Use the Kafka Train Ride to Unlock Your Story

This simple technique will blow your mind as its exposes your characters’ motivations, hesitations, and deepest fears.

A postwar ad for the Pennsylvania Railroad

Are you an experienced storyteller having a bit of writer’s block? Perhaps you’ve always wanted to try your hand at fiction — or you want to try a different genre. Either way, you’re a perfect candidate for Franz Kafka’s train ride.

Kafka wrote several volumes of short stories (many he competed before lunchtime). But, even the most prolific writers struggle to define and shape the characters of their stories. When it happened to Franz, he’d flip the table and have his characters tell him their story.

It’s a genius technique that novelists, screenwriters and playwrights have used for decades to invent, imagine, and understand their characters in ways they never dreamed. Try Kafka’s train ride for just five minutes (and prepare to have your mind blown).

What makes a good story?

As writers, we all know the best stories are about people, experiencing messy situations that beg resolution (also known as the dramatic structure). It’s why Hollywood producers seek character-driven stories.

Who is the lead character of your story idea? What moral dilemma does she face? What is she willing to risk to get what she wants? Is she enlisting anyone to help her? Or, does she prefer to go it alone?

Many fiction writers, before they start, have an idea of where their characters will end up (Think: Thelma and Louise, Romeo and Juliet, or Miracle on 34th Street). But, not always. If you have a great idea for a story, but you’re not sure how to tell it, or you’re unsure how it should end, solicit insight from your characters. By asking them a lot of questions, you’ll uncover some nuggets about who there are, what they’re about, and what’s motivating them. Sound odd?

Board the train.

From the film, Strangers on a Train

Lie down on a sofa, your bed, or a comfortable chair (that preferably reclines). Close your eyes. Now, imagine yourself boarding a train. You spot an empty aisle seat (the window is taken by the person you’re about to meet). Politely ask, “is this seat taken?” Your subject says no, and you sit down.

Feel the train begin to move.

Give yourself a few seconds to get comfortable, then simply turn to your seat-mate. Perhaps you strike up a conversation about where he or she is going (or, you can have your character strike up the conversation). Use some small talk to get the dialogue moving. Ask questions about what the person does for a living, where they are from, and what they plan to do once they arrive at their final stop. Listen to the answers. They’ll come on their own.

Let the conversation flow.

With every question you’ll get a response. Some will be unremarkable. Others will be a bit surprising. Some will encourage you to dig. As you do, answers will come at you that you didn’t expect. Some will be a bit crazy. Others might even shock you. You won’t even know where they are coming from, but just let them happen. No one’s listening but you.

Ask your travel companion to share a story.

Years ago, I wrote a short story about a woman who collaborates with her husband to fake her own death to collect a big insurance payout. I boarded a train, sat down next to my lead character (named Edie). I’d already constructed the story of how she executes her crime, but I didn’t know her ‘back story.’

Farley Granger shows interest in Robert Walker’s offer of murder in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train

I used the Kafka train ride to get her to open up about her childhood, relationship with her parents, her marriage, and her ultimate decision to commit insurance fraud (even though she didn’t need the money).

Edie it turns out, was from a wealthy Scarsdale family, had a twin sister who died when she was seven, became a high school cheerleader, married the captain of the football team, and was turned on by the mere challenge of committing a big, fraudulent crime. All new information. Did I use all of it? No, but I used most of it (to inform her character, motivations and behavior).

Edie sang like a bird, then said, “Let’s order a bottle of wine” and the stories continued.

Another train ride transported me back to 1969, when I decided to write a play about the Vietnam draft. My main character, Chad (a senior at the University of Pennsylvania) had just received his induction letter from the military ordering him to Fort Bragg (for basic training before being shipped off to Vietnam).

PBS: Young men in 1969 show up to the draft board.

While Chad understood (and was sympathetic) to the war’s goal of containing the spread of communism, he was terrified at the prospect of being dropped into a jungle to fight a people that had done nothing to him personally. He asked me why his government was asking him to risk his life for a country he couldn’t even find on a map. Before this exercise, I knew none of this. It just came at me like a small hurricane (during a 10-minute train ride).

Anyone can occupy the seat next to you: a politician, a professor, an astronaut in training, or a high-schooler experiencing his first love. It could be another writer. It could be anybody, even an alien from another world, at any point in time. If you decide to chat with a Viking solider from the 13th century use a café, a boat, any meeting place you want. Just make sure it’s free of distractions to allow your subconscious to work.

This technique is mind-blowing, mysterious, and strange. The conversations it creates are also completely private and confidential. Refrain from asking yourself how or why it’s working. Experience the bizarre. (Even CEOs are known for using this technique to imagine how an important board presentation might play out.)

Your Franz Kafka lies within you.

Board the train and open a portal to a world you never knew was there. I’m not sure why it works, but it truly is amazing — and productive.

Richard Fouts is the founder of Comunicado, a marketing communications company that helps brands tell their story.

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