory into practice as frequently as possible if only to ward off unseemly professional corruption. Let me put the call out right now, a call for surrealist writings, and if I get two of them I'll start a whole new section of the website for their display.

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