If you sort of grub about with critical analyses of science fiction and speculative fiction in general (as I have done, in a very elementary, baby-steps sort of way) you’ll come across a concept called cognitive estrangement soon enough. This comes from Darko Suvin, a Croatian-born academic who has written what many consider to be the seminal work of critical theory in science fiction: The Metamorphoses of Science Fiction.
Cognitive Estrangement revolves around a concept called the novum, something we haven’t encountered or seen in life as it revolves around us.
When it comes to the weird, cognitive estrangement is definitely something we should be interested in because we are usually dealing with multiple nova at the same time at a rate significantly higher than regular spec-fic. Or, we may be dealing with a novum that fundamentally challenges the entire basis of our existence. A novum exceptionally wide in its reach.
Once we’ve established that, the next challenge is to find out the ideal way to present that to the reader. Lovecraft, more often than not, played it straight and gave us a form of gradual discovery. The protagonist would be introduced to the nova as the story progresses and in the end, comprehension of the cosmic terror that underpins our universe would drive him mad. Which is fun but not weird enough, I think.
The next approach is more modern, a lot more experimental and can definitely lead to a dip in your sales. But, it is worth attempting precisely because it highlights the ideas of estrangement so well. It totally subverts your expectations. It is a lot of fun to experience. This revolves around the concept that the narrator takes the nova for granted. This is accepted. We don’t really like infodumps and we rarely let writers get away with it. But the scale to which it is practiced separates the weird from traditional spec-fic.
In weird fiction, you find narrators taking very peculiar nova entirely for granted at the risk of alienating, or shall we say estranging the reader. And it is precisely for that reason that we return again and again to stories like these. It is difficult fiction to grapple with. We have to be on our toes always as readers for the writer will not go out of his way to explain something to you that you have never encountered before.
The City & The City is a prime example of this. If your concept is that two cities somehow occupy the same physical space and you use concepts like unsee and crosshatch, you should probably explain it to us, right? Well what if you don’t? That’s where the weird comes in. This concept transforms a police procedural set in East Europe into something that can definitely be shelved in the weird section of your library. Because the story lets us find out for ourselves that the universe is fundamentally different from anything we’ve ever seen before.
So where does that distinction lie? In the prose? Perhaps. But to a much greater extent, I think it lies in the structure of the story being told.
Unstructured narratives don’t work very well in the weird. You can tell immediately that the author has a lot of ideas but you can also tell that he’s just riffing between them. His excuse that he was trying to be outre and rococo is unacceptable.
Structured narratives that play games with the way that structure is presented to us, on the other hand, do very well in the weirder side of things. Helen Oyeyemi’s White Is For Witching is a very good example of something like this. The prose (despite a few games with person and tense) remains relatively straightforward. It is the games with structure that really set it apart. There must be an inciting incident. There must be a climax. There must be a denoument.
But it is delightfully creepy when we aren’t quite sure when those things happen. So jump around with time. Play with the format of your text. The sky is your limit. But remember, make sure there is a structure underpinning everything.