Story Lab: Story Structure 101

with Jeff Lyons

story lab story structure 101

Lab Goggles On.

Whether you are a pro or beginning writer, basic story structure principles are essential tools for success as a writer and a storyteller. But what story structure? Whose version of story structure? The story structure zoo is crowded, and the many competing gurus are loud and confusing. This course distills the basics that are common across all story-structure methods and systems—not to say who is best (there is not best), but rather to find the common structure principles that are true for all stories, irrespective of branded systems.

Through weekly lectures, assigned reading, written assignments, and video instructionals students will learn a set of provided tools for basic story structure development, be it for a work of fiction or creative nonfiction. The provided worksheets will give students the opportunity, in a systematic way, to implement their learning in a hands-on way to actually structure their own stories in class. Along the way, students will use the tools from class to analyze and critique two test cases (films) in order to hone their skills in identifying and use their new knowledge in an applied way. At the end of class, students will have a clear roadmap to help them structure any story idea into a long- or short-form piece of prose, regardless of genre.

Learning Objectives:

  • Learn what story structure is and isn’t
  • Learn the two structures needed to tell any story
  • Learn how to navigate the story structure zoo
  • Learn how story structure helps avoid episodic writing
  • Learn the difference between a story and a situation

Writing Objectives:

  • Structure a story from page one to the midpoint
  • Structure a story from the midpoint to the doom moment
  • Structure a story from the doom moment to the ending
  • Identify the basic structure beats of test case examples from movies

Class Sessions and Recordings:

Meeting days and times: Mondays/Thursdays, 11AM Pacific Time

Meeting location: Zoom (Details will be shared with registered students prior to first class meeting.) The class sessions will be recorded. It’s still important to attend if you can, as a live experience gives you the full benefit of the experience. It’s fine to just listen to the recordings, especially if you are in a challenging time zone, but try to be live.

Course Features:

  • Live session
    • Lecture, discussions, and Q&A
    • Requires interaction and active participation
    • An informal drop-in time for student Q&A
  • Assignments & Coursework
    • Assignments and course materials posted in Canvas
    • Required discussions in Canvas
    • Instructor will provide feedback on assignments
  • Instructor will hold office hours
  • Individual conferences available by request

Tentative Zoom Schedule*:

Weekly class Zoom sessions will be held each Monday beginning the second week of class at 12PM PST and will be up to one hour in length. Final schedule will be displayed in Canvas before the start of class.

Each class Zoom session will have one or two spots reserved for the “hot seat” where students can sign up to have live story consulting on the current week’s work. The sign-up sheet for the “hot seat” will be made available on Canvas the first week of class. Instructions for how to sign up will be given then.

*Please note that the Zoom schedule is subject to change. The live video sessions are recorded; student attendance is optional, but watching the recordings is required for a letter grade.

Office Hours Schedule:

Office hours will be held each Thursday, 12PM PST, starting the second week of class. All students will get to participate with the instructor to go over any worksheets or ask any questions they wish. These sessions differ from class Zoom in that they are wide open and not focused discussions on weekly topics. Students do not have to sign up for office hours, unlike for the “hot seat” during weekly class Zooms. Office Hours Zooms are also recorded.

Textbooks/Required Materials:

  • There is one text recommended for this course: Anatomy of a Premise Line: How to Master Premise and Story Development for Writing Success, by Jeff Lyons (Focal Press).
  • Students should have a story idea in development already, preferably one that is past the idea stage.

Weekly Syllabus:

Week One: What is Story Structure and Why Should You Care?

Lecture: What Is a Story and Intro to the Classic Structure?

Lecture: Stories vs Situations

Written Assignment: Pitch Your Story Idea / Story or Situation?

Week Two: The Classic Structure Part I

Lecture: Page One to the Midpoint

Written Assignment: Classic Structure Worksheet Part I

Written Assignment: Test Case #1: Identify the Classic Structure Beats Worksheet

Week Three: The Classic Structure Part II

Lecture: Midpoint to the Doom Moment

Written Assignment: Classic Structure Worksheet Part II

Written Assignment: Test Case #1: Identify the Classic Structure Beats Worksheet

Week Four: The Classic Structure Part III

Lecture: Doom Moment to the Final Resolution

Written Assignment: Classic Structure Worksheet Part III

Written Assignment: Test Case #1: Identify the Classic Structure Beats Worksheet

Week Five: Putting It All Together / Next Steps in Development

Lecture: How to Work With Classic Structure and Other Story Systems

Lecture: Next Steps in the Story Development Process / Recommendations

Written Assignment: Classic Structure Worksheet Final Pass

Written Assignment: Test Case #2: Identify All the Structure Beats

Course categories: , ,
Course type:

Student Feedback for Jeff Lyons:

Jeff was very supportive. He challenged us to develop our stories in ways that made them more compelling. We learned something new each week! Michelle Baltazar

Excellent. Advanced my writing, gave me more confidence, the conversations were productive and covered everyone’s work. Sandra Carlin

The course content went beyond my expectations. I learned quite a bit about character development and storytelling which will serve me well as I continue to grow as a fiction writer. I enjoyed and appreciated the more analytic approach the instructor took in teaching the material. Excellent experience. Steven Watson

The Anatomy of a Premise Line was the perfect class for me. I am working on a writing project that seemed unwieldy and over my head. Jeff Lyons’ class helped me to articulate and focus on an approach that is working much better. Sharon Ransom

I was amazed how much I learned in just five weeks. Jeff is very involved in meeting directly with students and shepherding them through the story development process. He provides ample feedback that’s directed towards moving you forward instead of just lavishing bland praise. Madeline Miraglia

Amazing experience for me! I learned so much. Jeff was able to work with different levels of writers with care, a generous amount of time, and compassion. He is intuitive and kind, not to mention talented. Patricia Clyne

Jeff has a real strength as a one-on-one teacher, listening to you stumble through your hazy story ideas and helping you find the gem within. Story structure has always been something I've been weak on, if not outright wary of. Jeff is great at connecting character growth with story structure with emotional-dramatic effect so you know you're not only writing the story you want to tell, but the story that's going to have the reader turning pages. Nancy Shaffer 

Excellent. Very novel and helpful approach to plotting that makes the essentials of powerful storytelling clear. Challenging but very eye opening and helpful. Catherine Proppe

An excellent and concentrated course that brought the gaps in my knowledge about my protagonist into sharp focus, and provided a clear method to fill those gaps and get the plot outline into great shape for moving forward. Jeff Lyons is a generous and clear-thinking teacher. Rowena House

Jeff was available, gave good feedback, and seemed genuinely interested in both how and how much his students learn. By the end of this course, I was streets ahead of where I started, finally getting the hang of what he's talking about and finding it immensely useful. Nancy Napier

Jeff’s method, course and feedback is amazing. It tests the strength of any story structure and points to its weaknesses. It is excellent at any stage of manuscript writing whether at the planning stage (best time) or after the first draft (also a great time) but also in the middle when one is stuck or to test its viability. Feedback is individually tailored and detailed. Jeff invests a lot of time interacting with participants. Sophie Cayeux

Jeff was a great communicator. His feedback was clear and sorely needed. I also appreciated his one on one availability. It felt like a university course where I could stop in and discuss my work with my professor. Thank you, Jeff! Janice Jackson

I loved this class. Jeff and I have worked a bit together before in his Anatomy of a Premise Line class where he helped me figure out exactly what my story was. After taking this class - How to firm up the "mushy" middle - I learned the steps and story beats that the reader needed to follow along with me to get from Point A to Z. Jeff pushed me like crazy, taught me about the Enneagram-Story Connection, and helped me develop all those beats from Point A to Z. He challenges me like no other, and I love him for it.

I've never been so clear about my story, and I truly believe Jeff is the reason behind it. Allison Smith

I have to admit the course caught me off guard. From the title, I was expecting a somewhat superficial "how to" class on writing a premise. I had no idea how profound (not too strong a word) the work would be. It was one of the most valuable experiences I've had as a writer---and I've been through a 3-year MFA program, with many workshops. Jeff gave it his full attention. He is a challenging teacher and made me work, and I will always appreciate that. It all has to do with how Jeff views what a premise is. I had to think long and hard about my protagonist and realized I didn't really know him. Also, he sets the bar pretty high, not only for the premise, but for what qualifies as a story. I could go on, but my main recommendation is working on the course description to explain a bit better what students are in for - I guarantee that by writing a premise, before writing a single word of the narrative, or even after a complete draft, your novel or short story will be deepened, and greatly improved... You've got the best bang for the buck. I've taken courses from both Gotham and Writer's Digest, and your courses are the best. Charles David Taylor

Having the enneagram as a framework for building out my characters is invaluable. When you are playing God and creating people from scratch it's incredibly useful to have these kinds of tools. I made enormous progress; the recordings were good and Jeff was always available for one-on-one catchups. Janine Stein

I had a great experience. The content was excellent, the pace was good, the teacher was professional and knowledgeable. Martha McLaughlin

This class, and the instructor in particular, reached into my story and my writing practice and took both to a new and more productive level. Jeff Lyons takes obvious delight in turning ideas and even dog-eared manuscripts into real storiesNancy Shaffer

I was very happy with the class. Jeff is a great teacher. He makes himself available for guidance. I had read Jeff’s Anatomy of a Premise Line and knew the class would be great. It was. It really helped me to understand how to develop story ideas. I just purchased Jeff’s book for my son who is considering signing up for Jeff’s next class. I will take more of your classes. Thanks for offering this class. Ron Ware


Jeff Lyons is a traditionally published fiction/nonfiction author, screenwriter, and story development consultant in the film, television, and publishing industries. He has worked with major studios like NBCU and Columbia Pictures, and leading independent producers and film and television production companies. He is an instructor through Stanford University's Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing, and guest lectures through the UCLA Extension Writers Program.

Jeff is a regular contributor and advisor to leading entertainment industry screenwriting and producing fellowship programs, such as the Producers Guild of America's "Power of Diversity Master Producers Workshop," and the Film Independent Screenwriting Lab, and is a regular workshop presenter at leading writing industry conferences such as the Romance Writers of America, StoryExpo, Great American Pitchfest, Romance Writers of America, and many others.

His clients have won major literary prizes like the “William Faulkner Gold Medal,” and include New York Times and USA Today bestselling authors. Jeff has written on the craft of storytelling for Writer’s Digest Magazine, Script Magazine, The Writer Magazine, and Writing Magazine (UK).

His book, Anatomy of a Premise Line: How to Master Premise and Story Development for Writing Success was published by Focal Press in 2015, and his book, Rapid Story Development: How to Use the Enneagram-Story Connection to Become a Master Storyteller, was published by Focal Press in October 2020. His third book with Focal Press will be published late 2021, The Story-Subplot Connection: How to Develop Subplots for Screenwriters and Novelists.

His feature film, American Thunderbolt, is being produced by Content Kings Films, UK, and two of his novellas, 13 Minutes and Terminus Station, have been optioned for feature film development.

Visit Jeff's site here.