Lesson: Inner Obstacles

Audio Version

Defining Inner Obstacles

Of course, inner obstacles don’t operate in the external world or the body but are in the mind, heart, and soul.

They can be anything internal that stands in the way of your character's external or internal wants.

For example, a fear of heights can be an inner obstacle that can get in the way of a detective catching the criminal or their desire to be respected by their peers.

As well, inner obstacles can drive a story. A character may be haunted by the memory of their friend's death, which sends them on a journey for revenge.

Finally, like inner wants, characters may not be conscious of what that internal obstacle is—and it may only manifest itself in actions and responses.

Internal Obstacles vs. Internal Wants

A trickiness of inner obstacles is that they sometimes can be confused for inner wants—or vice versa.

For example, seeking self-esteem can be a good thing. However, too much self-esteem can lead to overconfidence or arrogance.

Similarly, guilt can be a good thing. It can create a desire to seek redemption and push into action. Or it can be a bad thing and get in the way of our goals.

What one person feels is a negative obstacle may seem different to others.

This is why it's essential to have clarity and understand your character's wants and obstacles concerning your hero and whether they overcome them.

Examples of internal obstacles

Weakness and Need

Returning to the script doctor John Truby's approach from the previous lesson, he talked about a character's need being what they must fulfill within themselves to have a better life. Although this description seems like a negative, it's not actually standing in their way.

The term that Truby uses is their weakness. This is the thing that holds your character back from achieving a better life.

Again, there is a fine line here. A character may be haunted by the death of their parent and this stands in their way of growing as a person. However, this hole also creates a need within the character, such as reconciliation or acceptance, which they may or may not be aware of or understand.

What is the weakness that might be holding your character back from their outer or inner want?

Flawed Mental Models

In order to comprehend and control the world, we create mental models of how we believe the world works. As Will Storr states in The Science of Storytelling:

The brain constructs its hallucinated model of the world by observing millions of instances of cause and effect then constructing its own theories and assumption about how one thing caused the other. These micro-narratives of cause and effect—more commonly known as 'beliefs'—are the building blocks of our neural realm. The beliefs it's built feel personal to us because they help make up the world that we inhabit and our understanding of who we are. Our beliefs feel personal to us because they are us.

But the trouble is that many of our beliefs or mental models are wrong. They are flawed due to biases, errors, and prejudices and this weakens our understanding of the world.

So when we misperceive the reality of the world, then we struggle to operate within it.

So what misunderstandings of the world does your character hold? It could be biases or prejudices, but it could also be false assumptions or flawed perceptions of a situation.

And if a character fails to overcome them, they could become fatal flaws that never allow them to achieve their want.

Wounds, scars, and internal ghosts

You'll see this one often in action movies and big blockbusters. Mistakes of the past, the death of important figures, and miserable failures scar our character's history.

It is often these moments that a character may spend a lifetime trying to repair and make themselves whole again.

Some other inner obstacles

  • Fear
  • Frustration
  • Confusion
  • Addiction
  • Grief
  • Longing
  • Past wounds
  • Anxiety
  • Impulses and Instincts
  • A lack of knowledge
  • Helplessness
  • Incapacity to realize free will and our power to choose.
  • Moral and mental weakness.
  • Conscience
  • Emotions
  • Mental health (depression or schizophrenia)
  • Identity
  • Habit
  • Belief
  • The past (memories) or future (neither is truly reachable)
  • A memory that can't be reclaimed.
  • Power
  • Guilt
  • Redemption
  • Revenge
  • Fear (we can be driven by fear, but if a character wants to overcome it, it may become an obstacle.)
Approach any obstacles with empathy and understanding. You don’t want to reduce someone's lived experience to a false caricature.

Ways to show inner want

Characters use actions and dialogue to navigate around inner obstacles

Self-aware of their internal obstacle, a character says and does things to move around the problem.

A character who is aware that they are scared of being left alone can take action towards changing that. (Also, please notice how this obstacle motivates their want.)

An internal obstacle can create false external wants and actions

Almost a subset of the first example, a character's want can be motivated by their obstacle. This could be similar to a horror movie where the monster pushes the teenagers to take action and survive.

Some of you likely noticed that your stories of inner want created inner obstacles—especially in stories where past incidents (sometimes called wounds, scars, or ghosts) are the source of your character's want.

An internal obstacle provides a stimulus to responses.

A more subtle approach has the character only responding to the obstacle.

For example, a script like Manchester by the Sea has the main character's grief (or emotional inability to handle the situation) makes him respond by picking meaningless fights, being rude and unfriendly, pushing people away, drinking too much, being emotionally distant, hurt others to punish himself, hold himself back in his career, life, and relationships, and force himself into similar circumstances that draw out his struggle.

The big difference here is that the character isn't in control and only responds to the obstacle and does not take direct action to resolve the problem. Every time the character tries to move towards their want, they face an external obstacle leading to a destructive response.

Often in situations like this, the character doesn't realize this is happening or even what the obstacle is.

Through the actions of other characters

Another way to represent the obstacle is through the actions of other characters.

For example, in Shawshank Redemption, Red's goal is to leave Shawshank Prison, but his obstacle is his loss of hope. This detail is revealed through Andy's actions (which incidentally are all designed to express hope): working on the roof, building the library, and finding his wife's killer.

Each time Andy fails to achieve hope, it is proof that Red is right until Andy escapes. Now, he must face and overcome his main obstacle to getting what he wants.

This is also a good example of where outcomes can show inner obstacles. Until either side wins (Andy or Red), the struggle continues. Even when Andy succeeds, we follow Red's POV until he finds resolution (through transformation).

This is important to understand how this struggle between want and obstacle can shape and drive a larger story, as characters continually win or lose (lose the battle but not the war) but continue to try.

Other characters represent wants and obstacles

Often in a story, your character will face other characters—usually friends or threshold guardians—that represent the internal fears or doubts a character feels.

In Star Wars, Luke's indecision in fighting in the Rebellion is voiced by his uncle, while Obi-Wan Kenobi echoes his desire to go. When he finally decides, he must lose his aunt and uncle, then battle against Stormtroopers and TIE fighters to prove his commitment.

If you are interested in more of this, look at Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell or The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler.

Negative wants bring about positive inner obstacles

Lastly, what about a character who wants to do something terrible, like theft or murder? The internal obstacle in a character could be positive, like guilt or self-consciousness. Therefore, the character may need to find a new want that aligns their two sides.

Again, when writing Inner Wants and Obstacles, the same rules apply

  • Always ask yourself: What does your character want? What obstacle stands in their way? What actions do they take? What are the responses? Do they get it or not?
  • In a story, nothing should ever come easily. It is about struggle—no matter what.
  • Remember, want and obstacle are two sides of the same coin. Be very clear about what your character's want is and what their obstacle is.
  • Adding inner wants and obstacles is one way to add complexity to your story. But don't over-complicate things. Always default to WOARO to organize your thoughts.


Write a 2-3 page script of any type that contains a character with an external or internal want struggling with an inner obstacle. The obstacle must manifest itself in external ways, and the character must show actions and/or responses that reflect this struggle.

Marking Criteria

  • Written in the active, present tense.
  • Proper screenplay format (including sluglines; parenthesis, and ALL CAPS on the introduction of characters).
  • Proper use of descriptions.
  • Includes a title page that uses the proper format.
  • Only five errors are allowed on each script.

❗ This assignment is due: on Sunday, October 22, at midnight. ( Saskatchewan time ).