How To Write A Crucible Story in 4 Ways: Part 1 - Exploring Environmental and Relational Pressures
Updated: Jan 17
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So you're wondering how to write a crucible story?
Maybe I should give a little bit of background for those of you who have never heard of the term crucible before.
I have a favorite technique for writing horror (actually, it's great for writing all types of stories), and that is the crucible.
Side note: Not THE Crucible but the concept of a physical and figurative crucible.
It's being stuck in a place you cannot leave while being forced to confront a masked serial killer.
It's being trapped in an abusive relationship, afraid that the person you are with will harm your children if you leave.
It's having to carve a shape into a sugar disk before time runs out or you get a bullet in the head.
A crucible is great for monsters, ghouls, serial killers, or to explore the deterioration of the human psyche because it pushes your characters to the furthest reaches of stress and emotional or even physical pain.
Get it? Good.
So I guess the next question is: how to write a crucible story?
Another side note: I finished this post and realized that it is super long, so I broke it down into two parts.
In Part 1 of 'How to Write a Crucible Story in 4 Ways: Exploring Environmental and Relational Pressures,' we will discuss the first two ways.
1. How to Write a Crucible Story: An Environment
2. How to Write a Crucible Story: A Relationship
And in Part 2, 'How to Write a Crucible Story in 4 Ways: Exploring Tasks and Symbolic Themes,' we will discuss the other 2.
1. How to Write a Crucible Story: A Task You Character Must Complete
2. How to Write a Crucible Story: Symbolic Themes
How to Write a Crucible Story?
In horror, one of the most fascinating things you can do is explore what happens to humanity when it's pushed into a corner. That could be literal, as in a haunted house story, or figurative, as in a story about a cursed town. But when done well, it can produce some horrifying and thought-provoking tales. But how to write a crucible story? What is a crucible story?
One of the best examples of this is Stephen King's The Shining (Amazon affiliate link).
The story is about a man who slowly goes insane while isolated in a hotel during a snowstorm. But what makes The Shining so effective is that it's not just about the man's descent into madness. It's also about how his family members are affected by his tyranny in the past and present.
But in no book has the crucible been written more masterfully than in José Saramago's Blindness (Amazon affiliate link). In my opinion, there is no better teacher for learning how to write a crucible story than him.
If you have been following this blog, you'll notice I talk about Blindness a lot. But it is really good, and when I read it I got enough blog post ideas to fill a notebook. But I think this is the last one for a while, so don't worry. Maybe just read it for yourself, I can't do all your learning for you, sheesh.
Blindness follows a group of people when a strange illness wipes over the nation (possibly further), which makes everyone completely blind: everyone but the protagonist, the "doctor's wife," who is immune for some reason.
These people are taken from their homes and placed in an old mental hospital set up as quarantine by the army. As the building fills with more blind people, they are quickly abandoned to fend for themselves. But none may leave or else receive a bullet.
The best way to learn how to write a crucible story is the same best way to learn anything in writing, to read.
So read the book, but also this post is going to be set up as a case study of Blindness just in case you're too lazy to read the book. This book is an example of the 4 main types of crucible.
(If you can think of any types I miss in this post or the next, please leave a comment below and correct me.)
So, let's get into it and learn how to write a crucible story.
But What is a Crucible?
A crucible is a situation in which people are forced to deal with extreme stress and pressure. This can be physical, like being stuck in a burning building, or psychological, like being interrogated by the Gestapo. Crucibles can also be social, like being the only Edward Scissor Hands in a suburb of weirdos.
No matter their form, crucibles have one thing in common: they push people to their limits and force them to confront their deepest fears and flaws. In the process, they often reveal hidden strengths and resilience.
The literal meaning of 'crucible' is a "ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures."
So, there's something important to point out here.
A crucible is a vessel that contains heat. In writing, you are creating a "container" that will keep the tension of your plot from seeping out, causing it to increase exponentially until your characters are at their breaking point.
In his book, Stein on Writing (Amazon affiliate link) (seriously recommended for writers and developmental editors), Sol Stein explains how to write a crucible story like this: "They're in it till the end. The key to the crucible is that the motivation of the characters to continue opposing each other is greater than their motivation to run away."
Unless, of course, they CAN'T go anywhere because the door is locked.
Let us look at different ways you can write your characters into heat containing vessel. And how to write a crucible story.
How to Write a Crucible Story: An Environment.
A closed environment is a physical crucible. There is nowhere for your characters to go. They must defeat the monster that is chasing them. They must confront their weaknesses or perish. They must find common ground with their enemy, etc. This is the most popular way for how to write a crucible story.
It can be an environment full of stress and adversity, where people are pushed to their limits and forced to confront their fears. It can also be a place of intense creativity and growth, where new ideas are born, and old ones die.
Think of the Saw movies where Old Cancer Man, whose name I can't remember, places his victims in a crucible to test their resilience. He wants them to kill off their old, flawed self and reemerge as something new.
Cancer Man was correct that the crucible is a powerful engine for change, and once your characters figure their way out, by the end, it will have changed them forever.
It is the vehicle in which our End Girl (or Boy) can shed their innocence and emerge blood-soaked after killing the monster or murderer, whatever it may be.
How to Write a Crucible Story with an Environment: Blindness Case Study.
The hospital turned horror-inducing quarantine prison is the physical crucible in the book. Throughout most of the novel, the characters must navigate this situation (without seeing, mind you).
The parts of Blindness set in this physical crucible are the most visceral. As time passes, things get worse for the characters to the point where they begin to lose their humanity and become worse than animals. The readers feels sicker to their stomach as they go because Saramago looks at how people would act in that situation honestly and with integrity.
That means he does not hold back, does not sugarcoat, and does not write plot points just because they are cool or would be exciting. The realism of the book is what makes it scary.
Horror must have this honesty to be effective, primarily written horror, because writers don't have the shortcut of background music, infrasound, and jump scares.
Blindness gets disturbing, it gets gross, and it gets violent. But it is never unbelievable. And now the world going blind or being trapped in a building with a mass of strangers is my worst nightmare.
Your story's environment can be one of the most effective ways to use this literary technique for how to write a crucible story, but it is not the only way.
How to Write a Crucible Story: A Relationship.
A crucible is a relationship that pushes people to their limits. It can be a romantic relationship, a friendship, or even a professional one. In a crucible, both parties are forced to confront their demons and come out changed for the better (or worse).
Crucibles are born out of conflict. This conflict can be anything from differing opinions to life-or-death stakes. What matters is that both parties are pushed to their absolute limit. In a crucible, there is no room for compromise; it's all or nothing.
This intensity can lead to some of the most profound bonding experiences imaginable. In a crucible, you genuinely get to know someone—their fears, hopes, and dreams. You learn what they're made of and whether or not you can trust them with your life.
Of course, not all crucibles are positive experiences. Some relationships crumble under pressure, while others turn toxic.
So are you wondering how to write a crucible story with a relationship? Or maybe turn the relationship you already have written into a crucible?
Well, in horror, popular relationship crucibles include abusive domestic relationships, the terrible boss, the tyrannical parent, or the reckless friend/sibling.
But a relational crucible can also motivate the character to make it out of the other side of the test.
Remember the Stein quote at the beginning?
For a crucible to be successful, it needs not only to test your character's strength, but the motivation to suffer through has to be stronger than the motivation to give up or just take off and let someone else worry about that shit.
There has to be something at stake that matters to them. Often this can be a relationship they are not willing to give up, or getting out of a relationship they know will kill them.
How to Write a Crucible Story with a Relationship: Blindness Case Study.
The main character in the book is the "doctor's wife." Yes, that's how she is referred to in the book. There are no names, nor are there quotation marks or dialogue tags, and nary a linebreak to be seen. I wrote about these attributes specifically in this post here, but for today that doesn't matter, as you are here to find out how to write a crucible story. (Though if you want to learn more about why José Saramago is a master of his craft, I recommend you check it out.)
Our nameless protagonist is what you'd assume from her name—the doctor's wife, "The Doctor" being another character. For some unknown reason, she is spared from the fate of everyone else, but when the army comes to quarantine her husband, she discovers she will not be allowed to go with him. So, to stay with him, she pretends to be blind as well.
The book explores a series of terrible things that happen to these people. (I would give examples, but guess any horrible thing you can, and you probably have guessed right.) All it would take for her to leave that awful place, the environmental crucible, is to admit she can see. Because she is the only one in the group not actually bound by the environmental crucible, she could easily find a way to leave.
But she doesn't. She chooses to stay regardless of the terrible things that happen to her. She stays because she is stuck in a crucible, just one that cannot be physically seen. She is bound by love to stay with her husband. Her passion for him motivates her to endure the horror.
So if you want to learn how to write a crucible story into your novel, take a look at your protagonist's relationships and add not only conflict to them, but a reason for them to stick it out rather that take off.
How to Write a Crucible Story: Part 1 Conclusion
So today we learned how to write a crucible story in its first 2 and most popular forms. I didn't go into a step-by-step of each one because when learning how to write a crucible story, you will discover there are a 1000 unique ways to do it.
How to write a crucible story in these first 2 ways is all about conflict and making sure that your character has a believable reason to stay in that conflict. As the tension increases your "vessel" or crucible needs to be just as strong.
Next week in "How to Write a Crucible Story in 4 Ways: Exploring Tasks and Symbolic Themes."
We will discuss how to write a crucible story through something your character is forced to do, and how to write a crucible story through the symbolic themes that are threaded through it.
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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.