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Fiction Needs Friction

Updated: Mar 16, 2021

By Michael Heath /

Fiction Needs Friction

The story in a novel requires conflict. Who wants to read a book about people who just do things? “Amy folded laundry before going to the grocery store to get food for dinner.” Snooze! “Amy threw out her abusive husband’s clothing, knowing she would kill him that evening by adding cyanide to his dinner.” Now we are getting somewhere. Simply put, the character in your book needs to have a problem to solve. Tension causes interaction. What the character does and how s/he arrives at some resolution brings out the very essence of who s/he is. Uncertainty is what makes the story interesting to the reader.

There are two main types of conflict: internal and external. A character may deal with his/her own personal struggles and decision-making, based on his/her values. That’s internal conflict. A case in point can be seen through the protagonist in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Holden Caufield believes that all adults are “phony” but finds himself lying, spending time with people he dislikes and even being agreeable to please certain people; he fights his own inner battles. Another example of internal conflict is seen in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, a story that centers around disabled World War I veteran Jake Barnes and his jealousy-fueled infatuation with twice-divorced Lady Brett Ashley. Her dalliances with other men cause the normally well-mannered journalist to act out in ways he may not otherwise behave.

External conflict happens when the protagonist is up against some outside force. It could be man versus man, man versus nature, or man versus several other types of antagonists. These outside forces cause the character(s) to act in certain ways and should keep the reader on the edge of his/ her seat. Hemingway used a man-versus-nature approach in The Old Man and the Sea when the main character battles a giant marlin.

Many good books are available on how to write fiction, and any writer who intends to tackle a novel would be wise to read some of them before getting started. One that I often recommend is How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey. This straightforward, easy-to-read book is not only a crash course on how to write a novel but a guide on how to avoid some common mistakes. I read it years ago and it taught me, among other things, how to keep friction in my fiction.

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