The Drive Shaft of Drama

2 ingredients every story needs

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Shortly after The Social Network won Best Picture, Aaron Sorkin was asked how he writes stories. He says:

“You know, everybody writes different. But for me I have to stick — really closely, like it's a life raft — to Intention and Obstacle. Just the basics of somebody wants something, something is standing in their way of getting it.”

He calls Intention and Obstacle the “drive shaft of drama.”

I’m reminded of an idea from Kurt Vonnegut, “Make a character want something on the first page, even if it’s only a glass of water.”

Your Intention should be obvious from early in your story. In general, think of Intention in two ways: One, external. Katniss wants to save Prim and survive the Hunger Games to return to District 12. Doug and the boys need to get out of Vegas in time to make it back for his wedding (The Hangover). Two, internal. Will must overcome his lack of self-worth to fulfill his amazing potential (Good Will Hunting).

I’m no Sorkin, but I find external Intentions are easier to recognize and come up with. Frodo must take the Ring to Mount Doom. Dorothy must get back to Kansas. These, though incredibly important, are rather straightforward.

But Internal Intentions are much trickier. Here’s a quick list of three types I use and look for:

  • Overcoming Fear

  • Seeking Acceptance

  • Realizing Self-Worth

Listen to your story as you write. What does your protagonist want? What do they need more than anything else? What is their object of desire? It’s this thing that you need to make clear to your reader as soon as possible. Treat the page like your Mirror of Erised.

But Intention alone isn’t enough to create your “drive shaft.” There’s nothing for the Intention to rub up against, nothing to create friction, nothing to make your protagonist struggle.

You need an Obstacle. And as Sorkin says, that Obstacle better be formidable.

What’s your character good at? What do they expect to deal with? Throw the opposite at them and make it far more difficult than they could’ve imagined. Doug and the boys don’t simply lose a few bucks in Vegas. Instead, Doug gets trapped on the roof of the hotel while the other guys rob the Asian mafia, get arrested, and wake up with an unknown baby in their hotel room.

We want characters to struggle. If there’s no struggle, there’s no reason to root for them. Remember: The tougher the Obstacle, the more we care.

I’ve found you can get the gist of your Intention and Obstacle in one sentence. Here it is:

Your protagonist wants to do something but stuff gets in their way.

I want a romantic trip with my wife but we end up sleeping on the floor of the Barcelona airport due to a canceled flight. Beckham wants to win the World Cup for England but he gets a red card. Daenerys wants the Iron Throne but so does everyone else and she’s on another continent.

If you can write that one sentence, you’ve got the makings of your Intention and Obstacle.

Have an awesome weekend,


PS: This interview Sorkin did back in 2017 is excellent. It starts at the 8:30 mark and he talks about Intention and Obstacle briefly around minute 33. I also loved his Masterclass.

A Sentence I Wish I Wrote — Trivia

What book does this line come from?

"You do not follow me because I am the strongest. Pax is. You do not follow me because I am the brightest. Mustang is. You follow me because you do not know where you are going. I do."

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