The Crucible

What is the crucible in the context of fiction-writing? Why do you need it, and how do you use it?

In its original meaning, a crucible is a scientific term. It’s a heat-resistant metal bowl in which chemicals are heated to very high temperatures – and indeed, which are often changed in the process.

In this way, the crucible is a metaphor when we refer to it with regard to our writing. It means the situation in which our characters find themselves, which will ‘heat up’ for them, and which will – like the chemicals in the original meaning of the crucible – change the character into something new through the character arc.

The other factor to the crucible – as we use it in writing – is that the character cannot get out of this dilemma in any other way than solving it – as indeed, the chemicals cannot get out of the original crucible. Neither the chemicals in the original meaning, nor the character in literary definition, can walk away from this experience.

Of course, outside the chemistry lab, the character can walk away, unlike chemicals which have to stay where they’re put.

Scarlett O’Hara could have decided that she didn’t want Ashley Wilkes that badly, or – later in the story – that she didn’t really care too much about the fate of Tara.

Captain Ahab could have shrugged his shoulders and decided that the white whale wasn’t worth the trouble.

The hobbits could have decided that it was too dangerous to try to return the ring.

But … if the character walks away, there’s no story.

And this is where the writer’s skill comes in. We have to put the character in a situation where he or she has no choice but to continue on, no matter how painful or dangerous it is.

There are a few ways of doing this:

The Lord of the Rings trilogy uses an elemental one – the whole safety of the world depends on them succeeding. Tolkien skillfully shares how wonderful the Shire is, and how much the hobbits love it. This serves two purposes: it shows how heroic the hobbits are being, and it also gives them huge motivation to defeat Sauron and save their Shire. (Also, it makes us, the readers, care about that world being saved.)

Scarlett O’Hara’s motives are not nearly as noble. But Mitchell writes her so well that we understand that – given Scarlett’s personality – she could make no other choices than the ones she did. Her crucible is her obsession.

The crucible could be physical – the character has absolutely no choice. Alfred Hitchcock’s film Lifeboat uses this fully, where the characters are in the eponymous lifeboat and have to solve the story problem to escape. Any story in which the characters physically cannot remove themselves follows this angle.

One of the most clear-cut examples of increasing motivation to provide a crucible is in the film Hostage – and of course, in the book of the same name, on which the film was based, by Robert Crais.

The hero, Jeff Talley is a police chief who must sort out a hostage situation. That’s plenty of motivation there, you might think. But not enough. Crais writes it that Talley had been a trained hostage negotiator who had made a terrible misjudgement which caused the deaths of innocent hostages. Because of this, and the need for redemption, he had huge incentive to sort out the current hostage situation.

But there was even more. The really serious baddies needed the hostages to escape from the hostage-takers – who were merely thuggish minor baddies. So to give Talley a big incentive to succeed, they in turn kidnapped his wife and daughter, promising to kill them if Talley didn’t succeed in the original hostage situation.

(Actually, I have a suspicion that this was over-doing it. Talley had plenty of motivation already. But it did heighten the tension for sure, and it made we readers/viewers more involved and care more about the outcome. And it is a classic example of a hot-burning crucible.)

So, I invite you to look at your own plots and see where you can put your own characters in the crucible.