What Is Experimental Fiction About?

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What is experimental fiction? And how can you incorporate lessons from the genre into your own writing?

experimental writing

Photo by JD Hancock

Choosing among the multiple attempts to define it and trying to keep it short and simple, let’s just say that experimental fiction is about breaking the rules, skipping conventions, literary innovation, and uniqueness.

Experiments in Innovation and Freedom

Innovation comes only by trying out new things – experimenting – since progress in any field is a result of reaching out to what was once considered impossible. In this sense, experimental fiction is truly revolutionary.

If you’re interested in giving experimental fiction a go, all you need to prepare yourself is to be open for the strange, controversial, and even the implausible.

There certainly are no rules, but as in any professional work, you need to master the current rules before you break them.

Writing experimental fiction is, above all, a question of freedom – freedom to play with characters, with story, with form, with words, with addressing the reader, with perspective, with description, with time sequence etc.

You’re free to interrupt your story in midsentence and continue with visual elaboration, or have a completely unsympathetic character, or repeat the same sentences throughout your story.

Why Experimental Fiction?

We’re programmed to question everything, and literature is no exception. Why have only few set concepts of telling a story when there are limitless ways.

For those whose creativity feels hard-pressed by convention, experimental fiction is definitely the key to unique expression. Perhaps heavy to understand and not suitable for relaxed reading, experimental writers can be said to be lots of things, but never boring.

There are reasons why a writer has decided to make a break from the established, and it requires an intelligent reader to understand the writer's motivation.

Experimental writers make you question determined perspectives and constructs, and the most successful writers even manage to make a real change in the world. What was once taboo is today’s commonplace; yesterday’s banned literature is now considered original and groundbreaking.

Want to write a story in one sentence? Why not. Have a story in your head with no character? Go ahead.

New ideas are what matters, and by experimenting, you’ll inevitably improve your thinking pattern and learn more about writing even though you originally thought you’re just having fun and playing random.

Have you ever written experimental fiction?

PRACTICE

For fifteen minutes write experimentally. You can have a story without a plot, wordplay, breaking the form, or whatever idea you can come up with. The key is to make it originally yours and follow no conventions.

When you’re done, post it in the comments. As usual, be nice and support others’ practices.

Sophie Novak is an ultimate daydreamer and curious soul, who can be found either translating or reading at any time of day.
She originally comes from the sunny heart of the Balkans, Macedonia, and currently lives in the UK. You can follow her blog and connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.

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38 Comments

  1. Jon

    The third carriage was empty so I stepped aboard quickly, falling into a table seat on the other side from which I’d entered. I took a quick glance back fore and behind just to reassure myself I was alone, then slumped in my seat, my rucksack on my lap. I was sweating all over and breathing heavy and my heart was still doing the samba in my chest. I checked my watch which I was set two minutes fast – my anal method for keeping punctual. Just one minute and the train would leave, one minute and I could relax. Why was I so scared? The man probably wasn’t following me. But his eyes, so bright in the twilight dark, had been right at me every time I turned around. And he’d been there every night this week. From the minute I stepped out onto the street on Tower Bridge Road, he’d been there. So creepy looking – long black locks, skin so pale it seemed to shimmer in the moonlight. And that coat, as black as his hair, it covered him completely, his hands hidden in pockets. The way he glided in it, I couldn’t see his legs moving.

    I followed the boy onto the train, taking care to make myself invisible to him, as I’d done so many times that week – fun little games for my own amusement. I was pleased that, with no help from me, he’d chosen an empty carriage, and I smiled to myself as I took a seat, watching him take his three ahead of me. I could hear his gorgeous heart beating a rhythm and I swayed to the music as it slowed and faded to a quiet patter. I watched the thoughts in the boy’s head like a movie reel in my own – how strange to see myself in his frightened young eyes. I was far more intimidating a figure to him than I let myself be to anyone else around – another of my little games. With the exception of the boy, those I allowed to see me would not even consider a second glance, so plain and forgetful I appeared. But to the boy I was an angel of death, gliding effortlessly through the rush hour London crowds, as he stumbled and excused his own way through.

    The beeping noise came and I leaped in my seat. The doors swooshed shut and I took another look around the car – still alone. I breathed a long sigh of relief and found myself laughing with it. I suddenly felt so foolish, a scared little child desperate to get home to mummy. I laughed harder finding it hilarious.

    That shrill beeping noise that signalled the closing of the doors, sounded in my finely tuned ears, and I whinced briefly at the pain as the carriage doors slid shut. The boy was laughing, I could feel his embarrassment as well as the relief that flooded through him. I smiled.

    My breath caught in my chest and I almost gagged, a deafening pounding in my ears that I quickly realised was my racing heart again – no samba this time – trying to smash its way out of my chest. I couldn’t breathe, and my eyes filled with tears, blurring my vision.

    I revealed myself to the boy and delighted in the instant paralysing fear that stole over his entire body. He hadn’t turned around, he didn’t need to, his senses had been on full alert and knew of my presence the instant I allowed it. His terror was like a drug to me, and I bathed in the sweet euphoria.

    The train began to move. No getting off now.

    The train began to move, as did I.

    Reply
    • Jon

      Every other paragraph was supposed to be in italics to make it easier to read, but it didn’t save them.

      Reply
      • Emma Marie

        The pitter patter, the splash splash. Yellow boots jump up and down, an umbrella bobs across the road. The whoosh, the crack, the mighty flash. Trees can’t hold still, can’t resist. Lights seem brighter. Clouds are darker.
        Most hide. Some enjoy it. They spin, they twirl, they let their hair loose. They spring, they leap, they frolic about. It is wonderful. It is magical.
        It is not dreary, it is not sad. Many think so.
        It falls from so far. It leaves rings that stay for a second on the ground. Green is more green, gray is more gray. The dirt is dirt no more, the grass is slippery.
        Plop plop, splat splat, rumble-rumble, boom

        I’ve never written anything like this before!

        Reply
        • w hunt

          Black and white Christ rolls over the brow of a purple tipped mountain
          like a fog permeating the souls of foreign bodies. Rolling over hills, and
          possibly soliciting. A guy, a real cool guy was about to look up into
          Christ-Fog and muttered that he didn’t believe. Instant thunder.
          Christ-Lightning. It was a Frost-Quake. It shook humanity, SHOOK humanity for
          the loose change in its pockets. He was an honest worker, is what he was. But
          his disbelief caused Cosmological-Christ-Chaos leaving behind his wife,
          children, and farm. Left to his thoughts in a chamber of solitude. He saved
          himself, by himself, with the power of thought. The power of thought. He
          sat in his chamber of ‘peace’. He devised a perilous plot to set himself free.
          When asked, on the annual ‘question-day’, if he believed, he answered ‘yes’. Of
          course he did not. But now he believed in something else. Himself.

          Reply
      • Emma Marie

        I like it, Jon! My interest was captured in the very beginning, and was kept all the way to the end. And I found it easy to read. I also accidentally posted my practice as a reply to you, whoops! But anyway, great work!

        Reply
  2. NewbieWriter

    Just some free-flowing weirdness :p
    ==============================================

    When the body splattered on the pavement, organs went every which way. It was gross at first. Then the heart inched itself up and looked around. It didn’t know exactly where to go so it rolled, lopsided, ventricle over ventricle, until it joined a group of people crossing a street. The ones that saw squirmed, but it wasn’t that big so they began to ignore it. Eventually, it followed someone into a Food Bank. At night when no one was looking, it helped pack boxes of food. It tried its best not to leave smears on the packaging.

    The brain took a bit longer but finally bounced away just before the coroner could seize and put it in a jar. Once it got going, it didn’t take the brain long to find The MET. It hid under exhibits and behind the big pyramid and would roam all night. It began messing with the security guards, setting off the alarm then scooting under a shelf.

    The lungs worked together to walk away, almost hand in hand. Or bronchial in bronchial. It took awhile but they finally made it out into the country. There, they laid back and took in the warm green fields and cottony clouds.

    The testicles went straight to a strip club and peered out from under a chair.

    After a few months of roaming to this charity or that museum or that park or that strip club, the organs bumped into each other. It was awkward and they simply stood (or sat or bounced) staring at each other. They didn’t even give a warm greeting. More like “Oh, it’s you.”

    After what felt like an eternity, the heart asked if they should get together and give it another go. They looked at each other but couldn’t respond.

    Finally, the brain said it didn’t think so. The heart faltered (even though it was secretly happy) so the brain added a curt “At least not yet”, which made them all feel better.

    Then they took off running, not walking, in opposite directions.

    Reply
    • Carmen

      Hehehe I love this! Altruistic hearts and cheeky brains! Very funny! I was picturing this as cartoon as I read it, the organs walking about like the do in ads for public health campaigns.

      On a more serious note, I thought your point on the different parts of a person wanting to do their own thing, usually incompatible was subtlety and effectively communicated.

      Thanks for posting 🙂

      Reply
    • oddznns

      Moving body parts! Nice interpretation Newbie

      Reply
    • tercentum

      I really, really like this. It’s weird, but well-written, and it holds together. It’s just…good.

      I realize that this isn’t really helpful in terms of constructive criticism, but I can try to tell you what I like:

      For one thing, the characterization of the organs. The heart is so…well, heart-y. I like that it’s trying to be team-person. And I love the testicles going to a strip club! And the lungs escaping to the country air; that just makes a lot of sense.

      For another, like I said, it’s well-written, especially for a fifteen-minute free form. It’s good.

      Reply
    • Jon

      I couldn’t help smiling while reading this, such an original idea. I could imagine it as some wierd animation you might catch at 2am on some obscure tv channel.
      Like tercentum says the characterisation is good. I especially liked the image of the lungs going hand in hand.

      Reply
    • NewbieWriter

      Thanks for the nice comments. They’re much appreciated. It was a fun practice 🙂

      Reply
    • Cailin

      I love this so much. I’ve been trying to figure out how to write experimental fiction for my fiction writing class, and this story finally help me get it.

      Reply
  3. Carmen

    The sun cascaded across the world and the people rose to
    meet it. Each thought only of themselves. A middle-aged woman, face tired
    despite the sleep, rolled out of bed. The world remembered her reluctance to do so, repeated each morning for many years. The richness of her brown skin was the only thing that remained of her that was beautiful. Face lined like it had been used too many times. Skin hanging like it weighed a bit more than
    everybody else’s. Hair dry and damaged after too much dye; fingertips, eyes and teeth marked with the distinctive tincture of the cigarette. I’m so terrified. Very far away, a polished male youth was the opposite. Though he felt the heat of the sun in his room, he chose not to arise because he did not need to. He rolled over, body lean from personal trainers and vanity, sinking back into thoughts of girls and cars and his video game. There is so much
    for me to do. Elsewhere a child arises in a simple house. She wakes
    immediately and with energy and looks briefly at the sun over the plains outside her window before running to jump on her sleeping mother. I don’t want the day to ever come. Her father was not there. He got
    up earlier and beat the sun. His waking was cold and dark and unnatural. Each morning when he greets the dark it feels like there is nothing else. He has to give himself a mental shake each time and look at the woman in his bed to ignore the empty promises of the dark.

    My body is still but my head is shaking, shaking I CAN FEEL IT. I don’t want to get up I do not want to wake up I do not want to get up again, they will all
    see me shaking

    Reply
    • Carmen

      Likewise, parts of mine were meant to be in italics as well 🙁

      Reply
    • Missaralee

      Wow Carmen. This is really electric. You set the whole thing turning with this opener “The sun cascaded across the world and the people rose to meet it.” I felt the earth rotating like the people you were describing were rolling into view as you introduced them.

      Reply
      • Carmen

        Thanks Sara I’m glad you liked it, you totally got what I was going for with the Earth rotating into the day 🙂

        Reply
  4. R.w. Foster

    Technically, all of my fiction is experimental. I always hear about folks saying, “Follow the rules,” but no one says which set. So, I create my own.

    Reply
    • oddznns

      Yup, R.W. it’s the most engaging way to do it.

      Reply
    • Sophie Novak

      You rock!

      Reply
        • James Hall

          Because your rough drafts are more interesting than many writer’s final manuscripts.

          Reply
          • R.w. Foster

            Really? Wow…Thanks. 🙂 I appreciate that, James.

          • Sophie Novak

            My point too. 🙂

          • R.w. Foster

            Thank you, Sophie. I really appreciate that. 😀

  5. oddznns

    Sophie…I’m just trying to get it all down, experimental or not.
    I just read Monique Truong’s novel Bitter in the Mouth thought. That’s truly experimental…
    It plays with the idea of the “unreliable reader” … secrets that are so obvious the protagonist never bothers to mention it … and allows the reader to experience “synaesthesia” literally while reading the text.
    I’m not sure I really got into it. But it was interesting.

    Reply
    • Sophie Novak

      Sounds like something I should definitely read. Thanks!

      Reply
  6. tercentum

    Fair warning to all: this is dark. Um. Pretty dark. This happens a lot when I write things. Just…use your judgement as to whether you should read it.

    He breathed in.

    He breathed out, and the air was filled with fury, roiling grey clouds obscuring the bars of his cage.

    He breathed in.

    He breathed out, and nothing happened.

    He did not smile. He did not want to.

    He breathed in, and remembered: the friendly grey of the rain-bringing cloud, the bright painful orange of new caru blossoms, the sweet brown-and-beige of new cookies.

    He–did not breathe out.

    The world goes grey, completely; nothing matters. It is a fog of the soul, obscuring any purpose: let all who enter here die of sheer uncaring.

    He gasped, breathed out.

    Breathed in.

    Breathed out.

    He did not smile.

    (He did not want to.)

    If you look at a leaf, these are the things you notice:

    The sun-facing side against the side hidden in the shade.

    The veins of the leaf, lighter green.

    No grey, anywhere: it is beautiful.

    He breathed in.

    He breathed out.

    I breathed in, and took his breath. It had lost its taste, gone flat water.

    When he had come here, it was orange juice, fresh from the fruit.

    I smiled. His eyes had not opened in months.

    He forgot what colour looked like.

    He breathed in.

    He started to pay attention to the sounds of his breath.

    He should have known better.

    He breathed out; he breathed in. His chest moved, so he knew it was so.

    I wondered what would happen if I stuck a flat of wood beneath his ribs and raised and lowered them myself. Would he keep breathing by sheer habit? Would he think he was breathing?

    A thing to try, I made a note, when the movement of his chest became important.

    He has not heard his heartbeat in months.

    He is beautiful.

    I smile at you, and you do not scream.

    He cannot remember grey.

    It is his only word.

    Reply
    • catmorrell

      This struck a cord. Memories of my Dad’s last breaths and his breathtaking smile as he transitioned to his next adventure. Reading the breathing I could feel it as “He breathed out”.

      Reply
      • tercentum

        My sympathies for your loss. Thank you for your comment; I did want it focused on the breaths.

        Reply
        • catmorrell

          You nailed the rhythm of breathing for one who is dying of very old age. My dad was 92 and had great faith. It was such a blessing I got to be with him. Now I am going to see if I can match a pattern of action with writing. You have inspired me.

          Reply
          • tercentum

            I am glad to have done so. Good luck.

          • Marya Miller

            Today is the anniversary of my mother’s death. I was trying to distract myself by learning about experimental fiction.

            I learned.

    • Sophie Novak

      I’d say it’s deep! Great job!

      Reply
      • tercentum

        Thank you.

        Reply
  7. James Hall

    In my book, in the middle of the 6th chapter I dropped kicked my reader into a story within a story.

    Now, I’m working to ease that transition.

    Be sure not to confuse experimental with just plain confusing…

    Reply
    • Sophie Novak

      Good point James! Even with experimental we need to know what we’re doing exactly.

      Reply
  8. Stacey

    This topic has really got me thinking of all the possible “what ifs?” Once I have some time I’m looking forward to exploring this more. (Kids start school next Thurs!) Fascinating and so challenging, but it’s the way I want to be.

    Reply
  9. Sami Munslow

    Is this experimental? I’m not sure. Then again, maybe that’s the very reason why it’s experimental.

    “Tick, tick, clatter clatter, flob dob doob. These are the sounds of my typing. I think I’m fast, like lightning fast, like the fastest thing on Earth. What’s the fastest thing on Earth? What’s a thing? A thing… A thing… An object – yes that’s a thing. A living object – is there such a thing as a living object? Those F1-11s that flew over houses on New Years Eve and made all the children scream and giggle with delight as they waited… waited… wait! There it is! There’s the jet! It’s bright light burning through the dark night, a stream of fuel – something so harsh and damaging that has become so beautiful. And then you wait… wait… waiting… waited until the wwhhoooossssshhhhh blasted through your earholes, left to right and right to left, reverberating through every inch of your body. Even the little red blood cells get a little shock. The fastest thing on Earth? Maybe not, let’s Google it.”

    Reply

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