Stephen King said it best: “if you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.“
It’s essential that screenwriters are not only regularly watching films and TV but reading movie scripts too. What’s on the page and what’s in the film can vary, and it’s vital for developing a writing style and honing your craft.
“if you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.”Stephen King
And so reading screenplays is a great way to learn that language. How are scripts actually written and what does the best version of one look like? This is important to understand for the budding screenwriter.
Fortunately, we’ve collected twenty of the very best screenplays to read for aspiring screenwriters seeking to learn about their burgeoning craft.
These are screenplays that can teach aspiring writers how to balance story and theme, craft character dynamics and write dialogue that is both entertaining and functional. We’re not arguing that these 20 screenplays constitute the greatest screenplays ever but instead we’re offering them as important blueprints for execution.
A contentious list, maybe, but scroll down to check out not necessarily the 20 best screenplays of all time, but 20 scripts we feel you can learn most from.
Table of Contents
- The 20 Selected Screenplays to Best Learn From
- 1. SOME LIKE IT HOT, written by Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond
- 2. NORTH BY NORTHWEST, written by Ernest Lehman
- 3. DR STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB, written by Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern and Peter George
- 4. NETWORK, written by Paddy Chayefsky
- 5. CHINATOWN, written by Robert Towne
- 6 . THE BREAKFAST CLUB, written by John Hughes
- 7. A FISH CALLED WANDA, written by John Cleese and Charles Crichton
- 8. THE THING, written by Bill Lancaster
- 9. THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY, written by Barrie Keefe
- 10. ALIENS, written by James Cameron
- 11. WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, written by Nora Ephron
- 12. THELMA & LOUISE, written by Callie Khouri
- 13. UNFORGIVEN, written by David Webb Peoples
- 14. TRAINSPOTTING, written by John Hodge
- 15. PULP FICTION, written by Quentin Tarantino
- 16. BEFORE SUNRISE, written by Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan
- 17. THE INCREDIBLES, written by Brad Bird
- 18. SEXY BEAST, written by Louis Mellis and David Scinto
- 19. IN BRUGES, written by Martin McDonagh
- 20. WHIPLASH, written by Damien Chazelle
- 10 More Screenplays You Can Learn Most From That Just Missed the Cut:
- Download the twenty screenplays you can learn most from here!
- In Summary
The 20 Selected Screenplays to Best Learn From
1. SOME LIKE IT HOT, written by Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond
Wilder and Diamond are one of Hollywood’s legendary writing partnerships. Following SOME LIKE IT HOT they would go on to Oscar success with THE APARTMENT and write the screenplays for a string of ’60s comedies from ONE, TWO, THREE to THE FORTUNE COOKIE.
SOME LIKE IT HOT is witty, tightly constructed, slyly subversive and full of colourful, larger than life characters.
Like the best comedies, the character types are established early and clearly before Wilder and Diamond wind them up and let them bounce off each other.
From the climax you can learn most about comedic escalation, as the screwball comedy and gangster genres collide. “Nobody’s perfect” – but this script just might be.
The tropes used in this screenplay nowadays feel quite outdated. But the way the screenplay uses twists and guise for comedic effect is one of the best examples of how to execute comedic set plays.
It’s also a great example of how to write a comedic double act, or triple act even. The way the characters interact with each other and their differences is vital to the comedy and this feels written in the screenplay’s very bones.
2. NORTH BY NORTHWEST, written by Ernest Lehman
With NORTH BY NORTHWEST, Lehman and Hitchcock wanted to make the archetypal Hitchcock film. They succeeded, in the process creating one of the best spy thrillers to come out of the classic Hollywood era.
It has all of Hitchcock’s pet themes, following a man who goes on the run after a case of mistaken identity. There’s also a blonde woman who’s potentially treacherous and a MacGuffin that everyone is after.
NORTH BY NORTHWEST is perfect to learn from because it holds up today. The plot twists and turns in unpredictable directions and the set-pieces are imaginative and still genuinely thrilling.
“That plane’s dusting crops where there ain’t no crops.”
Even though the plot is, from one view, nonsensical, you’d never realise that from watching or reading it. The way it is written always convinces.
3. DR STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB, written by Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern and Peter George
A dark comedy satire about the end of the world, DR. STRANGELOVE is how you make the political palatable to a wide audience. Comedy leads the way here and the movie script demonstrates this, humour present in the conception of the characters, their dialogue and the situations they find themselves in.
You can probably learn the most from how the script expertly cuts between many different places and characters. The form becomes part of the theme. None of these characters can communicate with each other. For all intents and purposes, they’re operating in different worlds.
This is a great example of how to write theme in to the very structure of your screenplay. It’s also a wonderful study in tone, with a sharp focus in the script of scenes patching together to maintain the overall tone.
The same year a film with the same story was released. FAIL SAFE, however, presented the scenario of mutually assured destruction as a serious thriller. Which of these screenplays and films has endured?
4. NETWORK, written by Paddy Chayefsky
Paddy Chayefsky is one of the few screenwriters to earn name recognition and the kind of auteur status usually reserved for directors. Reading NETWORK, the best of his screenplays, it’s not hard to see why.
NETWORK is an angry, prescient satire that skewers the news media and all those who profit off it and participate in it. It leaves no stone unturned.
It’s a perfect example of escalation, beginning with a premise that’s just slightly off the real world and logically developing it into a complete nightmare.
Chayefsky expertly balances this out with an ensemble of characters who never wink at the camera, instead remaining frighteningly, believably real.
NETWORK is held up as one of the best movie scripts ever written, in part, because its intention is so clear. It’s the perfect example of how to start with a thematic idea and execute that idea. All done within a story that is actually engaging and believable.
Too often a screenplay, with satire at its core, will be too heavy on theme and too light on story.
“I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore!”
The screenplay occupies a territory between absurdity and realism that is very tricky to pull off. Ultimately, it’s in the screenplay’s laser sharp focus on its thematic targets that this tricky balance is pulled off. This is why it’s such a brilliant screenplay for screenwriters to learn from.
5. CHINATOWN, written by Robert Towne
CHINATOWN is one of the greatest screenplays (and films!) to come out of the New Hollywood era of the 1960’s.
It’s a great example of how to update a classic genre and a period setting for modern times. Written by MISSION IMPOSSIBLE screenwriter Robert Towne, it’s a shorthand for a certain era of Hollywood moviemaking and one of the best screenplays of the 70s.
While ostensibly a film noir, a genre dated to the 1940s, the cynicism of Robert Towne’s screenplay made it perfect for the pessimistic 1970s. Trust in government and in wealthy capitalists like Noah Cross, the villain of the film, was at an all time low.
The film plays on a natural distrust between the powerful and the citizens who are governed by them. The result is that it still feels fresh and compelling today.
Learn most from CHINATOWN‘s rare successful example of a true antihero. For a protagonist, Jake Gittes often acts like a scumbag. And yet, Towne paints such a vivid picture of a corrupt Los Angeles that we the audience come to see him as our only hope.
The mystery is also incredibly carefully constructed, complex but not convoluted, with every detail that’s layered in early on serving an ultimate purpose.
6 . THE BREAKFAST CLUB, written by John Hughes
Few screenplays capture the experiences and feelings of being a teenager successfully. And few writers have done it quite as well and as consistently as John Hughes.
THE BREAKFAST CLUB, one of his best written screenplays, is a testament to how his writing broke down stereotypes and cliques to get to the real people inside.
With its small cast of characters and single location, THE BREAKFAST CLUB could almost be a play. It’s remarkable then and worth reading for how Hughes makes it feel so expansive. It’s a masterclass in balancing an ensemble so none of the characters, even the loudest, overwhelm the others.
Each character is distinct. Each has their own arc. Even though these arc take place over the course of a single day (real people rarely change that much in that short a time), it’s wholly believable.
It’s a testament to Hughes how much modern teen movies owe to him. EASY A, PITCH PERFECT and SPIDERMAN: HOMECOMING are all scripts that reference his work.
In his screenplay, Hughes manages to capture the very essence of what it is to be a teenager – raging hormones, insecurity, arrogance and emotional precarity.
THE BREAKFAST CLUB serves as the perfect template for a coming of age teen movie script, with fully rounded characters serving as the bedrock of this.
7. A FISH CALLED WANDA, written by John Cleese and Charles Crichton
A FISH CALLED WANDA is a screwball heist comedy caper that’s smart and witty but also incredibly broad, which lent it an incredible cross-audience appeal on original release. As well as being a hit with audiences, it was nominated for three Academy Awards (rare for a comedy!) including best screenplay.
John Cleese and Charles Crichton’s script is rich with characterisation and comic detail but also cleverly constructed, as might be expected from one of the talents behind Monty Python and Fawlty Towers.
The comedy is well-written because it comes within a careful structure, rather than feeling loose, sporadic or just there for the sake of it.
Learn most from how they refuse to sacrifice story for gags and vice-versa. They’re not mutually exclusive, it doesn’t have to be an either-or proposition.
This screenplay demonstrates that perfectly, serving up a compelling story filled to the brim with hilarious and memorable set-pieces.
8. THE THING, written by Bill Lancaster
An isolated location, a strong ensemble, creeping paranoia and an unforgettable monster. All these ingredients make THE THING a great horror script and a great horror movie.
Even on the page, without the infamous creature effects, Bill Lancaster’s screenplay for THE THING works. It steadily builds up the tension, trapping its characters between certain death in the Arctic outside and likely death from the monster inside.
From the opening moments, featuring the gruesome death of what looks like a dog, it’s clear that anyone could die at any moment. The script carefully crafts strong introductions for the characters through action wasting no time in starting the story.
These strong character types (another ensemble, but crucially an all-male one) are perfectly positioned, like MacReady’s game of Chess Wizard, to play off against each other.
As scary as the shape-shifting alien is, it’s the familiar horror theme of being unable to trust those around you that this script executes perfectly.
9. THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY, written by Barrie Keefe
THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY is underrated but is nevertheless a well-regarded classic of British crime cinema.
Most off all, Barrie Keefe’s screenplay creates a fascinating main character, a star-making role for Bob Hoskins. Harold Shand is full of contradictions. He’s a violent monster, and yet his fall from the top is wholly tragic, even Shakespearean. The script also gives the character small moments in which he reveals his vulnerabilities.
Shand is balanced out by his partner Victoria (in both senses), another brilliantly realised character. THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY is also a great example of how to use violence simply, shockingly and also comedically but without undermining its power in cinematic scenes.
10. ALIENS, written by James Cameron
How to top the austere sci-fi horror of the original ALIEN? The sequel, arriving seven years later, zig-zagged. Instead of continuing along the “old dark house in space” route, it multiplied its monsters. In the process, James Cameron gave us what might be the perfect action movie script.
It’s still horrific in places but as part of an overall thrill ride, a roller coaster of tension. Cameron’s writing style is immediate, efficient, impactful, and well worth studying.
It’s a great lesson in how to incorporate powerful themes while never slowing the action down. It is written with a calm hand, which considering the tension of the action, is impressive.
After losing her daughter to old age due to her being in cryo sleep, Ripley becomes a surrogate mother to Newt. She once again faces down corporate greed, the company man who accompanies them wanting to weaponize the aliens. Both come into play in the iconic climax.
Whilst most obviously falling into the Sci-Fi genre, ALIEN is also a fantastic thriller. The screenplay is a great example of how to mix genres to gripping effect. Neither genre is dampened by the other and they combine to make a story that is tense, imaginative and gripping overall.
11. WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, written by Nora Ephron
The prototypical romantic comedy, and still one of the finest of the genre. Arguably Nora Ephron’s best written screenplay and one that continues to bring audiences back to it (no matter how many times we’ve heard that famous catchphrase).
For those coming to the film or the script for the first time, its structure might be a surprise. Opening with a (documentary) interview with a married couple, it then covers twelve years in the lives of Harry and Sally after they first meet when driving to New York. It perfectly captures their complicated, messy lives and the randomness with which they keep bumping into each other, with a small but welcome sheen of Hollywood gloss over the top.
The problem with many “will they, won’t they” scripts and love-hate dynamics in rom-coms is that the script does too good a job of making the characters hate each other. If they’re really this mis-matched and dislike each other this much, the audience thinking goes, why should we root for them to end up together?
Here, Harry immediately gets on Sally’s nerves, but the screenplay is careful to give both of them three dimensions. Harry and Sally are both charming but both can be annoying.
Both begin as slightly immature, and can only gradually realise how suited they are for each other. The result, when they realise their loneliness without each other on New Year’s Eve, is magic.
The screenplay portrays what feels like a genuine and realistic romance, one complicated with messy human emotions. And yes that diner scene is not half bad either.
12. THELMA & LOUISE, written by Callie Khouri
A road movie with a fresh, personal spin, Callie Khouri won an Academy Award for her original screenplay for THELMA & LOUISE.
What screenwriters can learn most from this screenplay is how Callie Khouri takes characters from one extreme to another, from housewife and waitress to criminals on the run, in an entirely believable progression.
The friendship between Thelma and Louise is infectious and joyous. The script quickly draws the audience into them and their situation.
These are real, everyday, strong, believable, fully realised female characters. Well-written female characters like these are something rare in film both before and (frustratingly) since.
The THELMA & LOUISE screenplay shows how to build a believable friendship, as well as how to develop a plot to devastating cliffhanger ending.
The finale leaves the audience on the edge of their seats, and this is no easy feat, particularly for a script so focused around the drama of a friendship.
It’s one of the best movie scripts out there to learn from in portraying a complicated friendship and the dynamic between two very different, but inextricably connected, characters.
13. UNFORGIVEN, written by David Webb Peoples
UNFORGIVEN was a crucial step in reviving the Western and is another example of how to single-handedly revive a genre. David Webb Peoples’ well-written script uses both the cinematic legacy of the genre (aided in the film of course by Eastwood’s casting) and the real history of the period. It peels back layers of myths to deconstruct the popular cowboy image.
Its main character is an ageing, effectively retired mercenary, called back to his old ways. The stakes are powerful – not just his life, but his new life is at stake. Can he ever escape his former life of violence?
The genre’s ambivalence about law enforcement is also interrogated, with a truly corrupt, evil villain who nevertheless has believable motivations. It’s a simple story, as many Westerns are, but told in a compellingly dark and thrilling way.
The UNFORGIVEN screenplay shows how to both play with and honour genre trappings.
14. TRAINSPOTTING, written by John Hodge
How do you adapt a book like Trainspotting? Irvine Welsh’s novel about Scottish heroin junkies doesn’t immediately seem cinematic. There are so many characters and so many plot threads, where would you begin?
With the script for TRAINSPOTTING, John Hodge wisely jettisons little of the material, instead fashioning it into pure cinema on the page. Take note: this is how to do voiceover narration well!
The result is a script that is vivid, visual, alive, striking a difficult unique tone between comedy and tragedy.
Learn most from how, in its ensemble of characters, it captures a feeling of being alive at a certain time and in a certain generation that (heroin user or not) resonated with an unexpectedly large audience in the UK and US. The screenplay captures a late 20th century malaise with consumer culture.
“Choose a life. Choose a job.”
The TRAINSPOTTING screenplay, to put it simply, goes with the flow. It lets the wild emotion and experiences of the characters lead it and that is why it feels so intimate, despite portraying an experience that many audiences will not have had.
Furthermore, there is a poetic rhythm to much of the dialogue, one that feels very connected to the accents and dialects of the main characters.
This is a screenplay that perfectly demonstrates how to best encapsulate an energy and mood pertaining to the characters and their experience.
15. PULP FICTION, written by Quentin Tarantino
Does this even need an introduction? Tarantino’s masterful screenplays for RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION kick-started the rise of indie auteurs in the 1990s. They were scripts so charismatically written that they drew star talent instantly
PULP FICTION weaves together stock, archetypal crime and film noir stories into something that’s entirely fresh and entirely his own. His non-chronological storytelling and highly stylised dialogue make for a careful balancing act that feels like it might collapse but never does.
He attracts great actors to his scripts (even on RESERVOIR DOGS, his first proper film) in part because his dialogue is so fun to deliver. However, the lesson is not to copy Tarantino’s style wholesale, the way so many pale imitators did in the ’90s and early ’00s. Instead, find your obsession the way Tarantino found his, and then find a way to share it with the world.
What is it about Tarantino’s screenplays that so fascinate and beguile? How did he take his movie inspirations and obsessions and turn them into something fresh and exciting?
These are the questions to ask when reading his screenplays. Don’t get caught up in his unique style but let it teach you how to find your own writing style.
And whilst it’s his dialogue that often grabs the headlines, it’s actually Tarantino’s ear for storytelling that makes his scripts so unique and compelling. Studying the beats of the PULP FICTION script is a perfect place to start learning what makes that ear for storytelling so sharp.
16. BEFORE SUNRISE, written by Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan
Can you tell a story without conflict? Much of Richard Linklater’s work explores this idea. In BEFORE SUNRISE (written by Linklater and Kim Krizan), a simple meet-cute turns into a whole romantic evening, and what might be a single scene in another more complicated story earns an entire film to itself.
The only tension is in the few cultural differences between Jesse and Célineand the ticking clock that will soon force them to go their separate ways.
Young and with an idealistic conception of romance, Jesse and Céline nevertheless prove to be great company. If they weren’t, the film would completely fall apart.
There’s another great lesson in this script…
Because the script is so dependent on dialogue and equal between the two characters, Linklater realised his need for a female co-writer and so enlisted Krizan. For the screenplays of the subsequent films in the series, BEFORE SUNSET and BEFORE MIDNIGHT, Linklater shares a screenwriting credit with actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy.
Learn most from how these characters are only this strong because of the multiplicity of perspectives considered in their writing. A multiplicity of voices doesn’t always work for the writing of a screenplay, but this kind of intimate, character based story is the perfect example of where it can work best.
17. THE INCREDIBLES, written by Brad Bird
Superhero films are the genre du jour in blockbusters these days, and there are plenty of good and bad example screenplays within the genre, expertly written ones, poorly written ones and competently written ones.
However, Brad Bird might have perfected them even before the Marvel and DC universes kicked off. Brad Bird’s THE INCREDIBLES is not only a great superhero action film but a great family film. It balances its family ensemble perfectly, using the characters’ superpowers as metaphors for their personalities.
There’s a combination of the mundane with the fantastic that makes the story highly relatable to audiences of all ages (e.g. the climax revolves around a family fighting over a remote).
Learn most from how Bird, who has worked in animation for decades, knows the potential of the medium. He uses it to full advantage here, creating locations and set-pieces that would be prohibitively expensive or even impossible to achieve in live action.
THE INCREDIBLES screenplay is a great example of broad but engaging and entertaining storytelling. It contains brilliantly written action but is also infused with a lot of warmth.
It also serves as a brilliant example of the power Pixar scripts can have in balancing bold storytelling with accessibility.
18. SEXY BEAST, written by Louis Mellis and David Scinto
More surreal and absurd than your standard gangster outing, SEXY BEAST is a singular film. It’s comedic with flashes of violence, like many others of the genre.
The dialogue is top notch, particularly the verbal sparring between a former criminal gone soft and the unpredictably violent colleague sent to retrieve him.
But what lingers most is the imagery. The proceedings have the feel of a fever dream. Learn most from how Louis Mellis and David Scinto’s script feels subversive of the genre while still fulfilling exactly what’s required of it.
The visual storytelling here in this screenplay is sublime, penetrating the mind of the protagonist and serving up some memorable cinematic imagery.
This screenplay is a great example of how to go beyond the simple facts of the story at hand. SEXY BEAST has a fairly simple plot. But it’s the immersion in the characters’ interactions and states of mind that the film finds a unique territory to occupy.
Furthermore, the screenplay serves up a powerful villain in Ben Kingsley’s Don Logan. The way he is written demonstrates how to build tension in an antagonist. He’s a character built up to with suspense in the way other characters talk about him. When he finally arrives on screen he already has a huge and intimidating presence.
We also challenge you to find a more powerful and meaningful repetition of the word ‘No’ in cinematic history.
19. IN BRUGES, written by Martin McDonagh
Playwright, screenwriter and director Martin McDonagh has a knack for sharp dialogue, and IN BRUGES is one of his best screenplays. This script was nominated for an Academy Award.
What’s more, this is another script where throwaway lines of dialogue, even off-hand jokes, actually circle round and become integral to the plot.
At first, IN BRUGES is a simple hangout film, a series of loosely connected scenes following two hitmen hanging out in the Belgian city of the title. However, there’s an imperceptible yet very carefully constructed structure running underneath, revealing a beating heart underneath the cynical dialogue.
The IN BRUGES screenplay demonstrates how to best tell a sharp and meaningful story with wit and lightness. The subject matter is very heavy but the tone doesn’t feel so and instead of contrasting it, compliments it.
Martin McDonagh is one of the best modern screenwriters and this screenplay is a great example of the best of what he has to offer – wit, profundity, great characters and razor sharp dialogue.
It’s not an easy balance to pull off and if attempting it, look no further than the IN BRUGES screenplay to learn from.
20. WHIPLASH, written by Damien Chazelle
WHIPLASH is a “two hander” script. There are only two characters in the film (and a handful of very minor characters). It’s an extended battle of wills between pupil and student, a dynamic that only works when the pacing and characterisation is spot on.
Chazelle’s screenplays (this and LA LA LAND) show he knows when to amp up the tension and when to release it. He knows just how far to push the protagonist‘s dislikeability and when to have him cut down to size.
“Not quite my tempo”
What you can learn most from WHIPLASH is how its subject matter is both specific and relatable. Few viewers will care about jazz as much as the characters do. And yet the script makes the audience care because the characters care; anyone who’s ever tried to excel at something can understand.
Furthermore, in Terence Fletcher, we find one of recent cinema’s best villains. His charisma, presence and evil is expertly written into almost every interaction he makes with his students.
It’s hard to think of many other drama scripts that create such a terrifying and resonant villain.
Honourable mentions go to…
10 More Screenplays You Can Learn Most From That Just Missed the Cut:
These are ten more scripts that are fantastic to learn from.
In particular, the screenwriters behind these scripts are people who have established themselves as greats of the industry, as both writers and directors. But it’s in these scripts that their vision is clear to see. How these screenplays are written demonstrates how their screenwriters have risen to the top of the industry.
Furthermore, these scripts are ones that cement their creators as great writers, amidst their many other enviable talents.
- SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK by Charlie Kaufman
- THE VERDICT by Barry Reed
- THE GODFATHER by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola
- ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND by Charlie Kaufman
- ROOM by Emma Donoghue
- MEMENTO by Christopher Nolan
- THE THIRD MAN by Graham Greene
- THE GRADUATE by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry
- FARGO by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
- THE SIXTH SENSE by M. Night Shyamalan
Download the twenty screenplays you can learn most from here!
1. Some Like it Hot
2. North by Northwest
3. Dr Strangelove OR: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
6. The Breakfast Club
7. A Fish Called Wanda
8. The Thing
9. The Long Good Friday
11. When Harry Met Sally
12. Thelma & Louise
15. Pulp Fiction
16. Before Sunrise
17. The Incredibles
18. Sexy Beast
19. In Bruges