Exploring Speculative Fiction Sub-Genres: Surrealism

SERIES INTRO: As a speculative fiction writer, you need to know your genres. Why? Knowing your genres makes it easier to find your readers. Even if you’re not excited by the thought of marketing your book, knowing your readers helps you make the right creative choices. And, let’s face it, you save a lot of time if you can make those choices earlier rather than later.

The idea behind this series is to give you a tour of the sub-genres you’ll most often find within the different spec-fic genres. It’s a whistle-stop trip, so buckle up and enjoy the ride. Don’t forget to read the rest of the posts in the series: fantasyscience fictionhorrormagical realismsuperhero fictionalternative history and alternative realitydystopian literature and post-apocalyptic fiction.

What is Surrealism?

Most of us are familiar with surrealist images like Salvador Dali’s Three Sphinxes of Bikini or Rene Magritte’s The Lovers. But even though surrealism was – and, we’ll see, still is – an important influence on literature, you might be hard-pressed to identify it as a sub-genre of speculative fiction, let alone begin to write it.

That’s where this article will help.

Surrealism in a Nutshell

Surrealism began life as a cultural movement after the end of World War I. It was an attempt to overthrow the then-dominant forces of rationality, which artists, writers and some political thinkers saw as having brought about the horror and strife of that era.

Strange though it may seem at a time when ‘alternative truth’ is beginning to look like a major force for ill, surrealists sought political and personal freedom by rejecting rational thought and society’s rules.

Andre Breton, the movement’s leader, held that this approach led to complete freedom of expression. Most importantly of all, surrealists vowed to embrace the chaos and primal energy of the unconscious.

Surrealism and Speculative Fiction

That pretty much explains the presence of mushroom-cloud heads and shroud-faced lovers in the paintings referred to earlier, but why should writers of speculative fiction care about surrealism?

Although commentators variously state that surrealism ended either with World War II or the death of Andre Breton in 1966, I think that’s clearly not true. Even though it’s no longer a coherent movement, surrealism is alive and well, and an important subset of the spec-fic genre.

One Big Problem

When writing surrealism, there’s one big, immediate problem to be overcome – the very nature of the unconscious. In the fifth book of The Gay Science, Nietzsche asserts that unconscious thought (which he holds to be deeper and superior to conscious thought) occurs in a mode beyond words and concepts.

That’s a challenge for us as writers, because we have no option but to express ourselves in words and concepts. So we need to be especially loose and creative when it comes to capturing the unconscious for our readers.

Channelling Your Unconscious

If writing surrealism is all about expressing your unconscious, you’re going to need a reliable method of channelling its contents. One route, albeit a cripplingly expensive one, is learning to free associate in psychoanalysis.

Fortunately, more economical help is at hand from Andre Breton himself, writing in the Surrealist Manifestos:

Have writing materials brought, once you are settled in a place as favourable as possible for focusing the mind on itself. Put yourself in the most passive, or receptive, state you can. Forget about your genius, your talents, and those of others. Tell yourself repeatedly that literature is one of the saddest roads leading to everything. Write swiftly with no preconceived subject, swiftly enough that you cannot retain it, and are not tempted to re-read.

Having undergone the expensive process of psychoanalysis, I can vouch for Breton’s cheaper method, otherwise known as free or automatic writing. Morning pages are also an incredibly effective way of accessing your unconscious, as you’re writing fresh from sleep, with your dream life still within reach.

I’d argue that these pages do more than simply clear the cobwebs from your consciousness. They provide you with a clear communication from your unconscious, which you can later plunder for inspiration.

What Should You Write and How Should You Write It?

Writers of surrealist fiction have developed a repertoire of techniques for bringing the unconscious into their work. Here’s a few for you to try.

  1. Use shocking imagery and juxtapositions

Follow the example of Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, which featured synaesthetic candy tastings and fantastical voyages into (none too clean) toilets. Practice those morning pages and over time your imagination will deliver up some truly disconcerting results.

  1. Be sparingly, poetically surreal

As with Pynchon, surrealism can run through an entire novel like words through a stick of rock, or you can use it more sparingly. One episode in the enormously affecting Beloved by Toni Morrison is devoted to a poetic, stream-of-consciousness monologue communicating the title character’s experience of death.

Struggling to express herself through the semi-verbal perceptions of babyhood, Beloved’s spirit wonders, ‘…how can I say things that are pictures?’ It’s a beautiful and devastating example of literary surrealism, as well as an inspiring example of how to confront the problem of writing the unconscious.

  1. Play with time

Over the course of my own psychoanalysis, my analyst repeatedly emphasised to me that in the unconscious, time isn’t recognised. Spec-fic writer JG Ballard – himself fascinated by psychoanalysis – was especially preoccupied with writing about situations where time is collapsed or just plain wrong.

Ballard devoted whole works to this theme, but you don’t have to go so far: experimenting with non-linear narrative, epiphany and other unconventional storytelling techniques works well to evoke unconscious processes.

  1. Unite reality & unreality

In The Life of Pi, Yann Martel’s eponymous hero tells a magical, dream-like account of his shipwreck. The author also teases readers with a more realistic interpretation of Pi’s story, and even asks which version we prefer.

But the wise reader knows that the real truth is not a simple question of either/or. To understand Pi’s experience completely, we must accept the fantastical account together with the more mundane version.

That we sense the need to do this is a tribute to the way Martel unites the unreal and the real, an indispensable surrealist device.

  1. Don’t overlook the collective unconscious

It would be remiss of me to finish without acknowledging that the unconscious, as CG Jung believed, operates on a collective as well as an individual level. This is a major theme in Yasutaka Tsutsui’s 1993 novel Paprika, set in a society where psychiatrists can enter the dreams of their patients.

The collective unconscious influences speculative fiction on a much deeper, more powerful level, too. Any work with its roots in mythology, like superhero fiction or stories based on the hero’s journey, expresses some aspect of the collective unconscious.

Surrealism and Your Work

If surrealism appeals to you, you can of course go all out and craft the next great surrealist novel. It will probably be interesting, and may even be readable, but it might not be especially mainstream (although who am I to judge – look at the enduring popularity of Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas).

Fortunately, you also have the option of using the surrealist techniques explained above to add the richness and freedom of the unconscious to any spec-fic work. Surrealism is a sub-genre I find especially appealing, and I’m hoping this article will inspire a few more writers of speculative fiction to channel their unconscious into their work.

Have I persuaded you to give it a try?


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By | 2017-09-05T13:27:34+00:00 February 23rd, 2017|Novel Writing|2 Comments

About the Author:

Lynn is a main contributor to the Liminal Pages blog. She studied science while writing fiction and poetry in her spare time. She's carried out research into trees, grasses, lichens and the effects of prehistoric climate change, all of which turned out to be far weirder than anything she could possibly invent. She has an MA in creative writing, and worked as a writing mentor at a large London university. These days, she runs her own content writing business, Lexis Writing.


  1. Batmansbestfriend February 11, 2018 at 1:54 pm - Reply

    Enjoyed the article.

    I have found that grounding the surreal elements with the story works best (at least for me). What I mean by “grounding” is that the surreal elements are grounded in something. I first have to know what the point of the surrealism is (why am I using it as opposed to some other technique?). Then I have to know what the overall story is (what am I, as an author, trying to convey to the reader?). Third I have to know what the most important elements of what I’m trying to convey are (if nothing else, what should the reader get out of this?). Then, once I have those figured out, I have to decide what (similar to any story being told regardless of story telling technique) the most important elements of the overall work will be (what do I have to include so the reader will get out of said work what I want them to?). Then, and finally, I have to figure out how I want to incorporate those “important (and necessary) elements” in the over all work (Where should they be? How should I convey them? etc). These steps help me to keep the surrealism grounded and not just a list of random imagery that goes nowhere and ultimately does nothing. If it does go nowhere and do nothing then it’s a waste of time…unless “nothing” is some sort of statement you’re trying to make. If you wanted to say that (insert subject here) is pointless and/or meaningless and so your overall work appears on many levels to be pointless and/or meaningless then you can write a pointless book. But hey, that’s not pointless. You’re right. A lot of what the reader reads may be pointless, but the overall work does have a point…”pointlessness.” You can do that. However, unless you are specifically conveying pointlessness with a purpose you should probably refer to some variation of my above steps.

    Anyway, surrealism is not just randomness. There are techniques that can be incorporated, expanded upon, played around with, etc. I love surrealism that tells a story in a way that you, as the reader, has no idea you’re being told a story until, at some point, you realize there’s a “method to the madness” and have to go back and rethink what you thought wasn’t important at the time to consider whether or not it may actually have been (important). I’m currently writing such a story now. Well, a book, but anyway. The surreal elements are dream sequences (that the reader and character having them clearly knows are). However, they begin to crossover into reality in a way that you, the reader, are left wondering if the character was still dreaming or not…and if not, then what the **** would that mean??? However, it’s subtle. Being subtle works best, I have found, when writing surrealism, which itself is not usually very subtle (it’s there, you know it’s there, it’s in your face, and you’re left to deal with it). The dream sequences are all grounded around the important elements. I know what I want the reader to get out of the dream sequences and I make sure to incorporate them (the important elements)…whether or not they’ll get the significance at the time they’re presented. I always make sure that a point to the surrealism can be obtained if you, the reader, pay attention. And I do that by grounding the scenes as I mentioned above. You may not be sure you got the point, but at least (until you figure out the over all encompassing point) you recognize there is one to be gotten.

    Anyway, ground your surrealism and before you can expect the reader to get anything out of it you, the author, have to know what the point is…and, for that to happen, there must be one in the first place.

    • Sophie Playle February 12, 2018 at 10:42 am - Reply

      Yes, you are so right. Excellent points!

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