|M.C. Escher, "Relativity"|
Consider some of the ink drawings of M.C. Escher. We all know the distorted stairways, the eternal water flows, the constant visual illusions. When we view a print (that everyone had in their college dorm when I went to school), we look at it in one of two ways. We observe it as a whole, seeing stairs and people and things and stuff, and recognizing that it does not all come together in a sensible manner. Interesting from a distance, yes. The other way is to look into the picture, examine one particular stairway and how it violates the reality of everything around it. It looks perfect until its perspective inverts to where it's actually upside-down, and the illusion amazes us. Writing a story about the weird and unusual works better with the second method of looking at things.
When we take that second approach of looking at Escher's works and apply it to our writing, it should be in that same manner. We start from a place of sensibility - the stairway, or waking up in a familiar room. The reader walks with us, identifying with the sensibilities we describe. It starts off without the distortion, the weirdness that the writer knows is coming. The reader is being led in a confusing direction, and is none the wiser. Maybe there's the hint of something not quite right, but nothing that sets off alarms.
At some point, the weirdness creeps in. Something about the details doesn't add up. The flaws are not yet obvious, but something seems off-center. This should peak the reader's interest, draw them to read forward. Maybe the reader suspects something's wrong, maybe they have developed their own theory. The point is that the reader is engaging with the story. The writer may have led them down a path, but the reader is now running ahead for the next big turn.
The build-up to the big reveal can take as long as the writer wants as long as it is a gradual build, sustained with a constant pace that builds the reader's anticipation. With this bit-by-bit structure, the reader will accept more and more uncertainty and confusion because they anticipate the big payoff. And, of course, the payoff has to be worth the build-up.
The point is, a weird story doesn't have to be as bizarre as a hallucinatory spell. It just needs to be different than what's expected, and written so the reader is led away from the familiar to a place of uncertainty. It works every time.