Sunday, February 17, 2008

Crucible Problems, I

No, I don’t mean the art center and fire-oriented performance venue in Oakland— though we have a good friend who is leaning to spin fiery torches there. Instead, I mean one of those writing concepts that has no agreed-upon name. Someone—I forget whom—once talked about the problem as a “crucible,” so we’ll use that for the moment, though I might also call it "the box," which is the term I tend to use when talking to writer pals.

Bear with me here. (Ack! Why do you have a bear with you?) I’m still thinking this through. Ineptly. (If anyone can help me become more ept on this topic, please pitch in.)

Stories by their nature involve tension and conflict. But in real life, we aren’t that fond of tension and conflict; most of us tend to avoid it or takes steps to minimize it, and we also usually edge away from those who are conflict-seeking. Good stories usually involve people whose options for moving away from conflict are limited. Sensible people run from tension and conflict, which is why in the connect-the-dots Hollywood version of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, the protagonist gets the Call to Adventure, and promptly engages in a Refusal of the Call. That’s because Campbellian Heroes aren’t complete idiots, and when summoned to go on some crazy quest, at first they logically say, nope, sorry, awfully busy right now. Try next door. (cf. the opening of The Hobbit.)

The “crucible” is the usually invisible box that prevents characters from doing something sensible and eliminating the need for the story to go on. There’s a whole world of options out there—why are your characters trapped inside the box of your story? The crucible is what helps frame the problem, and prevents people from:

* Leaving the horrible relationship
* Just ringing up the authorities
* Moving out of the haunted house
* Saying to heck with this crap and moving to the Bahamas
* Realizing it isn’t your job to get in the middle of this insane situation
* Noticing that this incredibly alluring man/woman is completely bonkers

The simplest crucibles are stories of someone doing their job. Why does the detective need to catch the robber, the soldier need to take that hill? Because somebody in power told them to go do it--or, in the case of the private detective, hired them to do it. But cops don’t always solve their cases, and soldiers can be a little lackluster in their assaults, and a private detective can always throw up his hands and maybe refund some of the retainer. In which case the novel stops somewhere in the middle, because the driving character has done something sensible. That’s why an additional parameter is usually introduced in these stories—a backstory that makes the present event echo the protagonist’s key struggle in life, or something to jack up the stakes.

Crucibles can be imposed by outside constraints. Generically, these might be called “lifeboat” stories: a group of unlike people literally trapped in a situation together, such as The Poseidon Adventure, or, well, Lifeboat; or stuffed into a room together by the law, as in 12 Angry Men. (By the way, when do we get the sequel, 12 Angry Women?)

Crucibles can be imposed by character. Harking back to the detective problem mentioned above, the best detective stories tend to hinge not only on the job, but on character traits that keep driving the protagonist. This has been the case from the earliest days: Sherlock Holmes seems like a cliché nowadays, but he is in fact an inscrutable obsessive who slumps into drug abuse and mentally ill behavior when he isn’t pursuing a case—and we never really discover what drives him. (Though Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven-Percent Solution offers some entertaining propositions.) But the amateur-detective world in particular is filled with folks who really ought to give it up and go home, yet don’t—and if the story works, it’s only because the writer has convinced us that, because of a sense of justice, or a desperate curiosity, or just plain gormlesseness or boredom, that they will persist in their quest.

Fantasy and science-fiction novels, to the extent that they are innovative and well-written, are especially fascinating crucibles. If they aren't merely Westerns in Space or The Feudal Period By Other Names With a Little Magic, the way the new worlds work are additonal walls on the box (unfortunately sometimes overshadowing the human aspects of the problems).

The more mainstream/literary the novel, the more subtle the constraints tend to be. Genre novels tend to slap up a few huge girders and ornament them, but outside the genres the box tends to be constructed of many, many sticks all nailed together. Indeed, any larger-than-life character would look around, flex her (or his) muscles, and immediately smash the crucible of your average literary novel--which might explain why so many literary novels are about relatively timid professors at venerable instituions of learning.

And the number of the people confined in the box varies. I think most literary novels tend towards the model of someone in conflict with themself in an uncomfortable crucible, while genre novels tend to involve larger boxes confining a number of characters in conflict (with the author gleefully shaking the box).

This probably isn't making much sense. And is far longer than I'd expected. I was mostly planning on whining about the problems I'm having in my current novel...and here I am, still trying to define terms.

I'll whine tomorrow. (Good book title there: I'll Whine Tomorrow. Or perhaps I'm thinking of Don't Whine for Me, Argentina.) You're forewarned.

(Elsewhere Neil Ayres has asked, quite reasonably, what the hell is the distinction between "warned" and "forewarned" [apart from the waste of a perfectly good syllable]? Well, now we know. Forewarned is when I warn you I'll be whining in tomorrow's post. Warned is when I tell you I'm going to whine in the post you're already reading.)

Forewarned is four-armed. Also four-armed is goddess Durga. Kali can have even more arms than that. Don't mess with her.

On to Part II


Usman said...

Loved this post. My WIP has a major crucible problem. The heroine is thinking too much. Better replace her with someone with less smarts.
The jokes in the last post were funny. Read them today.

Nikwdhmos said...

Is it bad that when I think of Kali, I always think of "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" and the priest with glowing fingers that tears peoples hearts out? Kali shuktiday! Mularam sugaram!
-Sam Taylor

Tim Stretton said...

Your observation on fantasy is certainly to the point, David. It's easy to create a society with such unique constraints and problems that the business of creating believable characters with believable reactions to those constraints is overlooked.

Emma Darwin said...

David, this is quite fascinating, thank you. I frequently get stuck trying to think of reasons for my characters to bother to set off to meet their fate, rather than staying at home by the fire with a nice glass of red. I've never thought of the problem as clearly and specifically as this, but you're absolutely right.

In The Seven Basic Plots (fascinating though ultimately very annoying book) Christopher Booker discusses storytelling as a process of constriction and release, and I think this is probably related. I can feel a blog post coming on...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Usman--

Yes, or give her some overriding compulsion. Children in jeopardy are always popular. Everybody (except perhaps me and WC Fields) seems to sucker for a kid in danger.

In fact, I've heard that the publishing industry used to refer to "wimjep" (women in jeopardy)and "chiljep" (children in jeopardy) as classes of suspense novels.

David Isaak said...

Well, nikwd...I don't know if it's exactly wrong--though it sure isn't a very accurate representation of Kali worship.

In my case, it makes me hum "Melancholy Baby" under my breath (with the slightly altered lyrics "Here's another melon, Kali baby...).

But I hum it very quietly. As goddesses go, she's at the top of the kick-ass squad.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

Yeah, it's kind of unfair, though, isn't it? Fantasy and sci-fi writers have to imagine whole alternative realities, and then do all the regular things, too.

My suggestion is that fantasy and sci-fi books should sell for a premium to compensate.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Emma--

Well, your blog is one of the few I always read, so I'll be looking for it.

Novelist Lawrence Block said he once went through a period of many months where he couldn't write because he couldn't think of a singel reason for anyone anywhere to ever do anything other than roll over in bed and go to back to sleep. I can see lots of reasons not to go back to sleep.

But staying at home by the fire with a nice glass of red...well, that sounds like an irrefutably good idea. Why would anyone do anything else? (Damn. Another unanswerable question.)

sexy said...