I want to share with you something I’ve learned. I’ll draw it on the blackboard behind me so you can follow more easily [draws a vertical line on the blackboard]. This is the G-I axis: good fortune-ill fortune. Death and terrible poverty, sickness down here—great prosperity, wonderful health up there. Your average state of affairs here in the middle [points to bottom, top, and middle of line respectively].
This is the B-E axis. B for beginning, E for entropy. Okay. Not every story has that very simple, very pretty shape that even a computer can understand [draws horizontal line extending from middle of G-I axis].
Now let me give you a marketing tip. The people who can afford to buy books and magazines and go to the movies don’t like to hear about people who are poor or sick, so start your story up here [indicates top of the G-I axis]. You will see this story over and over again. People love it, and it is not copyrighted. The story is “Man in Hole,” but the story needn’t be about a man or a hole. It’s: somebody gets into trouble, gets out of it again [draws line A]. It is not accidental that the line ends up higher than where it began. This is encouraging to readers.
Another is called “Boy Meets Girl,” but this needn’t be about a boy meeting a girl [begins drawing line B]. It’s: somebody, an ordinary person, on a day like any other day, comes across something perfectly wonderful: “Oh boy, this is my lucky day!” [drawing line downward]. “Shit!” [drawing line back up again]. And gets back up again.
Now, I don’t mean to intimidate you, but after being a chemist as an undergraduate at Cornell, after the war I went to the University of Chicago and studied anthropology, and eventually I took a masters degree in that field. Saul Bellow was in that same department, and neither one of us ever made a field trip. Although we certainly imagined some. I started going to the library in search of reports about ethnographers, preachers, and explorers—those imperialists—to find out what sorts of stories they’d collected from primitive people. It was a big mistake for me to take a degree in anthropology anyway, because I can’t stand primitive people—they’re so stupid. But anyway, I read these stories, one after another, collected from primitive people all over the world, and they were dead level, like the B-E axis here. So all right. Primitive people deserve to lose with their lousy stories. They really are backward. Look at the wonderful rise and fall of our stories.
One of the most popular stories ever told starts down here [begins line C below B-E axis]. Who is this person who’s despondent? She’s a girl of about fifteen or sixteen whose mother had died, so why wouldn’t she be low? And her father got married almost immediately to a terrible battle-axe with two mean daughters. You’ve heard it?
There’s to be a party at the palace. She has to help her two stepsisters and her dreadful stepmother get ready to go, but she herself has to stay home. Is she even sadder now? No, she’s already a broken-hearted little girl. The death of her mother is enough. Things can’t get any worse than that. So okay, they all leave for the party. Her fairy godmother shows up [draws incremental rise], gives her pantyhose, mascara, and a means of transportation to get to the party.