No, I’m not describing Halloween. I’m describing the time of year that I usually teach Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, that time honored play about the Salem witch trials loosely veiled as a commentary on McCarthyism.
I love this play. Yes, it’s depressing and sad, and we all choke up at the end when John Proctor won’t sign the confession which would blacken his name in the village…”Because it is my na-a-a-a-ame!” But I love it because it is a masterful piece of storytelling and characterization.
I have selected five things that Miller does in the play that we could all learn to use in our own writing, whether that be long form novel writing or play writing or screenplay writing.
Here they are:
- Foils – Many of us can create great characters, characters like John Proctor who struggles over the mistake he made in the barn where he “sweated like a stallion”, thereby wrecking his relationship with his dear wife Elizabeth. However, the best characters are set off or reflected in the lives of other characters in the narrative who are their immediate opposite. John Proctor’s foil is indeed Reverend Hale, a man who is pure in many respects, has the best intentions of ridding Salem of its evil, but in the end is drawn into the deceptive world that Abigail creates. He reflects upon Proctor who is consumed by guilt and only wants things to be righted again, but in his struggle he does not find peace, only death and separation. Another foil in the play is Elizabeth Proctor who is the exact opposite of Abigail Williams, who shines a holy light on the evil of Abigail.
- Choices – it is a masterwork of plot on the part of Miller that the entire play hangs on one word spoken by Elizabeth Proctor. When she is asked if her husband is an adulterer, rather than respond with the truth which would have saved him and sent Abigail Williams to the gallows, she simply says “No” because in her mind she could not blacken her husband’s name. Our characters must be given these kind of game-changing choices to make that will spiral up the conflict to a fever pitch in order to truly give our readers a thrill.
- Weakness – The character of Mary Warren has always astounded me because even though she is ready to confess (and does confess) that Abigail is lying about seeing witches and that she is at the center of the plot in Salem, she folds and supports Abigail whenever Abigail sicks the girls on her. This seems inexplicable, but this is truly how real people behave. Not everyone is a stand-up honest person, willing to do what is right. Our characters, perhaps our secondary villainous characters need to be realistic enough in their choices, and sometimes that involves their very frail and human nature to cave when put under pressure. Our heroes should not cave, should not give in, but should be the ones that our readers support even when they are set upon by weaker characters.
- Villainy – Sometimes evil wins. In the case of Abigail Williams, she escapes Salem by robbing her uncle Tom Parris of “fifty-two pounds”. The bad guy doesn’t always have to lose. However, if one looks carefully at the play, one can see that John Proctor won a personal victory for himself by becoming the Christ figure for the town. In this way, even though it seems on the outside that Abigail wins, the entire town is set free by the “confession” of John. When he goes to the gallows it is a sad and terrible occasion. It is important that our villains be villainous, that they seem to win the fight with the protagonist, but there are many ways for a hero to find victory. They do not have to blow up the death star or vanquish the evil wizard. They may be like John Proctor and find internal victory.
- Hysteria – One of the things that Miller does so well is to show the reader that hysteria is part of human nature. We watch as the entire town becomes incensed in a violence toward others simply because they fear that they might be practicing witchcraft. The thing that I learn from this is that when we construct our plot, we need to develop the conflict in such a way that it becomes a phenomenon that consumes everyone involved. If everyone is enveloped by it, then when the hero rises up to fight it the others may or may not rally behind them. I think of the film High Noon where Gary Cooper is a sheriff just trying to keep his town from being overrun by outlaws. The entire town lives in fear, but when it comes time to do something about it only Cooper is left with the job of taking care of it. In the end, after defeating the bad guys, Cooper throws his badge down in the dirt and rides out of town. This creates an anti-hero of him, but makes for a fantastic bit of storytelling.
Tomorrow I’ll pop in the film starring Daniel Day Lewis and Winona Rider, the version overseen completely by Miller before he died, the one that is considered to be his most complete telling of the story. Afterward we will study the play and dig into the rich text of this famous American drama. Until then, I plan on incorporating some of these techniques and strategies into my latest WIP. I hope that you can use them as well.