How to Write a Crucible Story in 4 Ways: Part 2 Exploring Tasks and Symbolic Themes
Updated: Jan 25
In the last post, 'How to Write a Crucible Story: Exploring Environmental and Relational Pressure' we took a look at how to write a crucible story through the setting you place your characters in and the relationships (probably toxic) you give them.
Today, we look at how to write a crucible story through the tasks your character must complete—or their duty—
Ha. I said duty....
...And the symbolic themes you thread throughout your novel.
Since the last post was so long, let's jump right into this one.
How to Write a Crucible Story: A Task
Remember last time we said that a crucible was where you force your character into a tense situation and make them stay there?
For how to write a crucible story, you needed to ensure that if your character is not physically "trapped" in some place than you need to ensure that their motivation for staying in that situation is stronger than their motivation to just take off and not deal.
(As most of us would, let's just admit it.)
But sometimes there is no one in a character's life to motivate them, and they may not even be trapped in a physically locked room. Then how to write a crucible story then?
By forcing your character to complete a task or perish.
This is not always the same as setting a goal for your character—something they want more than anything else in the world. No. This is something that they must complete. They have to finish this task to save themselves some horrible fate that will befall them or their loved ones if they do not.
It's passing on the videotape in The Ring.
It's running from, then hunting, the Creature in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
It's confronting Leatherface and ending it once and for all.
But examples are best, so let's head back to our case study from last time: Blindness (Amazon affiliate link) by Nobel Prize winning Portuguese author, José Saramago.
How to Write a Crucible Story Through a Task: Blindness Case Study.
In Blindness (Amazon affiliate link) Even after 'The Doctor's Wife' witnesses everyone in the hospital (including her husband) devolve into their lowest form, she still stays.
The Doctor's Wife's motivation switches from a love of her husband to caring for these sad creatures that need her to help them hang on to those last few shreds of humanity. She has a task to complete, like a mother feels the instinct to take care of her children; her instincts demand that she takes care of them.
In fact, she stops focusing on her husband quite a bit. Three quarters through the book, he doesn't cross her mind nearly as much and he fades into the background of the narrative a little. Instead she is focused on other characters like the young 'Girl with Sunglasses.'
The crucible task of being the eyes of the sightless tests her patience, emotional strength, physical strength, and humanity—even patiently allowing herself to be violated in a terrible scene so that she could strike at the right moment.
I'll put this another way:
There is a point in every good horror where the character switches from a reactionary state to an active state.
The End Girl goes from innocent victim to determined warrior...etc.
An environmental crucible can force your character into a situation beyond their control, and a relational crucible can motivate them not to give up. Still, after a certain amount of running and suffering, your character must take control of the situation in order to survive.
This is where a task crucible best comes into play. They are no longer focused on surviving but on destroying that which has made them suffer, taking back their power.
This is the cathartic part of horror that readers/viewers of all kinds crave.
Does that mean a task crucible can only be put into play at the end in conjunction with other forms?
Not always. Take Frankenstein (Amazon affiliate link), for instance.
The task crucible was the major player the whole way through, but that being said, this shift still happened. In the book's first part, Victor's task was to run from the monster he'd made, while the Creature's task was to hunt Victor.
In the second part of the story, Victor's task changes to one of action. He now hunts the monster, determined to kill it.
(Notice the shifting diametric going on there too. Another great way to add tension.)
The task is reactive, then active.
But the key for how to write a crucible story well is that it is not just a goal but a duty. Victor has no choice. He is bound to this task even though he wishes more than anything he was not.
How to Write a Crucible Story: Symbolism and Themes
One final part of A crucible I want to discuss is not always apparent at first glance. On inspection, a restraint on your characters keeps them down and symbolizes the meaning of your theme.
I'll just head straight into our case study to explain this one.
How to Write a Crucible Story through Symbolism: Blindness Case Study.
Oh, you need more?
The characters losing their eyesight and being forced to live in this new strange pure white world was a crucible in itself (environmental of a sorts?). But it was also symbolic of the theme. Blindness explores the surface civility of humanity.
It asked what would happen if we could no longer navigate as we had. If something as simple as losing our sense of sight could tear off the brittle exterior of "enlightened animal."
I think there was also an allegory of god and man in there. Like we are all blind to the universe's mysteries and hang on to god as those poor blind souls hung onto the doctor's wife. Even though it's possible god is just as frightened and clueless as we are but helps us along, as is his duty.
Hey! Like god is in a crucible of his own!
There is a scene near the end where the doctor's wife walks into a church to find all the iconic imagery vandalized—the eyes covered or painted over. She tells the people inside what she sees, and they panic, running and screaming from the building.
Anyway, I'm digressing again.
So a crucible can be a potent means to communicate your theme to readers without feeling like you are inserting your opinionated voice into the story. After all, that stuff about god I came up with on my own, I have no idea if Saramago had any real intention like that.
I can't tell you how to write a crucible story through symbolism because that really depends on the story you are trying to tell.
Basically, you are looking to turn your theme into a symbol in your story that puts constraints on your characters....or your reader (read the other case study post I did on Blindness about the visual page. The style in which he wrote Blindness could be considered a symbolic crucible for the reader. Seriously, the guy is good.)
Let's look at another example:
In the first SAW movie, Cancer Man....Jigsaw!!! I remember now! It just came to me!
Anyway. That guy. His cancer is a reflection of the theme of "man's will to live," — to free himself.
The horror subjected to his victims reflects that, the constricted, tighter camera shots reflect that, the mask jigsaw wears does too, the small tv screen he is playing his "let's play a game" videos on, etc. Everything aids the theme and also gives the viewer the same sense of "get me out of here."
Horror movies use this claustrophobic feeling a lot. And it's easy for them to do so. With books it's a little harder.
In Rachael Llewellyn's short story 'Monochrome Dancer,' from her collection, Human Beings (Amazon affiliate link), the symbolic crucible is the red ribbon that connects the two dancing children. It symbolizes the delusion of the old lady protagonist, and it is in front of us the whole time.
Now, the delusion, her deteriorating mind, is the real crucible. But the symbol is a manifestation of it that aids it.
This stuff is a little abstract. But I wanted to include it to get you thinking about how to write a crucible story that it is not just written into your novel, but is part of your novel.
Everything ties together and should feel whole. Every literary device you choose to write with should be there for a greater purpose. Never just to be a neat thing you did.
Check out this post I did for The Writer's Cabin on Bear Hill Books, it is part 7 of a 9 post series on why common show, don't tell advice might be holding you back (part 1 here). But I don't think you really NEED to read the other parts to understand it. (Though I recommend it, cause I like you.)
It discusses this idea further, and brings in some more literary devices too, not just how to write a crucible.
How to Write a Crucible Story: Bonus Tips
When writing your crucible, I suggest you keep a few things in mind to create a compelling horror story. Or any genre really.
Your characters need to have goals and motivations. Know them intimately.
What do they fear?
How will they react under pressure?
The more you know about your characters, the more believable they'll be in a high-stakes situation. They need to be fully developed!
Too many horror stories throw stereotypical cardboard people at us and expect us to care about them.
Do better. It doesn't matter how much torment you put on your character. If they have no personality, we don't care.
Set the scene.
Describe the environment in which your story takes place. Is it claustrophobic or open? Hostile or welcoming?
The setting should reflect the story's mood and contribute to the sense of unease or suspense.
Look at every scene and location and add a crucible to the mix to increase tension.
Have a scene set in a restaurant with your protagonist and evil friend having dinner? Maybe you can make the evil friend talk too loud, drawing all the other patrons' eyes to them.
Social pressure or scrutiny can work well as an environmental or relationship crucible.
Conflict is key.
Keep your character's goals as opposed as possible inside the crucible. Always be looking for ways to increase the conflict in every single scene.
Even small things. For instance, in that restaurant scene, the evil friend can order a bloody slab of meat when your protagonist is a vegan.
Contrast is just as important for fiction as it is for art!
Build tension gradually.
Start with minor conflicts and escalate them until the situation is at its breaking point.
This will keep readers engaged and prevent them from getting bored or frustrated with the slower paced parts.
Creeping tension is better at creating that icky uncomfortable feeling in your reader than more overt tension. Usually, the slower the tension rises, the more uncomfortable you will make your reader, however there is a balance to be struck because you can teeter off the edge of slow burn into boring and "put downable" pretty quickly.
Don't shy away from difficult topics.
If you're exploring something dark or taboo in your story, don't shy away from it.
A crucible is often a place where ugly truths are revealed. Wimpy writers don't connect with their audience on any meaningful level.
People can do some seriously crazy things to survive (like in SAW). If they can do that, you can go against the grain a little and offend some people sometimes without having a panic attack.
Approach touchy topics respectfully. Now, that doesn't mean dance around them. In horror that means to present them raw, bare, and honestly. If you're worried about the reader who is a real victim of say sexual assault, you are doing there experience no justice by pussy footing around it. You honor them by doing the research to present that topic realistically, with real relatable consequences.
That is not the same thing as presenting it graphically, if that's no what you want to do.
Honesty is the only policy in fiction. Read this post here for more.
How to Write a Crucible Story: Conclusion
The crucible is a writing technique.
It is a means to create tension for your characters . But it is also so much more.
It is the ultimate test of your character's mettle, a proving ground for her beliefs, or even a moment that changes everything. In horror, a crucible is often a situation in which the characters are pushed to their absolute limits, forced to confront their fears, and maybe even change their ways.
A good horror story will make the reader feel like they are right there in the crucible with the characters. They should feel the tension and the terror as the characters do. They should see how far people can be pushed before they break.
And ultimately, they should come away from the experience changed themselves.
A horror story that explores humanity pushed into a corner is not only entertaining, but it can also be enlightening. It can show us how strong and weak we are and how capable we are of both amazing feats and unspeakable atrocities.
We may never find ourselves in such a situation, thank the gods, but by exploring it through fiction, we can better understand ourselves and the world around us.
Whew. That one is done. Can you imagine if I didn't divide these last two into parts?
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Here are our Amazon affiliate links to the books we talked about today so you can do some further reading:
Blindness by José Saramago: https://amzn.to/3iYw9dK
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: https://amzn.to/3ZTmUME
Human Beings by Rachael Llewellyn: https://amzn.to/3H2MLsQ
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tessa Barron is the Editor-in-Chief at Foul Fantasy Fiction and Bear Hill Publishing. She specializes in developmental editing and writes Fantasy and Science Fiction when she is able to find the time under the pen name Turi T. Armstrong.