Perfectionism gave us many wonderful things: War and Peace by Tolstoy. Michelangelo’s Pieta. Cream pastries.
But perfectionism can also come back to bite you in the ass hardcore. Take Franz Kafka, for example: He burned 90% of anything he had ever written, because he thought it wasn’t good enough. He also ordered his friend Max Brod to burn everything else after his death.
Luckily, Brod didn’t comply with his wish. Instead, he managed to take all of the papers with him when he fled from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to Israel. Can you imagine fleeing across the continent, carrying a suitcase full of stories in Kafka’s handwriting with you?
Thanks to Brod, extremely powerful literature like “The Trial” and “The Castle” survived and was published after Kafka’s death so we can enjoy it today.
Today’s article is about creating reality. And Franz Kafka was a master at creating realistic scenarios. We writers can learn a lot from him when it comes to making our readers feel like this is really happening.
Read on to learn the answers to questions like: What effect will realism have on your readers? Why does it help to describe details? How does Kafka achieve that painfully realistic effect? And: What would it read like if Kafka was a horrible, unrealistic writer?
Along with this, get three bonus tips for enhanced realistic performance for the price of one (which is zero anyways). You can find the entire text of Metamorphosis here.
Now let’s take a look to see how realism works in your story.
THE BASIC IDEA:
Have you ever watched a movie and afterwards heard someone state (or maybe you said it yourself): “It just wasn’t believable, that kind of ruined it for me”? The lack of realism spoiled all their fun. If your readers get the feeling that you have laid it on too thick, they will lose their interest.
In a realistic story, things largely happen as the reader is used to in his own world. It lets people identify with what you are writing. It’s just so much more them. They feel at home.
Realism, for what it’s worth, is especially important if the premise of your whole story is a man turning into a bug overnight. It’s quite difficult to make people believe that.
So with the rest of the story, Kafka is well-advised to make it feel super realistic. And as he describes everyday life of an early twentieth century family in Czechia so vividly, readers unconsciously feel like, “Wow, a bug, that’s really not believable, but the rest of the story feels like this could really be happening, so I’m forgetting about how unlikely that transformation is.”
Keeping your story real also makes its less realistic parts more attainable. Now it feels like it could happen at home, doesn’t it…?
Kafka doesn’t even try to explain why the transformation happens. It’s really not believable at all, so he doesn’t waste any time with it.
The “Why” question isn’t of the slightest interest to him. Franz concentrates on putting a totally unrealistic act into a very realistic environment and then just sits back to watch the events unfold.
Everything that happens after the “man-turns-into-bug” event is very realistic, as well as very dramatic, and so it’s easy for the reader to forget about the transformation. You could absolutely envision the other characters reacting like they do to Gregor’s metamorphosis (horror, panic, suppression), and Gregor in turn dealing with their reactions like he does (fear, helplessness, suppression). That’s psychological realism, carefully planned out.
Realism helps your reader to enjoy your story much more, because she feels like it is really happening. Therefore, she feels like more is at stake. The “suspension of disbelief” works its magic.
These are the sides of realism that will elevate your story:
- Physical Realism: If somebody falls out of the window from the 20th floor, he will probably be dead. Horses can’t fuck houseflies. Generally, in case of doubt, do some quick research on the interwebz.
- Organizational Realism: This one is a little harder to picture. What does everyday life in a mine look like? How does an international fashion designer spend his days? These questions mostly involve professional life. In order to answer them, it would be best to look for an opportunity to visit the right places and talk to the right people. Just in case it plays a big role in your story.
- Psychological Realism: How will your figure react to what the world is throwing at him, what will he think and feel? Which emotions will arise in Uncle Reginald when he finds out niece Daisy has been cultivating a weed farm in her closet for years? Will it be anger, dismay, concern, confusion, shame, others or a mixture? Everybody acts differently according to their personality. Try to feel out what a character is going through. Some sensitivity for human behavior and some life experience help.
Again, if you need to do some homework, get on the internet! If this doesn’t give you an accurate feeling for your subject, visit some places in the real world, talk to people. Finally, if none of this helps (e.g. you want to find out what a 15 m/5 ft dragon looks like when he is in love), then draw from your own experience and imagination (You have seen a chameleon before, haven’t you? And you have been in love?). Give it your best judgement and imagine how it could possibly be – does it feel right?
44 Key Questions: Your Free Checklist
If you want a complete catalogue of questions to test all of your stories, you can download it for free here – realism is just one out of 44 questions:
Three Sneaky Tricks to Make Any Story More Real
Life is never black or white, and fiction shouldn’t be either (unless you are making a concept out of it, see superhero movies or Sin City, for example). Whenever there is something bad, there is at least a little bit of good to it.
A truck ran over your legs and you had to have them both amputated? Congratulations, now you will spare yourself the regular hassle of buying new shoes! Or maybe, just maybe, you will learn to appreciate life itself a little bit more…
If you want to portray something bad, show a little glimpse of good; or the other way around. If you want to describe a messy place, show a glimpse of neatness in between. If you describe someone soft-spoken, let him get loud at least once. Contrast makes descriptions feel real.
Try to form a well-rounded, three-dimensional world, in which nothing and nobody is judged by the author.
How frequently do you lie? Here is the oldest trick in the book for a believable lie: Include as many details as possible. The other person will think something that detailed must have pre-existed and can’t just be made up by you.
Now transfer that rule onto fiction, the beautiful lie: The world consists of an endless stream of details. Just replicate them, till you have put your reader totally into your story.
When you think about it, every single experience we have consists of nothing but details.
What would you mention if I told you to describe your latest holiday at the beach? The hot sun, the bright blue sky, grainy sand in between your toes, the cries of the seagulls, the swooshing of the sea, the knock-knock of plastic shovels from children building a sandcastle, the smell of salt water, your sister-in-law carrying sandwiches… Done!
3. Draw from Personal Experience
We all know porcelain-figure-like Hollywood clichés and magazine narratives. But sometimes the picture the media and the public paint for us have nothing to do with the reality we are experiencing for ourselves.
Take family life, for example, as with Metamorphosis we are already at it.
When you look at movies or TV shows, you could come to the conclusion that in every family, people are non-stop lovey-dovey with each other. Those TV series family fights are usually just like a pouted mouth between the main course and dessert, whereas we all know that in our families and in the families we know well enough, even if they are harmonious and basically happy, often big issues are buried under the surface (neglect, jealousy, crudity, hurt).
Your job is to resist the urge of parroting the mainstream narrative.
Sure, that narrative is the easy way out. It’s a simple truth that doesn’t go under anybody’s skin; a quick fight about the last piece of dessert is a lot easier to describe than the complex feeling of having been neglected since childhood. But it’s also the lower road, because in the real world, it doesn’t work like that.
Instead, try to describe scenarios and feelings that each and every reader has experienced for themselves, but that are rarely discussed in public.
Luckily for Kafka, he was a master of personal feelings of shame and guilt. He was troubled to perfection by them in his emotional life, and took full advantage of it in his literature.
Always draw from your own experiences and those of your friends, and your audience will feel so much more at home in your movies and books. They will recognize themselves and wonder where you got that from, and they will consequently think, “Well, if he gets this right, then the purple lizard eating New York must be kind of real too!”
THE MASTER’S WAY TO DO IT:
Now, on to the master’s work! Metamorphosis is one of relatively few Kafka stories that were published during the author’s lifetime. Probably some unpublished Kafka stories exist even today.
In Metamorphosis, you will find all of the above-mentioned tricks busily like a beehive creating reality for you. It makes you willing and able to stick with the story despite it featuring a man turning into a bug.
Reality comes down on us like a sledgehammer with the very first sentences, when we get a fascinating answer to the question: “What does it feel like being a bug?” Look at the beginning of the novella:
See how right away a new physical reality is made believable?
The newfound physiology of a bug is made really detailed and touchable (“shell-like hard back,” “brown belly, slightly domed and divided by arches into stiff sections,” “legs, pitifully thin”). But not only that – you can also clearly feel how arduous and troublesome his new body is to Gregor (“seemed ready to slide off any moment,” “kicking about helplessly”). Kafka achieves all of this and much more with just a few words.
Kitchen, according to Kafka
These painfully precise physical descriptions run through the entire novella like a golden string. Gregor spends ten pages just trying to get out of bed; in his newfound form, it’s a painful procedure.
A little later, he gathers all of his powers for the delicate undertaking of turning a key:
Physiology blends into psychology here. The superhuman strength Gregor needs to employ just to turn that stupid key, the health of his fragile body he is sacrificing and the “brown fluid,“ which “came from his mouth, flowed over the key and dripped onto the floor,“ to me is one of the most brutal sections of the entire novella.
Immediately after that surreal pain, you hear the chief clerk re-establishing world order as we know it (“Listen”, said the chief clerk in the next room, “he’s turning the key.”). People are sitting outside, waiting for him, so naturally they react. It’s a small detail that brings us back to the reality of the socially awkward situation outside. We witness a realistic social scenario.
Gregor has no teeth, but a strong jaw. Something bad and something good go hand in hand.
What makes the novella so unbearable is Gregor’s terrible condition embedded into the course of a totally realistic and average lifestyle. If the surroundings were a completely whacko fantasy land, then all of this wouldn’t feel half as bad.
Gregor’s inner world is very understandable as well: His first reaction is complete denial. “How about if I sleep a little bit longer and forget all this nonsense,“ is what he first thinks, soon to be followed by his concern: “Getting up early all the time,“ he thought, “it makes you stupid. You’ve got to get enough sleep.”
Denial is a perfectly realistic human reaction to such a terrible occurrence; for sure many of us would react just like that at the first moment. In the beginning of the story, a lot of suspense results from this absurd discrepancy between the new physical reality and Gregor’s thoughts, which remain in old channels. We feel like grabbing him by his shoulders and shouting at him: “DON’T YOU HAVE ANYTHING ELSE TO WORRY ABOUT, DON’T YOU HAVE BIGGER PROBLEMS!? WAKE UP ALREADY!!” Realities clashing into each other create suspense.
Later, you can find an accurate description of the awkwardness that is manifesting between Gregor and his sister, when she brings him his daily food:
This part is a precise examination of how human psychology intertwines – this is how it could really happen. A big part of Metamorphosis consists of dealing with shame, guilt, hurt, anger or other feelings of a human inside the body of a bug. Kafka describes half-conscious, hidden feelings somebody might not want to admit to themselves in every nuance. This is a full-blown case of, “How does he know…? This feels real!” If your cockroaches could talk, this is precisely what they would be telling you.
Describe delicate, secret feelings like that and your readers will be irresistibly sucked into your reality.
Kafka also loves relativizations. His prose is full of borderline juristic language, dissecting the situation – which makes sense when you know that he was, in fact, a jurist by profession.
The chief clerk comes to bother Gregor and to demand his presence at the business site, but he also mentions that, “This morning, your employer did suggest a possible reason for your failure to appear, it’s true – it had to do with the money that was recently entrusted to you – but I came near to giving him my word of honor that that could not be the right explanation.“
You can see that there is a bad accusation implied (“You are a thief!”), but at the same time the chief clerk tries to help Gregor by almost laying down his word of honor for him – because there is always a bit of the positive showing through the negative. Counter-thoughts like these make the text a lot more realistic.
Later Gregor actually starts to feel like a cockroach: He hides underneath a couch, happily crawls across the ceiling, and a huge appetite for rotten vegetables and old cheese takes possession of him.
These eerie urges mix with his still human side, so it makes for a bit of a “Beauty and the Beast” scenario with his sister. We sympathize with his human side, and we feel repelled by his cockroach side: Another mixed, relativized feeling Kafka imposes on us.
PLEASE DON’T DO IT THIS WAY:
Now let’s take a look at “Kafka-gone-wrong,” to let you feel the pain and the mistakes… Definitely take your time to compare this version to the original one.
This would be the beginning of Metamorphosis, if the novella was a complete and utter multiple collision:
One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin. He lay on his back, found it difficult to move and was just feeling like a gigantic bug. In his sleep, he seemed to have almost gotten rid of his bedding. He tried to get his many legs under control, but they wouldn’t really do what he wanted.
“What’s happened to me?” he thought. It wasn’t a dream. His room, a proper room although a little too small, lay peacefully between its four familiar walls. A collection of Samsa’s goods lay spread out on the table – Samsa was a travelling salesman – and above it there hung a picture that he had recently cut out of an illustrated magazine. It was an interesting picture.
These would be the first two paragraphs if Kafka was a horrible, horrible writer…
Notice the painful difference to the original:
We don’t get many details, so we don’t feel that disgusting “bug-sensation” the original gives us. We also don’t get a specific idea of how his body feels. We are not put into his shoes and therefore don’t feel much horror. The novella loses its impact.
We also don’t get a glimpse into Gregor’s realistic, twisted psychology. Yes, there is something weird, but at the same time it’s not described in detail, it’s just blah blah blah blah… No toe-curling contrast between what he thinks and his actual situation.
We don’t feel any atmosphere. No stiff sections on his belly, no fear, no physical struggle. No creeps. Compare this to the original, which is more disgusting than any bug could ever be…
THE EXERCISE TO FINE-TUNE YOUR WRITING:
Now try this exercise and strengthen your muscles for realistic storytelling:
Mrs. Noluk is a lady of 500 lbs/250 kg and she is a little clumsy. While she is on a cruise with her husband, she suddenly becomes invisible. Why? We don’t care! The important part is what happens when she moves, inside and outside of her body.
Physically, this is a disaster – think of her as the proverbial bull in the china shop. As she doesn’t even have a lot of control over her body under more normal circumstances, in this condition she is a force of nature. Nobody can escape. Mind you, we are on a ship here (albeit a very big one, including a movie theatre, a huge pool area, etc…). She doesn’t mean badly, but things happen. Things break.
The psychological part is a whole different tragedy. Think of how she copes with her transformation, of her suffering and make her a bit torn on the inside (and very solid on the outside…). Maybe she has been postponing a diet for years and now feels guilty about it? Maybe she is struggling with her fate and a thyroid gland disease?
She is watching a movie on her laptop on deck when the transformation happens. Describe!
Oh, and don’t worry about any other story element like dialogue or plot. That’s not what we are here for today; one step at a time. Just describe the scenery from her point of view.
Go ahead, write it now, and be so courageous as to share your exercise in the comments below! It will be excellent motivation for you, and you could get valuable feedback.
THE GOOD-BYE PART
To sum it up, it’s very important your story feels realistic, because that will make your reader feel at home. Describe more what you and people around you experience and less what you hear over TV, magazines, how it would be in an ideal world, etc… Add physical and psychological details to make it interesting, and remember there is no black or white – only shades of grey.
I hope you like your reality and I hope you will leave me a comment below.
In the end, you just want your readers to recognize their own realities instinctively. You want them to say “Ha, this is really what it sometimes looks like!”, so they can suspend their disbelief, let go of all their objections, and just follow you, the narrator, deeply into the story.
And if you manage to develop a sense for story that feels real, your reader will feel like he is right in its middle. He will root for your characters, suffer with them, and eagerly turn your pages…
Header Image by Pedro Miranda; Kafka on Street Image by Sonny Liew; Kafka’s Kitchen by Zsolt Karóczkai; Kafka Portrait black/white by molosovsky