How To Write a Surrealist Novel
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:
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.