Image: Matthew Loffhagen
First things first: no, I’m not talking about the Arthur Miller play The Crucible or the film starring Daniel Day-Lewis. There will be no witches or men getting crushed to death by stones here, I’m afraid. Instead, a literary crucible is a narrative mechanism coined by writer James Frey designed to help out writers whose central conflicts are becoming so intense (good for drama) that characters are being driven apart by the resulting tension (bad for plot cohesion). It’s easy to think of such situations in major dramatic works: for example, Harry, Ron, and Hermione being forced to hunt down Horcruxes despite their growing animosity in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, or the children being forced to work together to survive in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.What happens when the tension of your plot forces your characters apart?Click To Tweet
So, how do these writers manage to progress with their dramatic plots while keeping their characters in the same dramatic space so that they can continue to play off of one another? That’s where a crucible comes in.
A binding agent
A crucible is effectively an emulsifier. It keeps the water of your plot’s drama mixed with the oil of your characters, preventing the two from coming apart. Like the container it’s named after, the crucible holds everything together even in the raging fires of growing conflict. Its value is pretty self-evident – a good crucible can prevent a plot from falling apart beneath the weight of its own internal logic.
But what actually is a crucible? What form does it take in fiction? Well, a crucible is a situation that enforces certain restrictions within the world of your story that keep your characters occupying the same space or, if not the same physical space, then the same dramatic space. Crucibles are typically non-negotiable in the sense that overcoming or escaping them is either impossible or is a major plot point in itself.
There are three types of crucible: physical, social, and emotional. Let’s take a closer look.
The simplest and most straightforward crucibles are physical. These are actual concrete restrictions of the space the characters can occupy which force characters to stick together no matter how angry they may get at one another. These closed settings don’t need to be literally walled off; instead, limited resources could force characters to stick in one place, or a particular event could force your characters to stay indoors (bad weather for example, or a full moon for you werewolf fans).
The advantage of a physical crucible is that it otherwise allows total freedom in your characterization and world building; you simply need a physical reason why characters can’t go elsewhere. That reason doesn’t need to be exciting; even a rainy day or a power cut could keep your characters in one place. You don’t need to take the social structure of your world into account or worry about emotional bonds; your characters are free to not know or like one another and can be from totally distinct cultural backgrounds.Physically trapping your characters together can give you a lot of social leeway.Click To Tweet
You can observe physical crucibles put to great use in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and, on the big screen, in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, but perhaps my personal favorite example of a physical crucible taken to the extreme in George Saunders’ bizarre and prescient novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, where citizens of the tiny nation Inner Horner find themselves trapped within their own shrinking country, forced to share the same couple of square feet in the face of aggressive foreign policy instituted by Phil, the despotic president of the neighboring Outer Horner. What follows is some superb national bickering:
‘Oh this is crazy,’ Curtis said. ‘How long are we going to take this? We’ve got to do something. We’ve got to start resisting.’
‘Oh right, Curtis, let’s resist,’ said Wanda. ‘Don’t you get it? If we resist, they’ll crush us. Did you see the size of those guys?’
‘Cal, you’re the one I don’t get,’ said Curtis. ‘Here’s your wife, naked and being displayed to the world, here’s your shivering hungry kid, and what are you doing about it? Don’t you love them? Don’t you care?’
‘Curtis, leave Cal alone,’ Carol said. ‘He’s doing the best he can.’
‘Carol, please don’t speak harshly to Curtis,’ said Wanda. ‘He was only expressing his opinion.’
‘Look at us bickering,’ said Curtis.
‘I don’t consider this bickering,’ said Wanda.
– George Saunders, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil
The oppression of Inner Hornerites only amps up as the novella continues, but the physical crucible of Saunders’s story keeps the drama focused and allows the central conflict to grow organically.
Unlike physical crucibles, there’s nothing concrete holding your characters in place with a social crucible. Instead, the social laws or cultural expectations of your setting keep your characters occupying the same dramatic (if not physical) space.
This could be something as simple as a shared profession or workplace (as in David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King) or something as complex and deep-rooted as racism in the USA (as in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, where the black protagonist is forced to occupy certain spaces).
The great thing about social crucibles is that they survive only so long as your characters continue to believe in them/fear them. The moment your characters shatter the social restrictions binding them (thus breaking the social crucible) is one of inherent drama, and these moments are often presented as climactic events in their parent plots. Think, for example, of Winston Smith and Julia finally bucking the system in George Orwell’s 1984, or Katniss Everdeen breaking the cycle in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games.Social crucibles are malleable, binding characters until a moment of drama frees them.Click To Tweet
Because of this inherent drama, social crucibles tend to be more central to the plots of their parent books than the other types of crucible. Of course, this is only true if the crucible is eventually overcome; if, like in the fiction of Frances Burney or Anton Chekhov, the social restrictions are quieter and more enduring, they too can be relied upon to more discreetly keep a plot together.
As I’m sure you’ll have guessed by now, an emotional crucible is one where dramatic space is restricted through the emotional bonds of your characters. This crucible is the most tangled in the specifics of your characters’ personalities; it relies on their values, desires, family ties, ambitions, and desires. As such, it works particularly well in human dramas, contemporary fiction, fantasy, and romance novels. Think of the archetypal fantasy novel, where heroes go on despite mounting pressure/pain because of their belief in higher values like nobility, chivalry, or honor, or of romances where lovers endure every agony for love – these are classic (but rather tired) examples of emotional crucibles.Emotional crucibles are more common (and more useful) than you might think.Click To Tweet
Emotional crucibles are effective in that they intrinsically link your characters to the plot’s central conflict. A classic example is Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, where two lovers withstand the growing chaos of their circumstances out of love for one another. In this text, the plot’s central conflict is the characters’ love – the seemingly unbreakable crucible (for emotional crucibles, unlike social crucibles, are often inescapable/unbreakable) of Romeo and Juliet’s shared love advances the plot, which tragically culminates when the crucible is finally broken through the deaths of both lovers.
For all its near-melodrama, the reader/viewer never once doubts that Romeo and Juliet’s love for one another is a sufficient motivator for them to withstand the mounting conflict of the plot. Shakespeare – and this may come as a surprise – was a pretty great writer. On the other hand, you’ve got Stephanie Meyer, whose Twilight books don’t really go far enough in convincing the reader that Bella really loves Edward enough to put up with all his creepy, thousand-year-old, undead bloodsucker baggage. Emotional crucibles require balance: make sure the emotions of your character are convincingly expressed, else readers won’t believe that they’ll endure.
Braving the fire
Of course, writers were finding ways to keep their plots and characters all neat and tidy long before Frey coined the term ‘crucible’; indeed, many stories would never reach a conclusion without the writer implementing some kind of crucible. It’s something we tend to intuit, especially for those stories that depend on their crucible to reach a climax.
Nevertheless, by being aware of crucibles, writers can carefully weigh up the pros and cons of each of the three types, allowing them to successfully choose the best crucible for their story and characters, as well as ensure that crucible is as effective as possible.
Can you think of any crucibles from your favorite works of fiction? Have you used any in your own work? Let me know in the comments, and check out Avoid A Boring Thriller With This One Simple Trick and Why Writers Like You Need To Know Their Key Event From Their First Plot Point for more on this topic.