How To Play Surrealist Word Games

How To Play Surrealist Word Games

In this post, we explore surrealist word games and how to play them.

Writing can be a lonesome activity, but it doesn’t have to be. Take the French Surrealists – they often wrote as a group. No wonder, since they invented ways of having fun together. This article shows you a few of the games and how to play them. Let’s go!

How To Play Surrealist Word Games

The French Surrealists of the 1920s were an interdisciplinary group of writers, artists, and sculptors who often worked as a group. Many of them were friends. They quickly understood that putting your heads together simply yields better results.

They wanted to explore new ways of creating art. They believed that artists needed to shake off moral, social, and aesthetic restrictions. One way to do this is to connect with your unconscious. That’s how they came up with automatic writing, for example. Another way to create without the shackles of conventions is playing, and juxtaposing things, phrases, and images chosen by chance. All three principles (play, juxtaposition, chance) are at work in the following examples. 

Surrealism = Play + Juxtaposition + Chance = Fun!

The texts you will produce through these games will be unusual and imaginative. Whether they’re poetic, is a matter of perspective (more on this later). Are you ready to have some fun? Grab paper and some pencils and invite some of your writing friends.

5 Surrealist Word Games For Groups

These games work best if you are at least 3-5 people. Literary experience is not necessary. Here, everybody can be a poet!

1. ‘Exquisite Corpse’

Sounds scary, doesn’t it? Don’t worry, no writers were ever harmed in the making of this kind of poetry. I’ll explain where the name comes from further down.

This game is the poetic adaptation of ‘Heads, Bodies, and Legs’. But in this version, forget drawing, you will write. First, each player prepares a piece of paper (A4 works best) with some grammatical categories. It’s the structure of the average English sentence. The categories can be negotiated with the group, of course.

The paper will look something like this:

Surrealist Word Games
Source: Susanne Bennett, 28 June 2022

Now each player starts by filling out the first category. Then, the paper is folded over along the vertical line. The entry is hidden now. Pass it on to the next player. The next player fills out the next category, folds the paper, and passes it on. No player should be able to see what was written previously. This is repeated until the last category is filled in. Each player should then have a paper with a complete sentence. Unfold the paper and read it out loud.

You’ll find sentences like these:

Surrealist Word Games
Source: Susanne Bennett, 28 June 2022

As you can see, the first line is the original from the Surrealists, giving its name to the game. The other examples are mine. Most of the time, the results are hilarious.

The example shows that players may omit any optional categories, such as the article in the beginning, adjectives, and adverbs. The other categories must be filled out to achieve sentence structure. In the end, when the papers are unfolded, you may add articles and prepositions. This is only allowed to enhance the original sense, not to change it! In our example above, the additions are in brackets. You can play for as long as you have fun.

2. ‘Conditionals’

Players are divided into two groups, each group is given small pieces of paper. The first group writes down a hypothetical sentence, beginning with ‘if’ or ‘when’, without sharing them just yet. Meanwhile, the second group writes hypothetical consequences (in future tense or conditional) onto their papers. The groups then pair one condition with one consequence.

Alastair Brotchie quotes examples like this:

‘When Children strike their fathers
All young people will have white hair.’

‘If octopi wore bracelets
Ships would be towed by flies.’

‘If Mercury ran till it was out of breath
Believe me, there’d be trouble.’

As you can see, this game is most successful if players give free rein to their imagination.

3. ‘Group Sonnet’

Ideally, fourteen people write one line of equal length on a card (for example, everybody writes 12 words). That would yield fourteen cards. If you have fewer players, then each player must write more than one card. When all the cards are written, shuffle them, then read sentence by sentence. It’s a modern sonnet!

Just in case your players are seasoned poets, you can make it trickier by agreeing to write in a certain meter, like iambic pentameter. Let’s see who can challenge Shakespeare!

This game works with other poetic forms as well.

4. ‘Q & A’

Surrealists loved question-and-answer games. There are many variations; here’s one that’s easy to play.

Divide your players into two groups. One group writes questions on index cards. They mustn’t share the questions just yet. The other group invents answers which must be random, of course, because they don’t know the questions. Now shuffle the two sets of cards. Keep them separate! Then, set up the two stacks and reveal one question and one answer at a time. The juxtaposition of questions and answers makes your poem! The more ludicrous each question and answer is on its own, the more fun you’ll have when the cards are paired.

Here’s an example:

Question:                 What’s a spotty crocodile?
Answer:                    The reason why you always get headaches.

5. ‘Alphabet Conversation’

This game is so easy you can even play it with children (great for long car rides!). The first player starts with a sentence, question or phrase beginning with the letter A. The following players continue the conversation, each starting their sentence with the next letter of the alphabet.

Remember, this is a conversation, so you can use spoken language and spoken syntax. Contributions may be short or long, as you please. However, since it’s a conversation, whatever you come up with must relate to what the previous player said. It’ll still be very funny.

Here’s an example from the latest car ride with my nephews:

A mighty fine day today.
Be fearful of the afternoon!
Can’t you ever be optimistic?
Don’t scold me.                            (…)

Are you having fun? Then you’ve mastered the task. To the Surrealists, it wasn’t important to come up with meaningful poetry in obscure meters. The goal is to connect to your unconscious, associate without restrictions, and have fun doing so.

Do I get a full-fledged poem at the end? Perhaps not. Do I get the material for an interesting poem? Definitely. Whatever you do with all of this, is entirely up to you and your fellow players.

The Last Word

The French Surrealists did not believe in editing. They believed whatever came out of these experimental techniques was an expression of the unconscious, and valuable as such. If you’d like to get to know more techniques, please read this article.

However, we’re not surrealists, are we? I’m a practical poet. I love exploring all these surrealist word games and techniques because they yield fresh material. More importantly, I just enjoy playing. So, by all means, edit away! Just don’t forget to have fun. Happy writing!

Susanne Bennett

By Susanne Bennett. Susanne  is a German-American writer who is a journalist by trade and a writer by heart. After years of working at German public radio and an online news portal, she has decided to accept challenges by Deadlines for Writers. Currently she is writing her first novel with them. She is known for overweight purses and carrying a novel everywhere. Follow her on Facebook.

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Posted on: 5th July 2022
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