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 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. Fortunately, we’ve collected twenty of the very best. A contentious list, maybe, but scroll down to check out not necessarily the 20 best screenplays of all time, but 20 we feel you can learn most from.
The 20 Screenplays
SOME LIKE IT HOT 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.
NORTH BY NORTHWEST 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 greatest spy thrillers to come out of classic Hollywood.
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. Even though the plot is, from one view, nonsensical, you’d never realise that from watching or reading it.
“That plane’s dusting crops where there ain’t no crops.”
DR STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB 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.
Learn most from how it 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.
It’s also a wonderful study in 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?
NETWORK 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.
CHINATOWN by Robert Towne
CHINATOWN is one of the greatest screenplays (and films!) to come out of New Hollywood. It’s a great example of how to update a classic genre and a period setting for modern times.
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 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.
THE BREAKFAST CLUB by John Hughes
Few screenplays capture the experiences and feelings of being a teenager successfully. Few writers have done it quite as well and as consistently as John Hughes. THE BREAKFAST CLUB, one of his best, 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 take place over the course of a single day (real people rarely change that much in that short a time), it’s believable.
It’s a testament to Hughes how much modern teen movies owe to him. EASY A, PITCH PERFECT and SPIDERMAN: HOMECOMING all reference his work.
A FISH CALLED WANDA 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 for 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.
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.
THE THING 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 script 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.
THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY by Barrie Keefe
THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY is underrated but is nevertheless a classic of British crime cinema.
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.
ALIENS 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. 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.
WHEN HARRY MET SALLY by Nora Ephron
The prototypical romantic comedy, and still one of the finest of the genre. 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. 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” 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.
THELMA & LOUISE by Callie Khouri
A road movie with a fresh, personal spin, Callie Khouri won an Academy Award for her original screenplay for THELMA & LOUISE.
Learn most from how Callie Khouri takes characters from one extreme to another, from housewife and waitress to criminals on the run, in an entirely believable story 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. This is something rare in film both before and (sadly) since.
UNFORGIVEN by David Webb Peoples
For a while, it seemed like Westerns were dead. However, they’re only dead until the next great one. UNFORGIVEN is another example of how to single-handedly revive a genre.
David Webb Peoples’ 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.
TRAINSPOTTING 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 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.
PULP FICTION by Quentin Tarantino
Does this need an introduction? Tarantino’s masterful screenplays for RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION kick-started the rise of indie auteurs in the 1990s.
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 (even on RESERVOIR DOGS, his first proper film) 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.
BEFORE SUNRISE by Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan
Can you tell a story without conflict? Much of Richard Linklater’s work explores this idea. Here, 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 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.
THE INCREDIBLES by Brad Bird
Superhero films are the genre du jour in blockbusters these days, and there are plenty of good and bad example screenplays. 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.
SEXY BEAST 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 inexplicable, are the images. 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.
IN BRUGES 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.
WHIPLASH by Damien Chazelle
WHIPLASH is a “two hander.” 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 story 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.
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.
Honourable mentions go to…
10 More Screenplays You Can Learn Most From That Just Missed the Cut:
- SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK by Charlie Kaufman
- THE VERDICT by Barry Reed
- THE GODFATHER by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola
- CASABLANCA by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch
- 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