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Arts & Entertainment

Intention & Obstacle

Aaron Sorkin

Lesson time 10:13 min

Every great story is born from intentions and obstacles. Learn how to build the "drive shaft" that will set your script in motion.

Aaron Sorkin
Teaches Screenwriting
Aaron Sorkin teaches you the craft of film and television screenwriting.


What I need before I can do anything is an intention and obstacle. OK? Somebody wants something. Something's standing in their way of getting it. They want the money. They want the girl. They want to get to Philadelphia. It doesn't matter. But they've got to really want it bad, and whatever is standing in their way has got to be formidable. I need those things, and I need them to be really solid, or else I will slip into my old habit, back when I was 21 with the electric typewriter, of just writing snappy dialogue that doesn't add up to anything. We won't be moving forward. So let's say, for instance, that you and a friend, you and a couple of friends, one summer, or after you graduated from college, you drove cross country. OK? And on that trip, some weird and cool stuff happened. And you think this is going to be a good screenplay. You want to write a screenplay inspired by this cross-country trip that you took with your friends. Great. I want to hear your stories. I'll bet they're good. But you can't start yet, because you don't have an intention and obstacle. So let me give you one. It's not like we haven't seen this before, but just as an example. It can't just be a leisurely drive across country. Somebody in that car has-- you're going from New York to Los Angeles-- somebody in that car has to be in Los Angeles at a certain time on a certain day six days from now. It's super important. It's a job interview. It's their friend's wedding. It's something. They have to be in Los Angeles. Things are stopping them from getting there. They had a whole plan. We're going to take this route and that route, we're going to do this, and we're going to get there with plenty of time. But there are now going to have to be flat tires along the way, and weather, and getting lost, and anything else you can throw at it. Once you have that intention and obstacle, now, like a clothesline, you can start hanging those cool stories from the real trip across the country that was the reason you wanted to do this whole thing in the first place. You have to build the drive shaft first. And that drive shaft can only be intention and obstacle. That's what creates friction and tension, and that's what drama is. If you don't have that, then it's journalism. [MUSIC PLAYING] How do you know if the intention is strong enough? How do you know if the obstacle is formidable enough? You do what's called pressing on it. You press on it. The intention. If the intention is, OK, we're driving from New York to LA because we've got some friends in LA that we want to see. Well, that doesn't seem very urgent. It doesn't seem like you have to be there on Tuesday. You can see your friends on Wednesday. You're driving to LA because you've always wanted to see the Dodgers play in Dodger Stadium. Again, i...

About the Instructor

Aaron Sorkin wrote his first movie on cocktail napkins. Those napkins turned into A Few Good Men, starring Jack Nicholson. Now, the Academy Award-winning writer of The West Wing and The Social Network is teaching screenwriting. In this class, you’ll learn his rules of storytelling, dialogue, character development, and what makes a script actually sell. By the end, you’ll write screenplays that capture your audience’s attention.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

Excellent course, will worth the time and money. Has helped me to appreciate setting up a story initially more, and loved the practical advice on working as a screenwriter in a writer's room. And gave me opportunity to revisit Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, big family favorite when I was growing up, so that was also great! Well recommended class. Thank you, Mr Sorkin.

I learned how to begin a story and put characters into motion.

I picked up a lot more about the BUSINESS of writing here and how to navigate than I expected to...

You won't be a Hollywood writer if you complete this course - but you will be a huge step towards your goal. I loved it!


A fellow student

Dear Mr Sorkin, I was wondering if there is a difference in the pull or weight of the intention. For example, how to decide whether the intention is strong enough for a solid script, or in fact which character you need to base the primary intention concept around (for example, in my story there is a narrator of through the eyes and mind we see (as a protagonist it seems), and two others of which the main drama occurs). Like in acting - if one goes by - of Super Objective and Objective etc. I'm guessing it is important to find the TRUE drive/intention? Even where the curiousity of the story lies in the fact that we don't quite know what the true intention of one of the character is. For example - in your scenario; The clarity difference between - he needs to get to LA in 6 days to attend a job interview. As opposed to his intention being ultimately - to prove his worth as a human by getting the job. Any other thoughts would be appreciated.

Susan H.

The obstacle aspect really resonated with me. so often in my writing or in movies I've seen, the obstacle seems like the character(s) never took the obviously easier way to overcome the obstacle. but here with Aaron mentioning, that you need to plug those plot holes, it seems like a "no duh" thing yet is often never really addressed in other films

Seema I.

This has been a point that has taken me some time to learn. The surfing story analogy has been me with a bunch of ideas, scenarios I like but the reason I could never carry them further was because I was lacking that clear intention. It's really made me break down how I view TV/Film/Theatre. I'm starting to see why there are films I like, and there are shows I quit. The intention really isn't clear enough.

A fellow student

This lesson has changed the way I think about writing stories in general now. I cannot wait to use the intention and obstacle approach to flesh out any story ideas I have. I now have a greater appreciation for how stories are set up in plays, TV, and movies and I will definitely be watching out for how far into a film the intention and obstacle are introduced.


I love this lesson. What landed for me was when he said networks want you to have action and explosions at the very beginning. One of the things shows so that drive me batty is when the show starts with explosions or a bloody main character or a disaster.... It doesn't explain what's happening. And then it flashes to "24 Hours Earlier." I hate that. It feels like lazy storytelling to me.

Toby C.

I think it is harder to have the audience enjoy the movie when the main character does not win in the end. It's like a tricky balancing act, you want them to like it, but you don't want to leave them disappointed. If anything you want them to be inspired or have them say, "Oh, wow I can't believe it ended like that! What a twist!" I find it technically more challenging than having the protagonist succeed, because I believe there is an underlying expectation for the main character to win in the end. I think GOT pulled this kind of ending off in a bunch of their episodes with some of their main characters.

A fellow student

I love the concept to make a clear intention. What's the problem and how you solve it. Make sure the matter is urgent.


I loved these words: "They don't have to win, they just have to try." Great life advice as well!

A fellow student

I think Aaron really hit on the need to make the obstacle formidable. There's an entire web-series called "How It Should Have Ended," which makes fun of how the opposition in certain movies could have been quickly and easily surmounted. Now, sometimes they overlook certain plot elements, but other times they make really good points. We don't really get on board with characters' journeys when we don't really see the need for their actions. I'm always struggling with that with my long-time project, a sword and sorcery fantasy story. I really have to work hard to make sure that there aren't logic holes in the story. Yet it's hard in a fantasy story, because you have to create all the rules and circumstances. It sounds fun, but that also means you have to work that much harder to create the circumstances. No one watches Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and wonders "Why don't they just put on the ring and become invisible?" The rules of the world are already somewhat laid out by the setting. But if you introduce a magical world with magical abilities, you have to create all those rules.

A fellow student

I love this concept and think he broke it down perfectly, but do you guys think that a good film could have a protagonist going through obstacles somewhat randomly at first and we learn the intent as the movie goes forward or at the end. E.g. We don't know why, but The Rock is fighting bad guys, sneaking into labs and stealing data, and has to run throw a wall. At the end of all this madness we find out that he did all this for his daughter or something. Does a story like this take away from the suspense of knowing what is at stake? Does the lack of known intent make people lose interest? Curiously- TRJ