Arthur Miller’s Definition of Plot as Conflict Is a Misnomer

The Dramatist, the magazine of the Dramatists’ Guild recently republished an excerpt of Arthur Miller’s essay “What is a Play.”  In the excerpt Miller says, “A play is conflict or it is nothing.” Then to better explain what he means by this he says, “I have an engineering analogy: If you build a bridge to go across a river it obviously has to go from one point to another point. …And I think you’ll find that plays that work, that people identify with, have a structure, maybe not an obvious one, but it’s there.” Miller is defining conflict in terms of engineering and structure. When you are talking engineering and structure you are talking vector theory.

Vector theory describes precisely forces and their behavior. Miller again explains what a play is by saying, “when you have one force and it’s in conflict with another force, it creates a third force which then finds itself in conflict with a fourth force. A play is the gradual evolution, dialectically, of a theme.” According to vector theory, converging forces create a new force just as Miller describes. Using the idea of forces to describe building a plot that is thematically sure, as Miller means, is to use vector theory to build your plot. Miller gives a great example with Hamlet, pointing out that Hamlet’s seeing of his father’s ghost sets the forces of the play in motion, and they are going to interact in a precise, essential way. Miller is absolutely right that the forces established in Hamlet must behave in a precise, essential way. What happens to forces when they converge is mathematically, elegantly precise.

While Miller splendidly describes a play as a structure shaped by theme, his nomenclature of “conflict” is off. Forces do not always conflict, but to form a structure they do always converge which means the forces are transformed in known ways when they come in contact with each other.

Let’s take Miller’s analogy of the bridge again. There are several different types of transformations happening in this image. In the literal, engineering sense, the materials used to build the bridge are transformed. They are structured to create a bridge and so are no longer planks, beams, and nails, or steel, cables, and bolts. They are now a bridge. There is no conflict between planks and beams or steel and cables; nevertheless the elements of the bridge have been transformed into something new, a usable, essential structure. The bridge is created without conflict (unless city permitting is involved) and the forces of the bridge’s creation allow for other forces, those who cross the bridge to move also without conflict. Further, the fellow who needed to cross the river now can. She is no longer stuck on one side, a positive resultant achieved by the joining of positive forces, all those forces involved with building the bridge. The river is no longer a divide; it is now something powerful and appealing visually and musically that is beneath our feet.

When forces converge they are transformed, for better or for worse, and it is that transformation which is the essence of a play. Ultimately, I think it is this transformation that makes for plays that profoundly move us. We leave the theater transformed by works like Miller’s The Crucible.

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Observations about the Publishing Industry Part 1

There is much speculation these days about whether the publishing industry will survive. Many seem to fear that since authors can self-publish, publishers will be done away with. Notables in the publishing world—editors, authors, publishers—maintain that the publishing industry will survive because they serve as the gate keepers, allowing talented and skilled writers into their company and keeping the untalented and unskilled out. They point out that bestselling Indie books are usually terrible and that the good Indie books (there must be some, right?) are too hard to find. These assertions are true, so what is the problem? Something must be going wrong since so many writers are turning to self-publishing and because books sales have been dropping for such a long time.

I think there is a blend of problems that has led to the shaky ground the book publishing industry is on. The publishing industry is doing nothing to nurture new writers. The publishing industry has allowed marketers to make the final decisions about book aquisitions. The publishing industry chooses to create “star” writers and pay them millions in advances and advertise the stars’ books heavily while “midlist” authors (all the other authors) are paid about $5k as an advance and scant marketing is given to their books. Further, marketing follows a simple to-do list, without revising their marketing strategies or creating new marketing strategies. Marketing does not work to predict reading trends, they simply react after the fact. For instance, in the US, the No Child Left Behind Act, enraged many teachers who resented having to abide by the laws’ requirement of regular testing of students to determine children were learning and how many children were learning. The rage in these teachers produced a generation who refuse to read. These students did learn to read, but would only read Manga. If you have several years where children are taught to resent reading, then you are going to have a significant drop in book buying when these children grow up which is precisely what happened. Manga sales went up, other books sales went way down. It has been a few years since the No Child Left Behind Act was passed, and by now either teachers have become used to the new procedures or new teachers have been hired to replace the old ones. Indeed, at least one principal fired all of his teachers because they did not bring up student scores. Now, unsurprisingly, Young Adult books are taking more and more shelves in bookstores. Teens are reading. Marketing should predict a future increase in all books because these reading teens will surely become reading adults. Way to go teachers!

So let’s look at the next issue. Why are writers self-publishing their books? I think we can safely assume that by and large they self publish because no publishers have accepted their books for publication. This will mean two things: one, that editors are turning down many bad books; and two, marketing, which has the final say in which books are acquired for publication, are turning down good books and choosing bad ones. Some of the bad books have some very good elements and good sections. These are writers with potential left to flounder on their own with their craft. They know they have talent, so they self-publish. Then there are the very good books that marketing nixes while at the same time accepting bad books that they know how to market according to their checklist—pigeon hole the genre, send out x many copies for reviews to these few reviewers, and send out fliers to these bookstore chains. The good books rejected by the publishing industry are then self-published by their authors because these authors want their books published. However, individual authors usually do not have the means to advertise their books sufficiently to be noticed and bring the appropriate revenue for their talent, skill, and work.

This boils down to three basic problems. There is not enough help for beginning writers; publishers need to improve their percentages of good books they choose over the bad ones they choose; and authors of quality Indie books do not have the means to make their books known. Clearly the best means of solving these three problems is through big publishers. Marketing having the final say of whether a book will be chosen for publication or not is a practice which has, I think, been directly responsible for much of the problems publishers face. Marketers are not trained in literature. Editors are. Publishers must return to the practice of head editors making the final decisions on what books are to be published. Next, the publishing practice of creating star authors who are paid one, two, even three million dollars in advances while those slated for “midlist” are paid about $5K for an advance and receive very little marketing of their books must be stopped. Marketing needs to start tracking literacy trends so that they can predict what markets will be broadening (and which shrinking) and hire more sales personal to make presentations about titles and establish more venues for sales. It used to be all sorts of shops would sell books, not just one big chain of bookstores and a few independent bookstores. Drugstores, dollar stores (once called dime stores), specialty shops all sold books. Every business school will tell you that a person who talks to you and puts a book in your hands will drive up more sales than just sending out a flier. A sales force works to bring in revenue.

In addition to making editors in charge of acquisitions and marketing strategizing for future sales and sales personal to sell the books, publishers need to invest in new writers. Publishers can nurture new authors and make money doing so. Since marketing will be predicting reading trends, not just trying to keep abreast of them, marketing will know what types of books will sell well. Publishers should open work-for-hire divisions focused on the genres that sell the best. For these work-for-hire divisions, authors would be contracted to write novels for a set number of years where they must meet deadlines, produce a set number of books, receive a livable salary, and do not receive royalties. The contract can include that another author in the bevy of work-for-hire writers can be assigned to any book to ensure its timely completion. Editors would oversee the writing of the novels; they would edit. At the end of the contracted time, the writer can be let go; the writer can be offered another contract; or the author can opt to turn to royalty paying contracts from whatever publisher wants to take the author on. This would be a very good deal for new authors and publishers because when an author in this work-for-hire bevy writes what proves to be a best seller, the publisher can pay everyone’s salary in the division and the author knows that in a few years either she’ll definitely be re-contracted for the bevy or can go for the royalty contracts.

Only the big publishers have the ability to acquire many titles, market many titles, set a big sales force in motion, and hire large numbers of the best editors. This is why publishing with big publishers will always be the best option for authors–if publishers will return decisions of acquisitions to those trained to make those decisions–editors, and if publishers establish a system for nurturing more new writers until those writers become steady producers of good writing. By hiring more great editors, acquiring more good books, hiring writers with talent, and requiring marketing to strategize and sell effectively, publishing will continue to be a valued and needed industry.

I would like to add that since corporations in the US are allowed to donate money to public schools, it would behoove the publishing giants to do so when cities and towns fall short of the funds they need to keep their excellent grade school reading teachers and middle and high school English teachers. If there are too few good teachers then there will be few book sales for years.

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Little Stories from Writing Workshop Prompts 1

I’ve written a few sort of micro stories as a result of some writing workshops I’ve taken. I’m going to begin with one I wrote at Citywrights, a playwrighting conference held in Miami. We were lucky to have playwright Leslie Ayvazian leading the workshop, a warm, kind, and brilliant woman.

Leslie gave us the prompt: “I knew…”

That I was happy.

That the day would be hot. Right now the air was moist and warm and full of grass, flowers and bird song. I knew I was hungry and that I could climb into my red sunsuit. My diaper would not budge and made a strange sucking sound when I tried to pull it off, and a bad smell emitted from it. So I decided to let it be. My sunsuit was in the dirty clothes hamper, but I wanted to wear it; I knew I looked good in it. So I pulled it out and struggled into it. I knew I could fasten it, but it was hard.

Everyone was still asleep, I knew, so I must make my own breakfast—saltines with P&J. I knew first we eat breakfast, my mother always said. After breakfast, I climbed on the counter and stretched for the backdoor’s lock. The lock had 2 parts, a knob you had to push up while you at the same time had to turn another knob. This was tricky, especially precariously balancing leaning most of the way out from the high counter. Success achieved–I knew I could do this, I’d done it often enough–I climbed down from the counter, out the door, and down the stairs to pure freedom.

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Miami Theaters’ Voices and Their Audiences

For the past two years I have been attending plays all around my Miami, studying the theater’s voices. Miami is unusual in that the minority of people are white with English as a first language. I’ve been studying the audiences, too. There are four distinct audiences that financially support their culture’s representation in theater: white American older women, Latins, Hindustanis, and Russians. The immigrant groups are not afraid of the new, since they have chosen and succeeded in coming to a new home. The white women are not afraid of the new, they lived enough of life to know to be intrigued by difference. What these groups do wish for is the familiar within the new.

The subjects of interest to these groups do not lie the areas men like to write about–war, heroes, rejection of the mother. Instead they are interested in themes of coping with unfamiliar customs, issues of freedom, mother-daughter relationships, mother-oriented interactions with society, and romances. For instance, the Women’s Theater Project did a play about 2 female elephants that lived in an American zoo and had to be moved to another zoo though the elephants were afraid to go. Here we had two characters who had been thrust into a foreign land and were now being asked to undergo yet another drastic change. One of the elephants was young and had been ripped from her mother during her capture. This play, well done, was sold out at every performance. Part of its success, I think, was that it touched on so many themes of interest to South Florida audiences. I think stories that look at the world from women’s perspectives are more often stories that are new in view while maintaining a familiar core. They are stories that understand the heroic effort of getting up each day to face a world that is always, day in and day out, going to be just slanted a bit on the side of condesion and hostility towards you because you are not male (or not English speaking or not white or are white).

I want to give the new with a familiar base, that gentle familiar base we all first learned from our mothers, and so we may find our common ground. I want to choose my season so that Miami can continue to teach me rather than me assuming I am the one to teach the audience.

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Reading Work in Progress Aloud to Other Writers, A Terrific Aid

Each week I bring three pages of Foreshadow: Book One of the Saga of the Romance of the Dragon-Born to the writer’s workshop I am attending. I read the three pages aloud while the other writers read it. No matter how long I have worked on this book (more than a year) the other writer’s always spot things for me to correct: typo’s, overly repeated words, words that have been capitalized and should not be and thus and such. I too, when I read, find things I want to fix, even to cut. My fellow writers also give me feedback on the story, elements they want more of, what confuses them for the moment, questions about the story that are revealed later (they are hooked!). I also take the story to the writer’s meet-up I attend, though in the writer’s meetup the other writers don’t read along; they just listen. Reading my work aloud to sympathetic yet critical listeners is, I find, one of the best ways to improve my writing. They are sympathetic in that they know how much effort goes into writing and how much courage it takes to risk letting others hear it in its developing stages. They are critical in that they let me know of the errors in the manuscript and if a section works for them or not. It’s an enjoyable and exciting process. I love seeing their reactions, knowing their reactions are a preview to how readers will react when the book is published. It’s exciting to me to see how my work improves so much thanks to their input. Thanks to these writers who are willing to listen to my work, Foreshadow: Book One of the Saga of the Romance of the Dragon-Born is unfolding!

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Playwrights Are a Special Type of Extroverted-Introverts

As an extroverted introvert, I have a public face, public voice that rings with “pear shaped tones” per my training in the theater. My private face, my private voice, hmm, there’s a bunch of them. Playwrighting teachers say that’s perfectly normal for playwrights. Psychologists tend to think so long as it doesn’t interfere with getting on with your life, it’s fine. So this thing of finding your voice is more like choosing your voice or not letting the aggrieved-with-the-world voice slip in to mess up the fun voice I want to play with. I’m reminded of my lawyer, an amiable, tenor voiced person. He deepens and resonates his voice when he wants to put the fear of the law into you. He calls it his “big pants voice.”

I’m thinking we playwrights–I’m a member of the Dramatists Guild–are a rather severe type of extroverted-introverts. Think of it, we are tucked away writing, and we emerge not to speak, but to make other people speak out loud in front of a big audience, preferably lots of big audiences! Perhaps we are extro-egoverted-introverts. I’m musing this because I am in the process of opening a small black box theater. I’m hiring an independent contractor publicist and she, and I have been writing her contract. I just sent it to my lawyer. He says it “needs lots of polishing.” As a playwright, as a novelist, I know all about that annoying polishing. Indeed, in my fantasy, Foreshadow, Book One of the Saga of Dragon-Born I found two pages where practically every third word is capitalized. How did this glut of capitals happen? Do other extroverted-introvert authors have the bad habit of emulating Victorian novels by capitalizing all sorts non-worthy-of-capitals-words?

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Extroverted Introvert

My writing workshop instructor was talking to us about “blog personas.” Now this was something that really grabbed my fancy because, well, I don’t think I have one. It seems to me that it would be a good thing to have, a Blog Persona. There are some of us whom psychologists call “extroverted introverts” which means shy people hiding behind a façade of extroversion. Many actors are extroverted introverts; they love to be in the limelight but really are quite introspective and retiring. I’m an extroverted introvert. My first reaction to being asked to write or speak is “What should I say?” “What should I say” and having to talk to strangers can be so worrying, so intimidating that at times, often in my inadequately spent days of green girl years that not knowing, the saying did not get said. The pizza did not get ordered—I’d have to talk to a stranger and what should I say? I’m only going to admit to not ordering pizza on the phone. I’ll leave the other things I couldn’t figure out how to say and the people whom I should have spoken to and did not to your merciful (please?) imagination. I suspect a lot of bloggers must be extroverted introverts. Think of it. You don’t really have to face any stranger and you can say what is in your head and assume no one is going to read it—and if anyone does, they aren’t really real are they? You can’t see all those internet people or hear their voices. So how do you know if any of them are lovers of fantasy sagas? I work on my fantasy Foreshadow: Book One of the Saga of the Dragon-Born anyway.

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