Dream Logic: Using Surrealism in Fiction

I heard a podcast recently where the guest talked about the Magical Realist novel he was working on. The host asked, “is that just a fantasy novel but you don’t want to admit you like geek stuff?” The guest laughed and admitted that was pretty much accurate.

Similarly, you hear a lot of people go on and on about “dream logic” as if it’s an excuse not to have to write a plot for your story, or have characters with realistic motivations.

Neither of these things is remotely true. Oh, it’s true that some writers use these terms as excuses. But they shouldn’t.

Surrealism is a style, not an excuse. It can be incredibly powerful when it’s done right. You look at a Salvador Dali painting of people wearing lobsters on their heads and your first reaction is to laugh. Then you move away quickly, and the image haunts you every time you think about it. That’s not just Dali throwing weird crap on a canvas and calling it art. The whole point of Surrealism, according to its creators, was to tap into the subconscious. To make connections between things that seemed separate. It’s an incredibly hard thing to do, and almost impossible to do well. When it does work, it’s magic.

“Every dream has its navel,” as Freud almost assuredly didn’t say. I’ve always interpreted this as meaning that any story, no matter how far-fetched, weird, or seemingly dissonant, must contain a connection to reality. At the very least some kind of nod to real, lived experience. Surrealism exists on that thread-like connection, the region where the wild nonsense of chaos bleeds into the stark cold light of day. Great practitioners understand that you have to walk that tightrope to bring back phenomenal stories.

When people talk about Dream Logic they always forget the “logic” part. Or the “realism” in Magical Realism. Let’s look at some of these styles individually, and see where, while they promise chaos and insanity, are actually art at its most carefully controlled:

Dream Logic: Often called “Fairy Tale Logic” as well. In some ways, DL is the opposite of surrealism. It’s the attempt to impose consistent, logical rules onto a nonsensical world, and more often than not, the attempt fails (intentionally). If surrealism is about digging in the deep soil of the Id, DL is about the Superego trying to make sense of a messy room. Alice in Wonderland is dream logic at its finest–Alice is a scientist attempting to solve Wonderland with clear syllogistic logic. The story is about what happens when you push too hard and the crazy thing pops back up behind you. David Lynch is a modern master of DL–Twin Peaks: The Return is a master class in the style. Be careful, though. Readers who expect straightforward narrative will quickly get bored with this “crazy” style. You need to find a way to keep them turning pages.

Stream of Consciousness: Nicholson Baker’s Mezzanine is one of my favorite books. It’s the story of a man riding down an escalator, letting his thoughts wander. James Joyce’s Ulysses is often held up as the one and only masterpiece of SOC. It’s not, though. The real master here is Stephen King. King gives some terrible writing advice in his book On Writing: create an incredibly realized character and then just see what happens to them. No one should ever do this. King gets away with it because he has a genius-level aptitude for creating stories out of random events–his brain just naturally gravitates toward a loose, swingy plot, so eventually he gets a book out of his wool-gathering. Do you have Stephen King’s instincts? No? Best to use this for, say, a chapter in a longer work, or just in flashbacks, unless you’re absolutely certain you can bring it back home.

Magical Realism: Argh! No, it’s not just fantasy! It’s a reaction against fantasy! Magical Realism is an attempt to describe the real world–the place you’re living right now–period. The conceit is that the only way to truly explain the beauty and importance of a real place, person, or event is to highlight it with fantastic symbols. Some life events are so big and so impossible to describe that we need metaphors to handle them. The loss of a loved one becomes a story about them growing wings and flying away. But the story, the damned story, is about the loss, not the wings. This might be one of the most misused terms in literary history.

Dadaism: Not just surrealism’s cranky punk rock grandpa. The two movements actually serve radically different ends. If surrealism mines for hidden connections between disparate subjects, Dada is all about breaking apart the established connections of our every day life. A toilet seat covered in velvet is surreal; one covered in spikes is Dada. It forces you to rethink the things you do automatically all day long. A metronome is something you watch. Unless there’s an eye on it, then it’s watching you, pal. A man puts a bicycle wheel on a stool and puts it in a museum. Not just to prove that art is bullshit. No! That was the opposite of the point! The point was to show that objects you encounter everyday become invisible to you. By recontextualizing them they become visible again, which is one of the most jarring experiences you can have. Dada was about iconoclasm, about smashing your face into consciousness.

The last thing to say about invoking surrealism in your work is that it’s dangerous to the writer, first, and the reader, second. The writer who dallies with the unconscious is liable to end up discovering things about themselves–their own personal internal symbol systems, phobias they didn’t know they had. If you find that happening while you’re writing, it’s actually a sign that you’re on the right track. You owe it to yourself to explore those strange feelings. To dig deep and see what you can find. Write crazily. Try automatic writing, where you just type without looking at the screen. Throw a random symbol in your work and see what shakes loose. Just remember–you have to edit it all, later. You have to make it make sense, make sure the reader never feels like you’ve lost control. Whatever happened while you were composing is yours to keep, and doesn’t have to show up on the page.