Meet Robert McKee [wiki]:

I first stumbled on his seminal book, Story, in the summer of 2002. The strap line suggested the book would be of use to those interested in screen writing. I was not, at least at the time, but the few pages I read while sitting on one of those extremely functional uncomfortable plastic stools in New York’s Strand bookstore persuaded me to buy it — and it has since become my preferred gift to give friends who are interested in writing of all kinds [Many readers have over time asked for recommendations of books they can read to learn/improve their craft — if you read only one, then make it this].

In 2004, I attended one of his storied workshops [unfortunately, only for two days of the four I had registered for]. It was — what to say? — humbling, humiliating, and uplifting all at the same time. McKee’s workshops are characterized as much by his ruthless dampening of pretension as they are by a personal clarity of vision. [‘Poetic license’, I explained at one point when he critiqued what I thought was a clever way of getting out of a writing hole I had stumbled into. ‘You don’t deserve it, your license is hereby revoked’, he snapped].

Courtesy my friend Rahul Bhatia, who is a good writer when he is not making bad tomato soup, this link to a New Yorker profile of the man.

In McKee’s description, this is what a story is: a human being is living a life that is more or less in balance. Then comes the “inciting incident.” (McKee borrows the phrase from “Theory and Technique of Playwriting and Screenwriting,” which was written in the late forties by John Howard Lawson, the first president of the Screen Writers Guild, and an inspiration to McKee.) The protagonist reacts, his life falls out of balance, and he now has had aroused in him a conscious or unconscious desire for whatever it is that will restore balance—“launching him on a quest for his object of desire against the forces of antagonism.” McKee speaks some of these key phrases very fast, like a police officer reading a suspect his Miranda rights. “He may or may not achieve it.”

Can his students achieve it? Can McKee? These are the dramas of the “Story” seminar. Pacing back and forth beneath portraits of Michael Faraday and Alexander Graham Bell, McKee spoke for three days about risk, jeopardy, desire, turning points, conflict, and choice—moving between his own life (most of it bad), the lives of his students, and the life of Rick in “Casablanca.” He made close, clever readings of favorite movies (“Tender Mercies,” “Carnal Knowledge”), and—uniting accounting and therapy—drew charts that showed lives zigzagging into emotional credit and debt in response to antagonistic forces. He screened “Casablanca” over six hours, and afterward (his shoes kicked aside) he reached an extraordinary crescendo of metaphysical, motivational talk (being and becoming, Schopenhauer and Derrida) that discovered in “As Time Goes By” the richness of a “Hamlet” monologue. He even sang the song, softly, to an audience that for a moment looked as if it had been caught on “Candid Camera.”