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Amanda Marbais writes about, “ONE WEIRD THING: Disrupting the Ordinary World”

Amanda Marbais is the author of the short story collection Claiming a Body, as well as numerous essays. You can find out more about her on her website, www.amandamarbais.com, or by clicking here, read her last post here, and buy her books here.

I once had a writing professor who said we were only allowed “one weird thing” in a story set in the ordinary world. It was unclear if he meant a touch of absurdism or a full trip into fantasy, and I was too inexperienced to ask. But he was convinced that any unexpected story detail would strain credulity and lose readers.

I’ve often thought about this advice in the intervening years. I tend to write stories that are ‘weird,’ which can be parceled into different genres. I think fictional weirdness can be any events or details outside our usual experience that push the boundaries of the “ordinary world.”

Sometimes I have a student who lets the story become ungrounded, using details that clash or contradict. I think Absurdism can be a stylistic choice to create tension, but weirdness should not be random or contradictory. It should confound expectations and tell us something new about the world.

When weirdness disrupts a well-constructed text, it leaves space for something new that follows. In some circumstances, it can elevate a text.

A PLACE FOR WEIRDNESS

Is there a difference between surprise and weirdness? Surprise should be an element in all mysteries and thrillers. Plot twists, by their very nature, are surprising. Without surprise, the engine of discovering whodunit can stall. But it’s not necessarily weird. Weirdness is extraordinary while also straining the bounds of the human world without straining credulity.

Two great examples are in the contemporary thriller / horror novels: When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole and Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. These novelists weave weirdness with classic surprise, which fuels the suspense.

Alyssa Cole engages in the classic “Who do I trust?” thriller plot point, before bending the real world of Brooklyn by the ear and taking what might be seen as paranoia to its limit. Silvia Moreno-Garcia, whose main character is investigating accusations that her cousin is being slowly poisoned by a spouse, engages in a similar kind of weirdness.

The text is already about poisons, so a later introduction of mushrooms feels extraordinary adds breadth, and surprises the reader, but doesn’t strain credulity. In some ways it becomes an extended metaphor, telling us about some archaic thing we didn’t know we need to know. As Benjamin Percy says in Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction “…fantasy allows us a truth that might otherwise be unavailable.”

WHY WEIRD WORKS

I often teach the story “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” by Rebecca Roanhorse, in which Sedona tourists can use virtual reality to inhabit a Native person’s life. One tourist, White Wolf, does so quite literally, taking over the main character, Jesse Turnblatt’s life outside the virtual reality pod. White Wolf’s somewhat ephemeral and uncanny way of possessing Jesse’s life is an extraordinary plot device, which ties deeply to the reality of colonization.

Students find the “weirdness” a gateway for unraveling its complexities. I think the very disruption of readers’ expectations is what makes this story so effective. Arguably, it is Speculative Fiction, which in itself can be a wide genre.

Weirdness doesn’t have to be confined to a genre. I also teach the story “The Swimmer” to creative writing students. John Cheever creates a world in which a man swims through neighborhood pools as the summer winds down. As he reaches his own darkened home, we find he’s been grieving a tragedy. His home is no longer populated with family (or friends). Though swimming is familiar, the man’s extraordinary trip through many pools embodies his grief more than witnessing his neighbors display their sympathy at his loss.

WEIRDNESS to CONFOUND EXPECTATIONS

For me, one of the strongest demonstrations of weirdness in a mystery is Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk. Janina is a conservationist of sorts, whose dogs go missing. When she discovers a photo in her dead neighbors’ house, she suggests to the police that the animals have killed him in retaliation.

This extraordinary response becomes the driver for the remainder of Janina’s haphazard sleuthing. It also allows her to ask larger philosophical questions about community, integrity, and what it means to share the earth with animals.

Again, in his book, Thrill Me, Benjamin Percy says: “We need the everyday to balance out the astonishing. To make the extraordinary ordinary.” In Tokarczuk’s novel, the unreliable narrator gives us an astounding perspective, yet her robust world views normalize her extraordinary life. In this way, the extraordinary comes to be expected, which might have satisfied my early writing instructors’ constraints after all.

I don’t believe you have to confine yourself to one weird thing. There are opportunities for weirdness in all aspects of fiction. Any time that strange impulse crops up, write it down, and see where it leads. Weirdness suggests something unique about the world, even as it enteretains us.

Amanda Marbais

You can find out more about her on her website, amandamarbais.com.

This Post Has 17 Comments

  1. Anne Louise Bannon
    Anne Louise Bannon

    I am an ongoing fan of weirdness, especially among the ordinary. Thanks for getting me to think a little more consciously about it.

    1. Amanda Marbais
      Amanda Marbais

      I am also a fan of weirdness. Sometimes it’s my favorite part of other writers’ work.

  2. Avatar
    saralynrichard

    What a thought-provoking post. One of my favorite authors is John Irving, King of Weirdness. When someone asked me how I could like such absurd plots, the question astounded me. Within the context of Irving’s books, nothing is absurd. Only when one closes the book and steps away do certain plot points stand out as weird.

    1. Amanda Marbais
      Amanda Marbais

      Thanks, Saralyn. When I read The World According to Garp, I was also delighted by the absurd plot. I hadn’t read any Magical Realism or Speculative Fiction yet, so it felt very new. Irving is definitely the King of Weirdness in an otherwise ordinary world.

  3. Avatar
    Margaret Mizushima

    You’ve given me several things to think about, Amanda! Thanks for this most interesting post!

    1. Amanda Marbais
      Amanda Marbais

      Thanks, Margaret!

  4. Sharon Lynn
    Sharon Lynn

    Great post, Amanda! It reminds me of Alice in Wonderland- “Sometimes I believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

    1. Amanda Marbais
      Amanda Marbais

      Thanks, Sharon! Wonderful quote.

  5. Avatar
    Avanti Centrae

    I love the weird, the off-the-wall, and the creative. Thanks for the great post!

    1. Amanda Marbais
      Amanda Marbais

      Thanks, Avanti! I love it too.

  6. GP Gottlieb
    GP Gottlieb

    Interesting – maybe it’s only one weird thing unless it’s all about weirdness, like many fantasies and much futuristic science fiction.

  7. Carl Vonderau
    Carl Vonderau

    An interesting take on weirdness, something I haven’t really thought about. I think the surprising weird twist in a story that seems right but can’t be explained takes it to another level.

  8. tracey64p
    tracey64p

    This helped my revisions in unimaginable ways, Amanda. I needed this, so thank you!

    1. Amanda Marbais
      Amanda Marbais

      Excellent, Tracey! I love to hear it.

  9. Avatar
    Colleen Winter

    I love this post! To me weirdness is that point in the story when the author either subtly or not so subtly drops in a hint of weirdness which then launches the story down a different, more intriguing path or else shifts our perspective on everything that has gone before. This is such a great description of it. I now have to track down on the examples you mentioned. Thank you!

    1. Amanda Marbais
      Amanda Marbais

      Colleen, it’s so true! Once the unique moment is introduced, it can later become a feature of the story rather than an anamoly. I agree, often the story launches down a different path. And you’re ready for it.

  10. Sherrill Joseph
    Sherrill Joseph

    Thanks for your provocative post, Amanda! It’s given me an idea for an upcoming book.

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