The Story Crucible

This article I wrote originally appeared on Suite101.

The Factor That Keeps the Character in Trouble

Every story needs a firm reason the character can’t just walk away from the story trouble. This is called the story crucible.

If a character is able to walk away from the story problem at any time, readers will feel dissatisfied with the story premise. The character needs a solid reason why he struggles on and doesn’t just take the option of giving up.

The Crucible Has to be Something Vital at Stake.

The character cannot continue with his external goal simply because he’s too stubborn to give it up. There has to be more at stake for him.

Someone’s life has to be in danger, whether figuratively or in actuality. It could be the character’s life or it could be someone the character cares for. There’s something vital on the line that can’t be ignored or sacrificed.

For example:

In the movie and series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy is the Slayer, the chosen girl who has powers to fight the forces of evil. She can’t just walk away from her responsibilities because then eventually, the entire human race would become run over by vampires and it would be all her fault.

Her crucible is the protection of the entire human race.

Another example:

Bob is trying to get a certain promotion at work.

What’s his crucible? Why does he need this promotion? If it’s simply for ambition, that’s not good enough. He needs a more vital reason for pursuing this promotion.

Say he needs the money because his wife is undergoing chemotherapy. The crucible is his wife’s life.

Or perhaps the new job title will finally confirm to him that he’s as good as—or even better than—his critical father. He believes it will validate him and give him the self-esteem he’s always been lacking. (While this might be a false assumption, the key fact is that Bob believes it to be true.) The crucible is Bob’s identity.

Or perhaps he has already arranged with the company’s competitors to get the new job title—and the new security clearance—so that he can steal information and sell it to the competitors for a huge wad of cash. He intends to disappear to Jamaica and live in style for the rest of his life. The crucible is his new life.

The Crucible Keeps the Character Entrenched For the Entire Novel.

If circumstances change in the middle of the story and suddenly the character has the option of walking away, that’s not a good crucible.

As the story progresses, the problems should get worse and worse. The character should be boxed in, tighter and tighter. The crucible should be getting stronger, up until the climax.

Here’s an example:

In Isle of Shadowsby T.L. Higley, the heroine is a courtesan-slave who longs for her freedom. When her master is accidentally killed, she needs to keep his death a secret for a week until he is scheduled to leave Rhoades with her. This is her crucible.

However, a rival starts stirring up political trouble, which requires her master to make appearances at the public council.

Then the council wonders if her master is too ill to take the scheduled trip, and if someone else should be sent in his stead.

Then a council member discovers that her master is dead, and he wants to use her and the secret for his own ends.

Each event draws the net tighter around the heroine, boxing her in, making things more difficult. The crucible has become not just her freedom, but also her life as she faces a charge of murder.

Find a Strong Crucible.

In writing your own novel, make sure your character’s crucible is a strong net that keeps the character struggling on.