Ruminations on Kafka

Reading a great story is similar to eating a delicious sandwich. One great sentence, like a delicious slice of salami, can be all it takes to satisfy. When we taste the relationship fresh, crisp cuts of lettuce have with the other ingredients, we taste the demands the sandwich maker made on their product before delivering it to us. Those of us, who never worked in the industry, don’t know the symbiotic relationship these ingredients should have with one another, but we know it when we taste it. Those of us who worked in the industry, and have some familiarity with the art of making a great sandwich, know that even the perfect symbiosis of the freshest, most delicious ingredients don’t matter if the sandwich artist doesn’t have great bread. The quality of the bread is the great divide between an average sandwich and a delicious one.

The consensus on author Franz Kafka is that he didn’t write great sentences. His prose was characterized by a Stanley Corngold as “luminous plainness”. I understand the ambiguity of that description, but while I concede that there are very few, there are some great lines. Anytime we read a great story, like Metamorphosis, our inclination is to add some “could’ve been, should’ve been” lines. Every time we think we found one, it just doesn’t quite fit. In the course of those efforts, Kafka’s style is unveiled, his economy of words, and the meticulous choreography of his story.

I would love to see some early drafts of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, just to see what he added and deleted in the course of editing. Did he have great sentences in the first draft only to realize they damaged the otherwise “luminous plainness” feel of the story? Did Gregor Samsa’s family have greater, more comedic reactions to Gregor transformation into an Ungeziefer ‘a beast unfit for sacrifice’? Did he vie for some greater entertainment in the story, or did he have a religious passion for the mundane feel for the story? My guess is that in the early drafts of this story, Kafka had to battle with an egotistical need to add something more to Metamorphosis to make it more. Did he initially have one of the characters make an incredibly insightful comment about humanity that illuminated for us how insightful Kafka was? Most authors cannot avoid the conceit of informing their readers how smart the writer is/was, and they do so by making indoctrinating their characters smarter, more intelligent, and brilliant. Were the characters funnier, more charming, more compassionate, more wonderful, or more something that every author wants their authors to think of them in those initial drafts? My guess is that Kafka probably had hundreds of versions before it reached final form, and that the final form we know today is an exhibition of the ego-less restraint he employed.

Great writers work through their strengths and weaknesses in pieces no one will ever see. Some of them learn that their path to a great story hinges on great sentences. Others find that devotion to ideas and style pays greater dividends. Some might suggest this is an author finding their voice. They do so in the course of reading others, trying to duplicate them, and eventually realizing what they’re greater strengths and weaknesses are.

I might be wrong, but I don’t think any reader will finish Metamorphosis with a “Holy Crud!” reaction. The reader might start the story in that vein, but Kafka diminishes the shock of a human transforming into an Ungeziefer with a level of choreographed reality the reader might find mundane. Thus, when we finish the story, it sits on a shelf in our mind like a preserved meat, until we process and digest it, in the manner we will a great sandwich. It might take a while, it might take an incident, but at some point concept of the story will hit us, and we’ll realize what a unique, and uniquely crafted story it was.

Whenever we read a great story, like Metamorphosis, we seek a reference point, a doorway into the mind of the author. Most great stories are about us, in some tangential manner. Some stories are so foreign to our experience that we cannot find a reference point, because we can’t possibly find ourselves in such a ludicrous story. The brilliance of Kafka is that his writing relies on an axis of narcissism and objectivity. Is it narcissist to believe that every story is about us, or is it narcissist to believe that none of them are? How do we define a great story? How does a great story define us? Do we know someone for whom the author speaks, and do we wish they would read Kafka to understand themselves a little better? How would they do that, what do we hope they might understand, and are our answers to those questions autobiographical?

To paraphrase author David Foster Wallace, readers should imagine a door when they approach a Kafka work. We seek a doorway into Kafka’s mind so that we can understand his works a little better. We seek a reference point, a point of entry. When we think we’ve found the doorway, we start “pounding and pounding, not just wanting admission but needing it, we don’t know what it is but we can feel it, this total desperation to enter, pounding and pushing and kicking, etc. That, finally, the door opens … and it opens outward: we’ve been inside what we wanted all along.” 

One of the primary duties of every writer is to elicit emotion in the reader. How well they do this defines them. For one writer, it might be about the sentences, and for another it might be the idea that story is sacred. Some stories elicit instantaneous reactions, and some require some slow roasting. Some people don’t want to think too much. They want instant stories that provide a clear path from clear A to Z that culminate in an exciting conclusion. Millions of these books move from writer to reader, and the readers love them. Some of us prefer stories, like the ones Franz Kafka wrote, that reach in and fiddle with some different switches embedded deep in our psyche.

Kafka was an impersonal writer who chose to ground his greatest fantastical tale in reality. Prior to Kafka, and since him, most writers felt a need to form the basis for the fantastical with the fantastical. It just doesn’t seem realistic that something so uncommon should happen in a common home of common people. Kafka doesn’t fight against commonality in the manner some will by suggesting that the common can become uncommon. He chose to wrap his ingredients of “luminous plainness” in a bread of ideas and style.  

The Quest for the Great, First Sentence

This sentence is the most difficult sentence to write. It has troubled writers since they started writing to entertain readers. Writers often sort through hundreds to thousands of words to find a great sentence, and no sentence is more important than the first. The quest can be humbling for even the best writers. They consider it so difficult that if they write one great sentence a day, it’s a good day, and they figure that about 1% of the sentences they write are great sentences. If that’s the case, what percentage of that percentage are great enough to be provocative first sentences? Some of the most famous admit that they spent so much time (months and even years) trying to find that one great sentence to start a new book that it’s no wonder why so many of them turn to drink?   

I wrote a great sentence once. After I wrote it, I couldn’t believe I wrote it. I even took some time out to stare at it and appreciate it. I was so proud. Wow, I thought, that is a great sentence, and I wrote it. It can take writers pages to say what we want to say, and some of the times it takes paragraphs. Every once in a great while, we do it in one clear and concise sentence. When that sentence falls out of our head, no matter how hard we worked to achieve it, it almost seems like an accident.

The problem, I realized soon after I spent a minute appreciating that moment for what is was, was that the great sentence didn’t happen until the conclusion. It felt wasted, because I know that if I am lucky enough to have a reader click on my article, most of them aren’t going read all the way through to the conclusion. With that in mind, I tried something revolutionary for me. I put that glorious sentence in the intro, and I rewrote the entire article accordingly. It paid off in this particular instance, for not only did this new, revised article become one of the best articles I’ve ever written, but it also attracted a number of readers.

If the average writer is anything like me, arriving at a conclusion is a journey. I don’t know how other writers operate, but nine times out of ten, I won’t know my conclusion until I get there. Some writers refer to this journey as the joy of discovery, and this journey often involves writing so much, so often, that a great sentence almost falls out of us every once in a great while. 


What is a great sentence? Great sentences, by my definition, are not better than anyone else’s are. We do not write the words great sentence from an egotistical perspective. A great sentence is a relative term, defined by the writer, as the perfect way of summarizing and synthesizing everything we want to say. It is also the payoff for all the hard work we’ve done leading up to it. When we put in the work to read and understand another author’s point, we do it hoping that there will be a payoff, or an ultimate clarification often found in the conclusion. Writing, or at least my writing, is as much about discovery as it is for readers, and the payoff for all the hard work I put into writing the article is that one great sentence that clarifies everything I was trying to say, wraps it up, and puts what I consider a final, gleaming cherry atop the pie.   

There are also some cathartic feelings we attach to “nailing” that certain something that plagued us before we wrote that great sentence. When we write, we’re attempting to achieve some higher level of clarity on a topic, and when we’re able to clarify what we’re trying to write to the reader in one, great sentence, it helps us clarify it for ourselves. 

Great sentences do not arrive in the birthing process. Every writer has probably arrived at a great sentence in the first draft once or twice, but it happens to rarely that we don’t remember it. Great sentences usually arrive after the framework is complete. They often happen after the mild illness that drives us to write so often is somewhat satisfied that we have the foundation for a story, article, or novel. It usually happens after the self-imposed stress, anxiety, and obsessive behavior we have relaxes. We’re less robotic in this stage, more creative and more emotive, and that’s where the great sentences achieve life.

“What’s the perfect way of wrapping all this up?” we think while trying to wrap our article up with the perfect conclusion. When that “Aha!” moment finally arrives, and the writer writes a sentence that could be one of the best lines they’ve ever delivered, it can change the theme and scope of an article. It can also make us think that every hour we spent writing to that point was a waste, unless we realize that we found a better article than the original one we wrote.


The internet is a blessing and curse for modern writers, as we can now reach an audience of hundreds of millions by clicking a mouse. The curse is that everyone else enjoys that same privilege. How do we separate ourselves from that overcrowded pack and write a quality article that attracts attention? A remedy, as opposed to the remedy, might be to take the conclusion we worked so hard to sum up our article and make it the lede.

It’s not hard to write an intro in a first draft, as it is often proves to be nothing more than a bridge between what we have in our mind and what we type out onto a screen or page. Yet, we might accidentally appreciate those words for helping us start that we assign them a precious quality. When we find a halfway decent start, we might want to show our appreciation to those words for helping us start by rewarding them with their righteous place at the top of the article. We might think it’s good enough to be good enough, and once the intro is complete, it’s completed. We’re grateful that we don’t have to obsess over it anymore. It did its job of moving the idea from mind to screen or paper, and it’s time to move on and worry about the rest. If it’s good enough for us, we think, it should be good enough to attract the reader. If the reader is attracted to it, we’ll reward them with a knock-your-socks off conclusion that might leave a great impression on the reader, a reputation in the reader’s mind, and a click on the subscription button.

In the editing process, however, our focus should turn to the reader, because we know that our readers don’t know how hard it was for us to write the article, and they honestly don’t care. They won’t care how precious those words were to us, and they don’t care about our process. The writer either writes great sentences or they don’t, and if they don’t, the reader heads on over to the dreaded (‘X’) that closes our web page.

Another reason it’s a little depressing when our best sentence doesn’t arrive until the conclusion is that if it’s that good it might transform the article, and if we want to write an article that supports that great sentence, we’ll have to spend another couple hours redoing the entire thing. If we recognize it for what it is, however, we should recognize that at least we found it. At that point, we should drop any facade that we’re a great writer, release ourselves from the leash of the preciousness of our words, and rewrite the whole thing according to that new article we found nestled within that great sentence.

It might sound counterintuitive to make the conclusion the intro, as some sentences have an intro beat to them and others sound more like conclusions, but a great sentence is a great sentence. What is a conclusion, if not a sentence, or series of sentences that summarize the most important elements of a story? What’s the difference between a great intro, or lede, and a great conclusion? Some of the times, a conclusion assumes that we already know the information expressed in the article, but more often than not, that’s an easy fix. It almost goes without saying now that in this age of hundreds of thousands of writers writing millions of articles, it’s vital that we captivate them with a great, first sentence regardless when we find it.

If a writer finds a great sentence in the midst of writing, they will need to find proper transitions, of course, but if they are able to accomplish a seamless transition between the paragraphs, the writer might be able to maintain the reader’s attention for at least two paragraphs with the new lede transitioning to our former, dynamic intro.

Most writers know how essential a great first line is, and some of the times, we might find hints of that great it in paragraph three and it might not hit us until the conclusion. The point is if we work hard enough at it, a great sentence might accidentally happen, and if it does we should feed and nurture it in the manner we do any of our other loved ones.

The problem arrives when we supplant that first lede with the original conclusion, and we work to a new conclusion. Does this second conclusion have a sentence greater than the first? Should we supplant the new lede with this second conclusion? Should we rinse and repeat, in other words, and keep repeating this process until we have a 1,400-word article of overlapping conclusions? I’ve yet to encounter such a problem, but if my next, edited conclusion is better than my first, I might go back and do it again, and again, as often as it works. This process doesn’t always work, of course. As I wrote, some conclusions assume too much to be quality intros, but I think that in the age of hyper AD-HD, internet readers, writers have to do whatever we can to attract readers and keep their attention, and this was but one way I found to do it when I was writing an article and I created one beautiful and intoxicating great sentence.