David Farland Guest Post: Crucibles

David Farland is an award-winning, New York Times Bestselling 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 novel In the Company of Angels, and the International Book Award for "Best Young Adult Novel of the Year" for his fantasy thriller Nightingale—among many  others.

Recently Dave released a book geared toward writing titled Million Dollar Outlines. In it he discusses how to write a novel or screenplay that has a wide readership, giving it the potential to become a bestseller.

Some of his past writing students that have gone on to success include #1 New York Times Bestsellers such as Brandon Mull (Fablehaven), Brandon Sanderson (Wheel of Time), James Dashner (The Maze Runner) and Stephenie Meyer (Twilight).

Along with providing writers with outline and audience analysis methods, Dave also offers 28 “plotting tools” in Million Dollar Outlines. 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. We’ll talk about those in a moment, 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 may 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 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 here are the three different types 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 in 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 happen to just 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.

A 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 may join forces to beat. We see this type of crucible used every week as Doctor House tries to solve the latest medical mystery. But you 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.

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

Here are some of the reviews it’s received so far:

“Mr Farland didn't write a book about outlines; at least not only outlines. This book shows you how to write a book, story, and screenplay from blank page to your first million. I can only imagine better instruction from Mr Farland in person, and plan to take one of his workshops based on the strength of this work alone.”

—Big Nate, Amazon

Actually, I have a book on novel outlining which has like 5 stars ratings. It is way boring. I just couldn't get through it. So when I learned David had written a book on outlining, I knew he could do the topic justice...and make it interesting. . . . Since David wrote this, I KNEW he had something UNIQUE to teach, that is, his viewpoint, his experience and his SYSTEM. Plus, I knew his conversational, no fluff way of writing/teaching would drive me, compelling me to devour it. And it does.”

—C. Jack

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!

Editoral note from Sam:  Please check out Mr. Farland's fantastic website as well.  


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Writing Humor: What Funny and Frightening Have in Common

Point of View: Antagonist

point of view
Recently, a reader sent me a question about how to tell a story through the antagonist's perspective.  This person allowed me to post a generic version of our exchange here in hope that others might find it useful.

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I want to see if I can write a killer through his point of view. I can't figure out a believable motive. Can't figure out how to make that work and everything else he does.


You're not talking about an anti hero -- Robin Hood and Cap'n Jack Sparrow are anti heroes -- you're talking about telling the antagonist's story from his point of view.  In short, that won't work.  Well, it won't work easily, without a lot of reader manipulation carefully added so that it doesn't feel like manipulation. 

You see, anti heroes are difficult to write because reader involvement requires sympathy for the main character.  Without it, readers don't care about the character and they get bored with the story.  Antagonists by definition are unsympathetic, because their role is to attack the people we root for.  These actions are why we see them as the bad guys.  Imagine The Silence of the Lambs told through Hannibal Lecter's eyes.  His character would have to change significantly for the reader to follow, because while his intelligence is admirable, Lecter is inhuman.  How can the average person sympathize -- or even understand -- a character whose goal is to cannibalize another human being in the most humiliating way imaginable?

This is why, in my opinion, Thomas Harris chose Clarice Starling as the viewpoint.  It's easy for the reader to sympathize with someone who is young, green, innocent, and even has a cute birdie name.  We might never have pondered the best wine to serve with human liver, but we've all felt intimidated and overwhelmed by an assignment.  Furthermore, Starling's primary traits are absent from Lector's character.  These individuals balance each other out, thus belong together.

Your character could stay as-is in a longer, novelette-to-novel range story.  Something that could support multiple viewpoints.  That way you could switch from one to the other to give the reader not only someone to root for but also a relief from the intensity of the killer's uncomfortable perspective.

The killer could be mentally ill in a way that he doesn't understand his own actions.  The reader might sympathize, especially if the killer feels grief.  This changes the motive and in fact the foundation of the personality so that he will feel less like a killer and more like someone who is suffering.

Otherwise, you're going to have to find a way to make killing his victim justified.  The victim must be a heinous person who has done something unquestionably wicked. Even then, you've got a lot of work ahead of you to convince the reader that killing the person is better than simply turning him or her over to the police.   

Another route might be that the killer is saving his intended victim from a fate worse than death.  This will put the reader in agony.  They will hate you for it, but they won't be able to put the story down, and they will hope you do it to them again in the next story.

Keep in mind, however, that these last two possibilities shift the killer from antagonist to a heroic character.  That might not be what you want.

Your idea is a good starting point, because it forces you to make it plausible.  If you can find a way to make an inhuman character someone the reader is willing to follow, you will indeed have a good story on your hands.  Playing these what-if games are what evoke the most interesting and original ideas.

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Writing Flash Fiction – The Science of the Microshort

USAR Captain (Ret.) Yancy Caruthers and I have been best friends for more than 30 years, and in that time, he has given me more good advice and encouragement than probably any human being has a right.  I am proud to say he has agreed to guest blog for you and I today at Scene Clearly about his techniques and success in writing flash fiction.  Look for his stories in such online pubications as Ascent Aspirations coming in 2013.

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 Flash fiction, or short-shorts, have nothing to do with Daisy Duke (Catherine Bach, not Jessica Simpson), although they certainly could.  They are defined as stories with less than 1,000 words, and are increasingly popular with online venues.  Some forums ask for even less.  Like Daisy's shorts, shorter is better.

 As our collective attention span wanes, (Oh look…a squirrel!)

 What was I saying?

 Get to the point, blogger.

That’s it, thanks for reminding me.  Back in the days of high-school research papers, a required length was the enemy – it need only be exceeded, and all was well.  It was easier to write a three-page paper than a six-pager.  The use of maximum verbosity and superfluous words was encouraged by the format, so the idea was to cram in as much unnecessary crap as possible.  Never use a big word when a diminutive one will suffice.

Writing flash fiction has the same enemy, except the author is on the other side of it.
To make my point, there are 150 words preceding this paragraph.  If the venue has a maximum of 500 words, then the show is 30% done, and I have barely defined my topic!

For this reason, short-shorts are usually limited to a single scene.  There might be two characters, but certainly no more than three, and the reader can’t know them.  As a writer of short-shorts, you have a choice between setting the scene and rounding out the character.  Do too much of either, and you are toast.

Oh wait, a plot.  Excessive exposition is strictly off-limits, and more than a few lines of dialogue is also a no-go, so better start with action on the part of the characters.  You don’t have time to build fear, the reader has to start out afraid.  In the first line of the story, the psychopath is RIGHT BEHIND YOU.  The intruder has to already BE in the house.  The smoke is ALREADY coming under the door. 

Consider this opening line:

Steve jerked his hand from the doorknob as it burned his hand.

What does the reader know?  Well, I'm pleased to meet you, Steve, but we don't have time for introductions, nor do I really care what you ate for breakfast or that you just broke up with your girlfriend last week.  Your building is on fire, and leaving by the front door is not going to work.  You better do something fast or it's goodbye, Steve.

He pulled the last of his towels from the arm of his wheelchair and began rolling it.

The reader isn't stupid, we know what Steve will do with the rolled-up towel, so there is no need to say it.   We've also got a good idea that our hero won't be taking the stairs.  In two short sentences, we know a lot about Steve and his current situation, and man, is he screwed, or what? 

Of course what follows will be what Steve does, and how his fear builds.

Three quarters to your word limit, and you should go back and eliminate the unnecessary, to make room for the ending.  Here’s an example:

Todd wasn’t sure if Karen was awake or not, but surely she was.  He made a soft “shhh” and slowly pulled back the covers.  The scratching sound they made when he did so was deafening, in spite of his efforts. 

It makes the point.  But consider this:

Todd wondered if Karen slept. "Shh," he whispered just in case and eased back the covers that despite his effort scratched loudly, like sandpaper.

Both paragraphs say the same thing.  The first in 40 words, the second in 24.

So what would possess an author to write flash fiction?

That’s easy, it’s fast.  It’s so fast that you can’t get married to it.  Instead of carefully cultivating that final version, you can easily manage two or three alternate endings – in fact, with a few changes, that scenario can result in more than one completed story. If you hate it, write it anyway, and change it later.

It's so fast, in fact, that one can scribble a few notes before bedtime, and draft a piece the next morning.  With a few revisions, it can be headed to an editor before the sunset.

In the end, that’s why I write short-shorts.  I wanted to finish something, and the three-page paper was still more alluring than the six-page one.

Little did I know.

Yancy's Work:

Short stories:

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Special Effect

Nothing I've ever written has come within a parsec of making $89 million. This number incidentally is the (as of this writing) worldwide box office of the 2011 movie Sucker Punch, of which I am about to break that rule of "If you can't say something nice . . ."

So, I probably should keep my fingers off the keyboard concerning this matter.  It ain't gonna happen, though.  Sorry. 

The point I want to make is that it is easy, especially for new writers, to mistake special effects for elements that move the story forward. Generally, they do not advance the plot. They are attention-grabbers.  Shock value.  Spice, but not story.  I think it was either Wes Craven or John Carpenter, when comparing the emotional involvement required to create horror as opposed to simple on-screen scares ("Boo!"), said he could produce the same effect by showing the audience blank celluloid and somewhere in the middle have the film pop!  The same thing happens in movies or books where the writer tries to stuff ten pounds of special effects into a one-pound sack.

Films like Friday the 13th no longer have the ability to scare the average movie goer.  Creating an assembly line of "That's cool!" moments does not work for long if the writer failed to give us characters and themes to care about. Eventually it pushes us past horror and disgust to the point that it just becomes funny.  Next to indifference, unintentional laughter is just about the worst response a writer can receive to his or her story.

Explosions in space, ray guns, car chases, profanity, sex, etc. are all the same when pasted into the works gratuitously.  The story goes out of its way to give the reason for the characters to fist-fight, swear, or get nekkid. Pretty flashing lights get boring after a while, and 300 pages is a long while.

To belabor this point, I am going to rehash a review I wrote a little over a year ago of Sucker Punch. . . .

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My wife's and my entertainment choices rarely agree.  For example, she refers to my library as "That crap you read."  It's gotten to the point that I can begin a sentence with, "I like..." and she instinctively shouts, "Crap!"

"But it's--"


"No, I'm talking about--"


"Will you listen to me?"

"Crap, crap, crap. Crap. Crap-crap-crap-crap!"





"Tonya likes--"

"Good stuff!"  Then she smiles. 

Okay.  Okay. I admit I occasionally watch movies that ... um ...  Well, if The Shawshank Redemption is an A movie and Godzilla Versus the Bongo Monster is a B movie, then these would land somewhere around W. 

When I first saw the trailer for Sucker Punch, I was extremely underwhelmed.  I strained at least a dozen brain cells wondering whether somebody unintentionally made a live-action Powerpuff Girls movie.  A few days before the home video release, I saw new trailers.  In these, this pigtailed blonde in a half ninja, half school girl outfit was whipping around a Samurai sword, dodging bullets, and jumping in slow motion.  Part of my brain -- the part that later I inevitably refer to as Temporary Stupidity -- took note of the ka-pows! and shings! and booms!  and made me say, "You know, that kind of looks cool."

And so while everybody else in the world was going to opening night of Harry Potter, I rented Sucker Punch

The box claimed it was only 110 minutes long.  I'm pretty sure this was in dog years, though.  The story proved a little bit hard to follow, assuming you measure your "little bits" by the metric ton.  I will do my best to recap.

It's a dancin' movie, like Footloose.  But nobody really dances and I suspect Kevin Bacon would have filed for a restraining order if the movie ever wandered within six degrees of separation from him.  Oh sure, every once in a while, Sweet Pea wiggles just a little bit (remember "little bits" are relative here) but it never actually reaches the exuberance of, say, sleepwalking.  But that doesn't matter, because as soon as there is even the slightest chance someone might Vogue, we fly into an extreme close-up of Sweet Pea's eyelashes, which are each just about the same size as the average feather duster.  The angle rotates  to an extreme close-up of her temple, her ear, her blonde pigtail, and the back of her head, where we stop and experience two magical realizations:  we have traveled Somewhere Else, and we are about to begin a mind-boggingly implausible fight scene.

Don't get me wrong, I like to watch an itty bitty Powerpuff Girl slice and dice a 30-feet-tall demon samurai just as much as the next guy.  All the fight scenes are cool.  It would have helped however if they all belonged in the same movie.  Because the next time we get a close-up of her eyelashes we end up on a train shattering shiny robots or in the air popping WWII Zeppelins.

There's Nazis.

And there's steampunk.

And there's robots.

And there's steampunk robot Nazis.

Then, when it's all over and we zoom out from her eyelashes, we're back in the theater and everybody is clapping and telling Sweet Pea what a dancin' prodigy she is.

Oh, and the dancers might be hookers (well, actually love slaves), or they might be patients in a big ole Dr. Frankenstein insane asylum.  The bad guy might be a sleazy wealthy thug packing a tommy gun or he might be sleazy nurse with a key around his neck.  And, the songs are really cool, but they may just be part of the lobotomy.

Either way, my brain hurts.

After the 110 minutes in dog years was over, I realized that the only reason I began watching Sucker Punch was because I was younger and more impressionable then.  I brought the movie back into the living room and set it on top of the These Go Back Tomorrow pile.  

"It was crap, wasn't it?" my wife snickered.

"It was a dancin' movie," I said. "Where everybody was kung fu fighting."

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If you'll remind me, one of these days, I'll talk about how to use special effects . . . well, effectively.