Monday, September 2, 2019

Writing About Weird Things

The weirdest moment I ever wrote about was waking up and walking through my house, checking if my family was home. A simple, straightforward story - until I heard the voice telling me to go back to my room. I couldn't see anyone, and it wasn't my mother's voice echoing through the hall. It didn't make sense. To make things worse, I remembered I was in my thirties, and I left that house when I was eighteen. But I was there. My father's pipe smoke lingered the air. How could he be there? How could I be there? As my hallucination broke, I finally saw my friend who helped me recover from a terrible illness. She escorted me back to my room, but my mind still wandered between that old house and my current residence.

M.C. Escher, "Relativity"
At face value, the story of hallucinating during my recovery seems like an interesting subject for a story. However, it has its dangers. First, this is a discussion of something not every reader has gone through. Lucid dreams come close, but the twisted reality of a hallucination is tough to explain to those who never experienced it. Second, part of the story is the character's confusion, and the reader needs to connect with this idea in a similar manner as the character. Writing that starts as, "I once had a hallucination about..." turns the story into a report about an event, and the reader observes the events rather than experiences them.

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.

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