Intention, Obstacle and Action - The Tools of the Actor

Intention, Obstacle and Action

“Drama is intention and obstacles, somebody wants something, something is standing in their way of getting it.” - Aaron Sorkin

For most of the past 70 years, actors have been pretty busy turning themselves into characters for our entertainment. However, this devotion to a character often leads the actor away from the one thing that can help their movies come to life, the script.

When it comes to the best starting point for acting any scene, don’t look much further than the simplest elements of intention and obstacle.  

Intention - what you want - and why.

Obstacle - what’s stopping you and why.


And then we can consider one more step, action.


Action - how you try to achieve the intention.

People that want to pick up the script and start acting it straight away are suggesting that all the words can be taken at face value and that there is no need to understand what is driving the characters in the scene.

This is the simplest way to make sense of a scene.  Take this example.






Hey yourself.



Don’t say it like what?



Like what?



Like it meant .. you know.



I don’t know.


  • What is this scene like when TANDI’s intention is to get ROY to confess his secret love for her?
  • What is this scene like when TANDI’s obstacle to that is ROY’s defensiveness?
  • How does she attempt to deal with that? Does she tease him? Does she flirt? Does she scold him?
  • What is this scene like when TANDI’s intention is to make ROY confess a dirty secret?
  • What is this scene like when TANDI’s obstacle to that is ROY’s guilt?
  • How does she attempt to deal with that guilt? Does she accuse him? Does she needle him? Does she embarrass him?

Every scene is intention and obstacle until the cows come home. The actor need only chase this intention in every moment for the scene to come to life.  Want to add characterisation to that? Fine, go ahead, because now you understand the scene and you’ve made an interpretation that’s based on the written scene and not some stuff you invented to make the job easier.


Thanks, John. I'm trying :)

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