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.

Aaron Sorkin is an amazing writer and watching him work has helped me to develop writing skills I didn't know I could. Aristotle is my new best friend

Just watching Aaron talk was enough for me to improve my writing skills. Great job Aaron Sorkin, i tip my hat to you!

Aaron Sorkin was so fantastic I gave him a cameo in my pilot! ha

Although I write prose not screenplays, it was fascinating to get a glimpse into the mind and working habits of one of today's greatest writers. Charismatic, humble and funny, Aaron Sorkin is a natural teacher. My fave bits were the glimpses into the Writers' Room as he and five talented wannabe screenwriters worked on a 'new' episode of The West Wing. Well worth the £70 I paid!


Tayyib M.

this was amazing. I am basically writing about a short film in which contains elements of horror and drama within 2 locations, a bedroom and a living room. This lesson was crucial to understand what an intention and obstacle is.

Javier D.

This is key in writing a story for film! I have to watch it several times. Beware is a hard part constructing the plot. Right now I have a very good sci-fi set up but trying to find a conflict long enough for the characters that is not a short story.

Meik F.

The thing with the moat and the castle and the princess...uhm no way...back then it was always about man power...what I mean is if u want to teach people stuff u always got to choose something that will not give the pupil much of a choice when it comes to symbolism...the imagination is a powerful if u as a good teacher wants to tach something in this manner u got to do better with your choices. Please don't be mad it me. I have a crazy wild imagination . If you create an obstacle that my imagination can overwhelm in an instant, well, then maybe u should be paying me?..oh you know know what I mean. You're the guy talking and I am the guy paying, soooo, I listen very closely and let my mind react to everything u say. So far, Just started and am at lesson 2 or 3? Like I said my mind does the wandering....I believe I am paying too much so far...but the thing how you control certain situations...well, that would take 50%, still paying 50% too much so far...

A fellow student

Perfect that this is the first real lesson. It defines drama. However, although it sounds simple it gets complicated quickly. I have come back to this lesson several times and each time I hear it, I get something new.

Stanley S.

I think this is on point, for it creates conflict and though drives stir purpose.

Yael H.

Dear Aaron and Everyone here, I had a question: How does this work in superhero movies? I mean, only later on in the story, are they opposed with the villain/obstacle. They have to get their powers first and develop them etc. Is it possible, that we only see their true intention later in the movie? Or do we have to see it from the beginning? Is it possible that their intention changes throughout the movie? Thank you so much for your response! Cheers, Y.

Joy H.

Does anyone where the worksheets/lesson plans are? Or how to download them?

Julian D.

Interesting lesson well presented. I suppose Intention is simply the main character's Desire which usually springs from the Inciting Incident and we know the importance of a strong story spine. But the Desire should also come from the main character's Need (usually) to solve a problem he/she is facing in life. In other words, why does he/she want this? Why is it so important that he/she should pursue the goal against seemingly unsurmountable odds and the risks involved?

Brandon J.

From what I can see here, the intention and obstacle method in screenwriting is an easy tool for beginners (such as ourselves) to kickstart the narratives from our heads onto our papers effectively. And, from what I can also gather, most stories follow this sort of method. Are there a few exceptions? Of course there is! As with any body of people who are given rules, there will always be those who try their damnedest to experiment; its only natural! Once I completed the required materials for this lesson, I found myself more aware of this rule in the different forms of media. Such as, in television (and I watched The Office [S7 Ep. 5 “The Sting”]), the “I & O” is introduced immediately as if you were struck against the head with a baseball. This is for the purpose to hook the viewers just as Sorkin said. And with theatrical productions (I watched The Man Who Came to Dinner [2000]), the I & O comes in the second act: a mere thirty minutes after the raise of the curtain. A slow lull into the jaws of the narrative, sure, but with this sort of platform it is okay to have build up before the actual story begins. Then, of course, movies are the in between. In Butch Cassidy the I & O is introduced maybe ten to fifteen minutes after the opening. But then there are movies like the one I watched, Gerald’s Game (2017), where it is introduced maybe seven minutes... tops. And what I found most interesting-and, please, correct me if I am wrong-is that there could be multiple I & O’s throughout a singular narrative. Such as with The Office episode that I watched. There are different I & O’s for the different characters that can mingle with other intentions or obstacles to create a complicated web. Or, just like the original starting intention of one character can morph like a blob into a completely different intention by the end of that story. Example, at the beginning, Michael wants to win the sale over his company’s rival competitor. He lost the sale. What now? He wants to learn the sales techniques that make his rival salesman better than he. Well, that doesn’t work out too well. What now? Michael wants to hire him. See? The starting objective for Michael at the beginning of the episode is the opposite from what Michael wants at the end of it. So that is something that I have found interesting and will take away from this particular exercise. There CAN BE multiple intentions and obstacles. What are some of the more interesting things that you have taken away from our homework?


A strong clear intention and a formidable obstacle! I can already tell that this class is going to be great!