Tuesday, March 12, 2013


David Farland is an award-winning New York Times best-selling author with over 50 novels in print. He has won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Special Award for “Best Novel in the English Language” for his science fiction novel, “On My Way to Paradise,” the Whitney Award for “Best Novel of the Year” for his historical “In the Company of Angels,”, and the International Book Award for “Best Young Adult Novel of the Year” for “Nightingale.”

Recently Dave released a book geared toward writing titled “Million Dollar Outlines.” In it he discusses how to write a novel that has a wide readership, giving it the potential to be a best-seller. Along with providing writers with outline and audience analysis methods, Dave also offers 28 “plotting tools” in his book. A plotting tool is basically a technique that can make your story more exciting, interesting, satisfying or complete. Today, Dave is going to share one with us.


When we talk about writing, there are three kinds of crucibles–crucibles of setting, relationship, or condition. But first we need to define, “What is a crucible?”

In metal-smithing, a crucible is a container used to hold metal or liquid as it boils. For example, to melt gold, one takes a heavy bowl made from steel and sets it in a fire. The steel, which can withstand higher temperatures than gold, doesn’t melt. But the small container quickly becomes super-heated, so that the gold liquefies in moments.

In fiction, a crucible is any setting, condition or relationship that keeps characters (such as a protagonist and an antagonist) from splitting apart.

By forcing these characters to remain together, we sometimes create an almost intolerable atmosphere. It allows us to super-charge the relationships, raise the heat.

For example, imagine that John and Mary have been married for years, but have grown apart. They decide that they don’t love each other anymore. The logical thing for them to do would be for them to divorce and split up, right? But there’s no story in that. The characters could easily resolve the situation by leaving, so as a writer, you need them to stay together.

So imagine that John and Mary have grown apart but both love their six-month-old daughter. Neither is willing to end the relationship so long as they risk losing the child. Now you have a crucible, a binding force that keeps the two together.

But there are different kinds of crucibles. Maybe it is a child. But maybe you could do the same by putting them both in a car and having them get stuck in a snowstorm. The car is a different kind of container from the relationship, but both work to keep the couple together.

So there are three different kinds of crucibles.

Crucibles of Setting

A setting may act as a crucible. You’ve all seen comedies where several people are stuck in a cabin in a snowstorm, and each of them is at the other’s throat. You will also quickly remember the movie, “Snakes on a plane,” even if you’ve never seen it. A crucible of setting might be a story set in your characters’ workplace, on a ship, or in a small town. The important point is to keep the characters together as much as possible, and to let personalities rub against one another until their tempers boil.

Crucibles of Relationship

You can never escape your family. You might try, but often the family relationship is a crucible. A child wanting to leave home is a crucible in the same way that a father who must pay child-support is in a crucible. Any two people who are married are in a crucible, as are any two people who just happen to be in love.

I recall a fine Western when I was young about two heroic cowboys who are both in love with the same woman. They are forced to band together to rescue her from a kidnapper. The men hate each other, and as the audience gets to know each man better, they both come to vie for our affections.

Soldiers in a squadron will find themselves in a crucible. For example, in “The Lord of the Rings” those who had joined the Fellowship were thrust into a crucible--a small band of men forced to band together for their own protection. It may be that your character finds himself fighting beside someone he detests--a murderer or a rapist--and yet he is unable to walk away from the conflict.

Your crucible may also be your conflict with your culture. We’ve probably all known various folks--Catholics, Jews, Muslims, etc., who try to leave their religion behind but can never stop talking about it. But it doesn’t have to be your religious culture. My father ran away from the Blue Ridge Mountains to escape the hillbilly lifestyle. I had a girlfriend who left her fine home in Southern California because she despised her family’s wealth. In the movie, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” we have a girl whose main conflict comes about when she is embarrassed by her ethnic roots.

Crucibles of Condition

An intolerable condition may also be a crucible--such as an illness that two very different characters join forces to beat. We see this kind of crucible used every week as Doctor House tries to solve the latest medical mystery. But it can also set your characters up to fight an economic or political condition--the hunger in India, the tribalism of North Africa.

The condition might be something as mundane as crime in the streets. Policemen who despise one another are often found joining forces to fight drug lords, rapists, and other types of crime.

So as you form your story, consider how you might strengthen your conflicts by developing one or more crucibles.

Can you think of any more examples of crucibles? Can you see a way to strengthen your own story by adding a crucible? Leave a comment and let us know.

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To learn about the rest of Dave’s plotting tools, or how to write for a wide audience, check out his book:


  1. Great post, Dave!

    I won't even begin to write a chapter until I know I have a good juicy bit of conflict! I just finished a book that uses two crucibles of condition. Worked out great!

  2. Really good information. I found myself thinking of all the crucibles I could find in my current WIP. I loved this.

  3. Great info, and something to apply to each WIP during the plotting stage. Thanks for sharing!


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