A thing that blocks one’s way or prevents or hinders progress

Character obstacles are mental, emotional or physical things that challenge you to achieve your objective, particularly your scene objective. This is how you ‘raise the stakes’ in a scene.

Without identifying obstacles (or challenges) you tend to make more obvious choices which results in a one or two dimensional performance. In other words, potentially boring or NOT as engaging as it could be.

There are three basic types of obstacles: emotional, mental and physical. I’ve attached the examples given by Ivana Chubbuck in her acting technique book. This will help you understand the definition of an obstacle as she gives great movie examples.

I’ve seen the results myself with my students when they adopt this step in their performance. After they perform their scene and think they’ve done a pretty good job I’ll ask them, “Is there anything else you could do to make your performance more engaging? On a scale of 1 to 10 what would you rate that scene?” Nearly every time they believe they have more to give to the scene but don’t know how to do it. And so the next step of Ivana Chubbuck’s acting technique comes into play: identifying obstacles.

Obstacles also help you understand your objectives better and give you clarity. This is the key to a great performance; 100% confidence and commitment in the choices you make for your character.

How To Apply It?

Go through the script one line at a time including the direction and ask yourself, “Is there an obstacle here that challenges me achieving my scene objective?” Write your potential obstacles on the script in pencil as you go through it. When you determine ineffective choices you can rub them out later.


Britta moves down a food line, assembling her meal from bins of saran wrapped items. Jeff gets in line next to her.

Oh, hey. Spanish.

Yeah, just don’t hit on me, okay?

If my scene objective for Britta is “to get you to leave me alone”, what challenges me achieving my objective in the above direction and dialogue?

First let’s look at the direction. Jeff getting in line next to her clearly challenges her objective of “to get you to leave me alone”. There are also more subtle potential obstacles. When assembling her meal she only grabs saran wrapped items (or glad wrapped) which may or may not indicate anything of importance. Let’s assume it does. Perhaps she has a phobia of eating food that is not saran wrapped – this is an emotional obstacle. Perhaps she has food allergies and is on a special diet – this is a physical obstacle. Perhaps she has intimacy issues and is uncomfortable with anyone stepping inside her personal space – this is an emotional obstacle. I could keep going for ideas. This is the exploration process. You don’t know what works until you try it in performance. The most effective choice is the choice for you.

Now let’s look at the first two lines. Jeff mentions “Spanish”, as in they share the class together but obviously don’t know each other that well, if at all. Britta’s very strong response could indicate numerous obstacles. Perhaps she’s been deeply hurt in the past and fears more rejection (aka intimacy issues) – this is an emotional obstacle. Perhaps she sees right through him from the beginning and goes straight for the gut, so maybe she can’t handle lies because she’s been lied to in the past or lived a lie that she doesn’t want to any longer – this is emotional. Perhaps she’s a man hater (you never know) or maybe her sexuality could come into question here and she prefers women – again emotional.

Whatever choice you commit to it raises the scene dramatically because suddenly you’ve got reason to fight for your scene objective even harder. Now we’re creating a more engaging performance.

Something else you need to consider thanks to Ivana Chubbuck acting technique is that NOT all obstacles are necessarily written in the script. Explore and you shall see. Play around with the script and different ideas to discover your most effective choice. When performing your scene you’ll soon discover that some of your obstacles may come as a direct result of an action rather than words.

Good luck!