“Story without structure is like . . . Abbott without Costello,” says James Scott Bell in his book Story Structure: The Key to Understanding the Power of Story.
Who didn’t love the famous vaudevillian comedy duo of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello where Abbott played the straight man and Costello played the comic foil? I suggest story without structure is more likely Costello without Abbott. Without the straight man feeding jokes to Costello, they would not be the team we remember.
A good story is nothing without good structure.
Extending the analogy of their memorable skit of Who’s on First, let’s look at what Mr. Bell says about story and structure.
· Who’s on first?
The writer starts with an idea so meaty it merits a story, but the writer needs a playbook - work out a plan, a strategy, a smattering of ideas - before taking the field.
· What’s on second?
Next, the writer brainstorms scenes, fleshes out characters, studies emotions, and lists problems with possible solutions.
· I don’t know is on third.
While watching first and second, third base keeps a keen eye on plays, possible tangents, and the opposite team on base. He covers for second, knowing he is the stop closest to home. In plain speak, third base explores and extend ideas and tangents, studies obstacles, makes connections between characters.
· Why is left field.
“. . . there are three kinds of death: physical, professional, psychological.” Who doesn’t jump to their feet when the batter hits it out into left field? It adds excitement to the game. The person playing this position has to be quick and have a good arm. When a ball is hit into this zone, the game is reduced into its simplest form: a three-act play: an action, a battle, and its result.
· Because is centerfield.
What’s at stake? What must the character overcome? What’s the quest? Centerfield covers most of the outfield, including first and second base. The author does the same, delving into the emotions of the main character, the antagonist, the secondary characters, the whole reason for the story – the conflict, the tension, and the theme.
· I don’t care is the short stop.
Without a well developed main character, one with whom the reader identifies, there is no story. There is no investment. When Costello died and the duo was no more, Abbott’s career ended as well. The short stop covers first and second base – the who and the what of the story.
· Tomorrow is the pitcher (and so is the catcher).
“Creating magic takes work, not just play.” The pitcher and the catcher are the two most important players because all action depends on them. The catcher faces the players and advises the pitcher. Together they read the game and the players and decide what to play. From this perspective, the author does the same with each chapter as the story is structured into its final form.
I read that as their popularity waned in Hollywood, Abbott and Costello went their separate ways. They tried working comedy on their own but were not as successful, so they reunited off and on when the opportunity arose until Costello’s death. Just like Mr. Bell’s analogy, they did their best work together.