I’m a big fan of Star Trek in all of its incarnations. The Star Trek series and movies have always had a unique setting, and there’s definitely something compelling about a cast of characters committed to a mission to “boldly go where no one has gone before.”
I’ve recently been marathoning the Star Trek series, and I’ve gotten up to Star Trek: Voyager. Voyager has some ups and downs compared to the other series. Any hardcore Trekkie has their own favorites among the series, and there can be some big arguments about which series is the best. Regardless of whether you love Voyager or hate it, however, it has some unique traits that make it different from any of the other series. One in particular is the Crucible.
Wikipedia defines a crucible as “a container that can withstand very high temperatures and is used for metal, glass, and pigment production as well as a number of modern laboratory processes . . . they can be made from any material that withstands temperatures high enough to melt or otherwise alter its contents.” In other words, it’s a big pot that can hold molten metals and other volatile substances.
In the case of literature, the crucible is any environment that can hold a volatile group of characters together to increase conflict. The starship Voyager is a prime example. The ship contained a mixture of two crews, the military Starfleet personnel and the rebels/terrorists of the Maquis. They were stuck together, 70,000 light years from home, and forced to work together without any outside support.
While Voyager sometimes under-utilized the potential for conflict, the principle of the crucible is a sound one that can be used in any number of situations.
In the book Stein On Writing, Sol Stein refers to the crucible as “A Key to Successful Plotting” (p. 94). The idea is to take a group of characters in a setting or situation where they either physically cannot leave (such as characters sharing a prison cell or stranded on a deserted island), or where “the motivation of the characters to continue opposing each other is greater than their motivation to run away.” Voyager is the former type of crucible, where the ship itself is a physical setting that the characters can’t leave. They’re stuck together for better or worse and they don’t really have much choice in the matter. The latter type of crucible can be a bit more complicated, however, since it is based more on the characters’ emotions and motivation.
I’ve been studying romance novels a lot lately, and a romantic relationship serves as a good example of a crucible. If the characters are in some sort of romantic conflict, they could end it by breaking up and running away from each other. The conflict will continue for as long as their desire to remain together is greater than their desire to flee the situation. This can create a complex emotional web if the characters have goals or motivations that are in direct opposition to each other. A simple example can be if one of the characters wants to settle down and have children while the other wants to travel and develop their career. These desires are in conflict, and they will remain so for as long as the characters stay in their relationship.
Other types of crucibles can be offices where employees are forced to work together even if they don’t get along, musical groups that have to get through performances even if they have creative differences, or investigators that have to put their differences aside while working on a difficult case. In each case, the crucible remains intact as long as all the members are highly motivated to their job, cause, or mission. If their motivation to escape each other ever exceeds their motivation to continue working together, then the business will fail, the band will break up, or the crime will go unsolved. This sort of situation can add another layer of tension to an already difficult situation. Trying to run a successful business, win the battle of the bands, or catch the criminal can already be difficult enough on its own without internal pressures tearing the characters apart. The more potential obstacles you insert into the story, the higher the stakes will be, and the more suspense you’ll create.
On a more meta level, writing a novel can be a sort of crucible in itself. There’s constant conflict in a writer’s struggled to meet deadlines, their issues with fear and self-doubt, the need to avoid plot holes and develop strong characters, and all the other complications that go into making a successful novel. That conflict will continue as long as the writer’s desire to get the novel written exceeds their desire to escape the stress and fear.
Hopefully that volatile melting pot of words ends up turning into something fabulous. Though you won’t know that until it’s finished.