Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Crucible

...when he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold.

Harry and Voldy, in the crucible of "the Prophecy"
I've been reading David Farland's e-book "Million Dollar Outlines" lately to review elements of story and the various tools useful to writing fiction.

One area he covers is the crucible; the element of the story that keeps your characters there/involved/together. The thing that answers the question about why they don't just leave or give up when the trouble starts.

In one of my writing projects, this element is a struggle, because the characters have to keep deciding to be involved each day, voluntarily, actively, and their involvement means that bad things keep happening to them. The reader is certainly going to ask: Why would they stay here?

In Dave's book, he uses the example of a man and woman in a bad marriage. Why don't they just get divorced? Marriage is a voluntary arrangement. Of course, we all would come up with his answer: the children. It is believable that they would try to work things out for the sake of the children.

So there must be reasons, good reasons, why our characters keep going, keep on keeping on, even in the face of trial and tribulation.

I did a brainstorming exercise once with Orson Scott Card where we all came up with a lot of answers to the "why?" question, and he kept twisting and turning the answers until we came up with less cliche outcomes. I think this is also important to do with our crucibles.

Maybe the married couple stay together for the children, that's easy. But let's twist that. Perhaps instead it is the stress from the children that is tearing the couple apart. Maybe the children even want the divorce, or say they do. So what then? We get to dig deeper and invent new reasons the couple must stay together. Maybe both husband and wife both had divorced parents and never wanted to become like their parents. Or maybe everyone told the wife she was making a mistake, that the marriage would never last, and she wants desperately to prove everyone wrong. Maybe the husband hates failure and so doesn't want to admit defeat. Maybe one or the other is in politics or business where the image of marriage is important. Whatever we choose, we must have a crucible or we have no story. We must thoroughly answer the reader questions about why our characters are going through the trouble instead of giving up or avoiding it. Otherwise, they just seem like dogged dolts.

So, what are some of your favorite crucibles, either in stories you've written or read?

Write on,
Amber M


  1. Great points! Not only do we have to motivate our characters well, but in non-cliche ways. It's not easy, but I think when you dig deeper into your character you also dig deeper into your reader and find a real resonance there.

    Great post!

  2. Amber, I like the twists you brought out. It takes a lot of thought to write a fresh story that is authentic to the characters. As the writer, it's a great help to have a good list of questions to ask yourself as you're plotting and revising. This is a great one! Thanks!!

  3. Thanks for your post, Amber. I need to think about heating up the crucible in my own stories. Your "creative motivation" exercise sounds like a great way to do this.


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