Crushed by the Crucible

PaperworkSo I did that thing, the very depressing one, where I pulled an old manuscript out of the files with the intention of fixing it. I was confident I knew the problem: it had to be the stakes. The reader couldn’t relate to what the character desired. But that wasn’t it. Throughout the novel, as the character navigates an impossible boss and a cheating boyfriend, her wants are stark on the page. I kept parsing the problem, to no avail. The plot has an arc. The writing is good, well, good on my scale. Narrative structure is sound. A clock ticks, propelling the story forward. And then it hit me, an epiphany brought about by Grub Street’s Novel Incubator. The crucible was internal to the character and it simply didn’t work.

Characters must be tortured. Yes, that may sound extreme, but they’re imaginary and you don’t probably have to go as far as say, Hanya Yanagihara. Still, the character has to be held in position while difficulties befall her. If she can just walk out the door on a bad marriage or escape an over-bearing boss, it’s nearly impossible to build tension. The crucible is whatever keeps the character in the situation at the point of dramatic tension. Crucible is the shackle in the torture chamber.

The crucible must be believable at all costs. If the reader gets an inkling that the character can escape the situation, the whole novel falls apart. The effect is akin to watching a horror movie at the point when the girl is going to open the closet door, even though she knows better and we yell at the screen Don’t Do It, Run! But while we might laugh and keep watching the movie, we will close the book forever. We can never feel that the character is able to run away. Characters stuck in jails are therefore very good. So are poor people with no options. Love can hold someone, but those cuffs have to buckle tightly.

Modernity is challenging to crucibles. We don’t have as many indentured servants around and marriages are relatively easy to leave compared to previous eras. And don’t forget technology, a fantastic spoiler if there ever was one. It used to be, if a woman drove into the ditch on a dark night, she was there for the duration. Knock down the phone line to the house in a storm and kaboom, there’s the story. Now though, the woman would Facebook and Tweet and Snapchat her way out of that ditch in nothing flat. The characters in the electricity-downed house would fire up the generator to stream X-Box games. Misunderstandings are harder to come by in the time of text messaging. Woe be to the writers trying to recreate Three’s Company, each episode would end in the amount of time it takes to tap out U in the kitchn?

We contort ourselves wildly to fix it. Cell phone batteries must die. The house has to be placed in a remote mountain range, out of view of satellites. We time travel back to the era before free long distance. We give up on these external crucibles altogether and pummel our characters until they are so damaged that it becomes plausible that they would bind themselves in bad situations. They endure resentful mothers, drug-addicted fathers and high school bullies. And if that doesn’t do it, who among us isn’t above throwing an abusive priest into the mix? Yet, despite such machinations, so many internal crucibles fail.

What about the ones that don’t fail? Some internal crucibles are crafted so well, that we wring our hands while the character follows that same, destructive path.

It feels almost like cheating in Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North when he puts the characters in a POW camp. The desperation and inevitability of not only the prisoners’ fates but those of the guards, too, comes alive on the page. But here’s the thing: the book doesn’t just hinge on that external crucible; the POW camp comprises only a portion of the novel. The real character interest lies in the main character’s insistence on wrecking his personal life. Rather than toss the novel aside out of disgust for a man who can’t seem to keep his pants zipped, I read on, held by the question of what comprises a moral life. Would it be the same if Flanagan had simply added the POW history in a couple of flashbacks? For me, the answer is no. Had I not read page after page of both the brotherhood and the horrors of the camp, there is no way I could have maintained interest in the character’s flaws. So that early, fully-realized external crucible made the internal one plausible.

Colm Toibin, too, masterfully combines the external with the internal crucible in Brooklyn. An Irish woman is sent to America for economic reasons, a crucible of exile. And throughout her time in America, her character is burnished by the twin fires of loneliness and desire. She returns to Ireland after her sister’s death and suddenly the original crucible dissolves. Economically, she can now stay in Ireland and marry a man with whom she has so much in common. Yet the internal crucible remains (with a little help from the external, societal pressure): while we may wish for her to stay in her homeland, we know she will not abandon the man she so quickly married in New York.

Perhaps these are poor examples; both novels are set in the past and thereby benefit from great external crucibles. Yet, the way the external and internal crucibles interact offers interesting insights. Had either of them rested on the external crucible alone, the novels wouldn’t have been as engaging. Events would have simply dictated the characters’ actions. Of course the war-damaged man is seeking solace in sex. Of course, societal pressures would force the Irish woman back to her husband. Likewise, the internal crucibles would have felt tiresome on their own if the philanderer was just a regular old philanderer and the Irish woman was just so darn righteous and good that she would return to her husband, no matter how much he manipulated her into the marriage. It is the seamless balancing and blending, the interaction of crucible and character that is the secret to their crafting.

So back to my own manuscript. It’s not salvageable without a complete re-imagining. These days, a smart woman with the capability to make money wouldn’t remain in a rotten relationship and in a job with an unbearable boss. Okay, the boyfriend might last for a while, but the job wouldn’t. I would have to come up with so many contrivances to make the internal crucible work, the weight of the scaffolding would simply collapse the entire building. The end result is a devastating loss of a couple years’ worth of work. Still, it’s better to know now, I suppose, while I can still make use of the filing space.


  1. Carol D. Gray

    Great articulation of the issue, Sharissa. It helps me identify another reason why I like writing fantasy. External crucibles are much easier to make up when you’re not confined to modern-day earthly life!

  2. Lisa Birk

    Oh, Sharissa! Say it ain’t so! I think your piece is spot on, but I’m hoping your assessment of your work is not!

  3. Belle Brett

    Sharissa–This is a wonderful summary of yet another one of those important building blocks that we must balance as we construct our novel. Mmmm, now I have to review my internal and external crucibles in my current novel (fortunately set in 1981, pre instant access to everyone on the planet.)

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