It can often boil down to simply taking popular ideas and putting new spins on things, or just taking an idea you love and rolling with it, because even if a hundred other people have the exact same idea in the exact same format, they will still be all uniquely different.
A tactic I prefer to follow, however, is to take an idea and just see how weird I can make it. There are limitations however, as this is not everyone’s cup of tea from the beginning, and when done carelessly, it can achieve the opposite of what you may set out to do. However, with a little care and forethought, you can use the element of weirdness to potentially stand out from the others, and make your story just a little bit more interesting.
Why do we want to be weird?
Staking out with the sole purpose of being ‘weird’ or ‘zany’ is as disastrous as setting out simply to write a story because you want it to be ‘original’.
As with all stories, it’s the heart at the centre that we as an audience relate to. Stories that want to go and just be weird for the sake of weird often lack purpose, they can be tiring, and even come full circle and the effort to be crazy and interesting is so tedious it becomes simply boring.
At the end of the day, weird should be unexpected. It’s a tactic used to subvert expectations, employing elements of surrealism to give your audience an unforgettable experience. What we want to avoid is using surreal elements that completely overshadow the point of your story. In Stephen King’s It, anyone who has read it will surely remember the Ritual of Chüd, where a universe swallowing turtle appears and gives advice to Bill telepathically, who then bites the turtle’s tongue. This, in a story about a killer clown monster just to remind you, yet it’s one of the moments I find most memorable, because I wasn’t quite expecting it. It’s one of those things that the more you think about it, the more sense it kind of makes, but in the moment, it took me by surprise.
That’s one of the great things about implementing weirdness, is that you can add something completely ‘out there’, but through audience deduction, they can be sure that it does make sense in it’s own way. If done right, it can add layers and layers of enjoyment that you might not have even intended.
By itself, however, introducing weird elements is a pure form of expression. Everyone in this world is just as weird as the next simply by perspective, it’s always just a case of how willing some people are to reveal this to others, that is how we inadvertently judge someone as being ‘odd’ or ‘normal’. What better way then, to express that side of you that you rarely let others see than through writing?
By implementing that side of us, we create something that can be considered ‘pure-you’. By wanting to write a story with your own elements, you are creating something truly unique for the audience, and simultaneously broadcasting just who you are subliminally.
What constitutes as weird?
Weird is a very general, very broad term. The term of course usually only relates to what is considered ‘unusual’, going against the grain of expectations.
This can mean a great deal of different things in terms of writing, and it will differ for each format and even genre. Pride & Prejudice & Zombies can be summarised as a pretty standard zombie story, but as a historic romantic peace, it definitely fits the definition of weird.
Weird is the idea of taking something that borders surreal, and placing it within the confines that was very normal before that. Take the ending of Magnolia, which I won’t spoil here, but the star-studded 1999 film follows multiple characters in different situations that criss-cross between each other, but the end takes what was before a fairly serious affair and throws something very unexpected into the fray. Again, it makes sense when you wonder about the symbolism and even scientific possibilities of how such a weird, unexpected thing could happen, but if you go into the film with no idea what’s going to happen, there’s no way you could possibly predict it.
The difference between using weird and surreal elements as to having something be solely considered ‘weird’ or ‘surreal’ is a matter of using it to contrast other, more serious elements in order to be unexpected and exciting.
How much is too much?
I think anyone from my generation knows someone from their teen years who was the embodiment of ‘Rawr XD I’m so random!!!1′. For some of my friends that was me, and I can tell you now with the power of insight that my friends possessed but I did not, it only comes off as contrite. For those who have no idea what I mean, I’m talking about the people who try so hard to be different by implementing ‘random’ humour, completely unaware that by quoting Superbad and Borat, they were being anything but.
There is a trickle-down effect of this, where we still see it pop-up occasionally in modern media. The original Umbrella Academy comic is full of this type of expression. Every character, situation and back-drop is designed to be as unique and unexpected as possible, but without any serious effort to ground the story, it can come across as fatiguing, not at all helped by the fact it was written by Gerard Way, who at the time was considered to be the poster-boy for this movement. The Umbrella Academy is of course a great comic with moments of creative genius, but the difference between it and its adaptation, which is already considered a bit ‘out-there’ for many is staggering, and this is often due to a previous lack of contrast.
Surreal art has always been a fringe of modern movements, many people refusing to accept it due to how it circumvents in its approach to meaning. In film, TV and literature, it can often lack substance. There are two approaches; the first is to have it dripping in symbolism and metaphor. On the surface, it appears as beautiful imagery and exciting movements, but for those who wish to dig deeper, they will find something equally as beautiful within its meaning.
The second approach is where the problem really lies, and that is to say; “To hell with symbolism! I’m just going to throw a bunch of different elements and objects together and watch as they coalesce!” Oddly enough this approach is often the most popular, often due to the fact its enjoyment is heightened when watching under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and the lack of care required to create it. Beneath the surface level however, we’ll often find this is just skin-deep, a shallow approach to the unexpected, but when the audience comes into a situation expecting just that, how do you intend to excite or surprise them?
Where is the sweet-spot?
As with all things in life, the key is balance. We spoke before about using it as a contrast, and that works perfectly for mainstream genres and subjects. A piece of media does not always have to be shocking, exciting or surprising to be enjoyable, of course, sometimes we can just enjoy something or what it is. Sometimes what we need is just substance.
As a life-long Lord of the Rings fanatic, it’s only recently on one of my annual re-watches (Extended versions only, of course), where I realised how weird some elements of it are, from a writing perspective. Gandalf talks to Saruman on top of Orthanc, when a moth flies by, then he jumps on an eagle. Gandalf fights the Balrog in the deepest reaches of the world to end up on top of a mountain and be born again. Of course this makes sense to those who have braved the books, but the majority of us who had not when first watching, there are alot of questions that are answered only by a tentative: “Magic?”
However the reason it works is that the world has been set up to be weird and wonderful, with plenty of characters and civilizations to ground it enough that it doesn’t feel disconnecting. Weirdness may work at its best when parallel to normality, but there is a simple beauty in using it to truly express yourself within your writing. By removing the limiters we all set up for ourselves internally, we can reach the deepest parts of our imagination and be truly free when we write. So what if you’re writing a murder mystery like everyone else in the world? Through in an unexpected element, and make it weird enough that your audience will always remember it.
What’s your favourite example of pure weirdness put into fiction? Do you think there is a limit to how weird a story can be? Let’s talk about it!