Film & TV

Intention & Obstacle

Aaron Sorkin

Lesson time 10:11 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 in 35 exclusive video lessons.
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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...

Your script starts here.

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.

Having read the go to books (we all know the titles) and written a script or two what I heard here was on the money.

Aaron Sorkin is one of my all-time favorite writers, and I will forever be grateful to Masterclass for the opportunity to hear him talk about writing!

The class has really helped with structure in the beginning. And making sure that you build the drama enough. It was reassuring to see Aaron's method of solving plot problems or to get inspired. Loved the group discussions and writers' room.

The class helped me in a lot of ways, how to write better, what to focus on more, how to work with others to write a better screenplay and a one of a kind experience w/ a great writer that i will never forget .


Śmigły .

My "intent" is to write a stage play and my "obstacle" is not knowing how.... (Heheheheh.) Would it be too overwhelming for there to be an intention and obstacle in nearly each scene? My play involves an overwhelming number of characters (19), but because of the subject matter (the June 1941 evacuation of NKVD prisoners) and the setting (a Soviet cattle-car train), I do know wish to minimize the situation by limiting this number. I understand I could easily reduce this presentation to "Waiting For Godot", but that is not really what WW2 prisoner life was like. Especially when it came to the Soviet treatment of "criminals against the revolution". The play itself does have a major intention and obstacle, but some individual characters have their own personal ones, too.

A fellow student

Looking at my own life and that of others around me through the lens of intention and obstacles, I see that there are stories in each one of us that can be told with more clarity and drama. Thanks for the lesson!

A fellow student

I just saw the movie "Uncut Gems". The whole time I was asking myself, "what is the intention?!". Whether there is an answer to my question or not, it seems clear that there was no "clear intention". I'm not a genius and I'm not an idiot. If the intention wasn't clear to me, I can't imagine it was clear to anybody else. The critic's score on rotten tomatoes is around 95% and the audience score is half of that. If anybody has seen the movie, I would love to hear their thoughts on the intention of the characters in this plot. On the contrary, I had early access to the movie 1917 and it was a perfect example of clear intention. The two boys needed to cross enemy lines by a certain date to deliver a message or an entire division of the army would walk into a death trap. The clothesline was set and the movie took me on a thrill ride with plenty of formidable obstacles that needed overcoming. Let me know what you think. Thanks!

Glen G.

In Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, is the intention really to rob that train both ways, or is it that the two bandits want to live out their lives as outlaws? And, is the obstacle really that posse or the law more broadly? ("Butch and Sundance want to live as outlaws, but law enforcement keeps getting in the way.") In a sense, they actually complete the double robbery of the train but the chase that follows sets their life off in a new direction, which is where the story really begins. They could give up but they choose to run and continue their lives as outlaws until the obstacle to doing so really does become too big. I've been reworking a screenplay of mine in which I think I have a clear intention and obstacle (coincidentally, it's about a baseball game), but I think I might be telling it from the wrong character's point of view. I might also need to narrow the focus a bit. It's certainly helpful to compare my script to this film. Thanks!

Noah M.

How can I make sure that the audience actually cares about my characters? I mean, even death as an obstacle can be boring!

Paul D.

After this class, I am thinking of two things: 1) do all characters have intention and obstacles? Even the minor characters? And if not, where does one draw the line? 2) all rules must be broken. Is it possible to not have intention or obstacles and still have a story worth listening to?

Franny Alicia R.

I love that he mentions building a drive shaft. How you take something that happened in real life and use it as your source of motivation to get you to write in the first place. I love how he emphasizes that you have to make sure the story works because it's what keeps it from becoming a novel, so interesting because it's true! I also love that he says the protagonist doesn't have to win.

E B.

Wow. I get it now, as screenwriters we are inevitably fighting the remote, the switching of channels. I think that's why so many people like the Divergent Series by Veronica Ross, they were so attached to the characters, people just had to hang on till the end to find out what happened, there were constantly new obstacles.

Craig T.

Is it better for your main character to have multiple intentions and one obstacle or vice versa? I've been stuck trying to write a feature for over a year now and I wonder if it's because the story doesn't work because I'm limiting the character's intentions/obstacles

A fellow student

This is a great class. An intention and obstacle is an essential to a good play.