(LESSON 0) Getting Smarter About This Course


Getting Smarter About This Course

Hey there, fellow scribe!

Welcome to Smarter Story Structure. I’m so thrilled to have you here.

I truly believe this course will not only help you become a better writer…but also a more productive one.

I bet you’re eager to dive in, but before you do, you should become acquainted with the “lay of the land,” so to speak. That’s what we’re going to do in this lesson.

But before we get to that, there’s something we need to discuss:


Why are you here?

Why is it important to master story structure?

Part of that answer has to do with the experience you ultimately create for book lovers and movie fans.


People who live thousands of miles away from you…

…they’re shedding tears…

…or their heartbeat is quickening in pace…

…or maybe they’re re-experiencing the high of falling in love.

And you did that.

You changed their emotional landscape—even though you’ve never met them.

You did it purely through the magic of your words, through your ability to transport them to another world.

Pretty incredible, huh?

Picture of a smiling woman. You’ve never met this woman…yet, your words made her grin for days. Amazing!

Smiling woman by Brandi Redd (https://unsplash.com/photos/P3qLX14CJrk)

It’s an amazing feeling. There’s nothing quite like it.

And it’s a valuable benefit, to be sure. But there’s another benefit, too (one which your practical side may appreciate even more).

Telling great stories helps you make more money.

When you prove to audiences that you can deliver the emotional experience they’re seeking, they’ll buy more from you.


What does this have to do with story structure?

When executed well, story structure helps you deliver the “ups” and “downs” in a way that elicits the maximum degree of emotion from audiences.

As Chris Vogler explains in The Writer’s Journey (by the way, you may’ve already encountered this quote on the home page for this course):

The structure of a story acts like a pump to increase the involvement of the audience. Good structure works by alternately lowering and raising the hero’s fortunes and, with them, the audience’s emotions.

A Budweiser commercial from a few years ago is a good case in point. While I’m not a fan of beer, I am a fan of this ad. Why?

In less than 2 minutes, it brought me to tears.

Check it out:

That’s the power of a well-structured story.

And after you’ve finished this course, you should have the tools you need to structure your next screenplay or novel with confidence.

By Structure, What Exactly Are We Talking About?

By structure, we’re talking about three-act structure, where a story is divided into three acts, like so:

  • Act One = beginning
  • Act Two = middle
  • Act Three = end

Moreover, each of these acts is associated with a particular set of essential plot points.

These plot points go by different names, depending on whom you ask. This is how they’re named in this course (don’t worry if these terms are unfamiliar to you; we’ll go into definitions in later lessons):

  • opening and closing images
  • inciting incident
  • first-act break
  • midpoint
  • fork in the road
  • trough of hell
  • climax
  • resolution

You can see how the essential plot points map onto the three acts in the “story graph” below:

A visual representation of the essential plot points and three-act structure

Now let’s break it down, module by module:

Note: If you want to skip the module-by-module breakdown, you can—but make sure to scroll down and read “the nitty-gritty” section at the end of this page. It covers information you need to know to get the most out of this course.

This Is What You’ll Learn in Module 1

In Module 1, you’ll learn about the inciting incident and the first-act break

By the end of Module 1, you should be able to:

  • easily figure out a first-act break for your story (even when your plot is really complex) *
  • use multiple methods to entice audiences to give your story a chance
  • describe 4 ways the first-act break commonly plays out (which is helpful in case you get stuck)
  • determine a potential inciting incident for your story in 3 easy steps
  • position the inciting incident in the best place to solve the problem of sluggish pacing

* By the way, the tip you’ll find in Lesson 1.1 can help you focus on what’s important when you need to summarize the plot of your novel in a book description or query letter.

This Is What You’ll Learn in Module 2

In Module 2, you’ll learn about the midpoint and the trough of hell

By the end of Module 2, you should be able to:

  • make the middle of your story more manageable to write (and more engaging to read!)
  • liven up the middle of any (a) plot involving a romance, buddy-cop duo, or road trip or (b) story in the action, thriller, or mystery genres
  • fix a story that’s a “slow starter” (note: this kind of slow-paced beginning is not caused by a delayed inciting incident)
  • end Act Two without flailing in the dark, wondering what happens next
  • explain the instinct that may be fatal to give into when you’re trying to write a gripping story middle
  • implement a neat trick (used in a Colleen Hoover new-adult romance and the heist film Fast Five) to make the end of the second act more emotionally intense

This Is What You’ll Learn in Module 3

In Module 3, you’ll learn about the climax and the resolution

By the end of Module 3, you should be able to:

  • explain the difference between the climax and the resolution (plus develop the proper mindset to craft a successful story ending)
  • prevent audiences from leaving your story in a rage
  • understand how the climax and resolution help you convey theme (or character arc)
  • increase the odds that your story ending will make you more money
  • evaluate whether a cliffhanger ending is fair to your readers
  • avoid a big mistake writers tend to make regarding the stakes
  • create an epically long climax that’s sure to delight audiences and leave them begging for more
  • prevent the resolution of your story from turning into deadweight

This Is What You’ll Learn in Module 4

In Module 4, you’ll learn about opening and closing images as well as the fork in the road

By the end of Module 4, you should be able to:

  • smoothly ease audiences into your story
  • use the closing image to make your characters seem more three-dimensional
  • entice readers to buy the next novel in your series (without resorting to a cliffhanger!)
  • flesh out gaping holes in the middle of your story

This Is What You’ll Learn in Module 5

In Module 5, you’ll zoom in on the act breaks themselves

By the end of Module 5, you should be able to:

  • explain how the essential plot points connect together
  • solve storytelling headaches with the first-act break
  • solve storytelling headaches with the second-act break
  • improve the chances that your story not only has the right length but also is a good read
  • gauge how flexible you can be with the act breaks
  • avoid a major pitfall of using three-act structure
  • be able to comfortably converse about three-act structure (if you’re a screenwriter, this ability is a must-have…even if you can’t stand three-act structure)
  • build the structure of your next novel or screenplay—step by step—using the principles discussed in this course (and one super-awesome workbook)

The Nitty-Gritty

All right, you know what we’re going to cover in each module. Now let’s quickly run through some of the nitty-gritty details:

(1) After you complete a lesson, to access the next one, click on the button at the top of the screen marked “complete and continue.” When you do this, the progress bar (on the left side of the screen) will automatically update so you can see, at a glance, how far you’ve come.


(2) Five PDF slide decks are included in this course. In the appropriate lesson, they’ll show up on an embedded PDF viewer so you can review them right away.

FYI: I find that it’s most effective to cycle through the slides by using the “next” arrow on the menu bar of the viewer (as opposed to scrolling with your mouse).

Use this button to cycle through the slides

But you don’t have to use the embedded viewer to access the decks. If you prefer, you can download them instead. Look for a light gray bar underneath the embedded viewer, like this:

Downloadable slide decks are included in this course

Just click on the title of the slide deck. It should open in a separate tab. Then, to save the PDF to your computer, click on the download button at the top-right of the screen. When prompted, save the file (it should go wherever you typically store downloads on your computer, e.g. your Downloads folder or your desktop).

PS: Use the same process to download other course materials, like your Step-By-Step Story Structure Organizer and Recommended Reading guide (more details on those, below!).

To easily download the slide decks, click on the title of the deck. It should open in a separate tab. Click on the download button. (It should be to the top-right of the screen.) When prompted, save the file.

(3) The majority of the lessons in this course culminate in a writing exercise. Now, some writers adore these kinds of activities, while others prefer to ignore them.

If you fall into the latter camp, it is HIGHLY recommended that, despite your reluctance, you complete these exercises. This way, you’ll get the most out of this course.

Also, these exercises are fun, and many don’t take that much time to complete. (And for the ones that do take up more time, they usually involve watching a movie. More fun!)

All of the writing exercises have been conveniently compiled into one PDF workbook. It’s called the Three-Act Structure Workbook, and it can be found in the Resource section that follows the modules.

Good stuff can be found in the Resource section. (Look for it after Module 5.)

I suggest that you download this workbook right before you start this course—but print it out one module at a time.

Some of the writing exercises come with sample answers. Like the exercises themselves, the answers have also been compiled into one PDF. This, too, can be found in the Resource section.

(4) Three lessons in this course are delivered via audio only. They are:

  • Lesson 3.2: Don’t Want Audiences to Leave Your Story in a Rage? Then Don’t Do This
  • Lesson 4.1: Convincing Audiences You’re Worth Their Time—From the Very First Line of Your Story
  • Lesson 5.5: Making Sure Your Story IS a Good Read—And Doesn’t Just Look Like One

To facilitate learning and memory retention, these lessons also come with their own workbook, the Audio Companion, which (you guessed it!) can be found in the Resource section.

To get the most out of the Audio Companion, it’s suggested that you focus on listening to the audio in full, first. Afterward, try to answer the questions.

(5) This course also comes with a third workbook, the Story Structure Organizer. This workbook will help you implement everything you’ve learned, and build—step by step—a sturdy structural foundation for your next writing project.

This workbook can be accessed from Lesson 5.8.

(6) This course is detailed, yet compact. It should give you everything you need to jump into the “deep end” of story structure. Still, there’s a difference between the deep end…and deep-sea diving.

That kind of exploration requires more details, which are beyond the scope of this course. Those details, however, are explored in the writing guides in my Story Structure Essentials series.

If you’re interested, you can find a list of them in the Recommended Reading guide (which is located in the Resource section). In this PDF guide, you’ll also find additional book recommendations as well as links to some of the best online articles, videos, and podcasts on story structure.

While not required, reviewing this material should supplement and enhance your course experience.

(7) Once you enroll, there are different ways to access this course. Here’s the way I recommend. Bookmark or record the link for the home page of this course:


When you visit this page, click on the “Student Login” link. (It should be at the top-right.)

Student Login

Once you log in, you should be taken to the “My Courses” page, where you’ll see a thumbnail image of this course. Click on this image—and voila!—you’ll be taken to all the lessons in Smarter Story Structure.

(8) As a general rule, the tips in this course apply equally to screenplays and novels.

Despite this, I primarily use film examples to illustrate my points. That’s because movies are more universal.

Chances are greater that you’ve watched Die Hard rather than read the novel that spawned the blockbuster franchise. Even if you’re a romance buff, it’s more likely that you’ve rented The Proposal than skimmed a paperback entitled Andrew and Margaret’s Fake Engagement.

On paper, the titles of films adapted from novels (or a TV series) appear the same as novel (or TV) titles. Customarily, all are indicated via italics (or, occasionally, via all-capital letters). But since I mainly rely on film examples, unless otherwise noted, it’s safe to assume I’m referencing the film version only.

A couple of other points:

  • I’ll draw your attention to the instances when novel structure typically deviates from screenplay structure.
  • Because I use a lot of examples to illustrate my points, this course does contain spoilers.

(9) The material in this course is copyrighted. It’s for your personal, individual use. This means that you shouldn’t make it publicly available. It also means that you shouldn’t share course materials with your friends or colleagues.

If you’re a member of a group or other organization (e.g. writer’s group, prodco, etc.) and you want other group members to be able to access this course and get the same insights that you did, please contact me regarding bulk-purchasing options. (You can also use this link for any other purchasing questions you might have.)

(10) Finally, I know that females make kick-butt protagonists, but for the sake of simplicity, I tend to stick to masculine nouns and pronouns.

Okay, that covers everything. Let’s get to it.

Click on “complete and continue” at the top-right of the screen, and dive into Module 1: Getting Smarter About Story Beginnings!