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Why Study Screenplays?
The craft of screenwriting opens itself up when one reads the best screenplays in the film world. By studying great screenplays, writers learn scriptwriting techniques which range from how to format stage direction to how a great character arc really looks on the page. Many screenwriters begin their careers as script readers for Hollywood agencies or studios. But you don’t have to be employed as a script reader to study the best movie screenplays of our time. Many are available in libraries or online.
The 9 Best Screenplays to Learn From
If you’re serious about screenwriting, make reading scripts a part of your regular routine. Here is a list of some of the greatest screenplays in the world of filmmaking. Consider starting your reading journey with these produced screenplays and build from there:
- Citizen Kane by Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles (1941): For many cinephiles, Citizen Kane is the movie that changed filmmaking as we know it. In no small part, this is due to the visionary directing style by auteur Orson Welles. But the script is a masterpiece in its own right. The arc of the deeply flawed Charles Foster Kane is a tutorial on how to adapt a real-life figure for use in a fiction film. In the case of Citizen Kane, that real-life figure was William Randolph Hearst, but his story is merely a jumping-off point for this epic film.
- Casablanca by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch (1942): Casablanca redefined cinema in the 1940s, with its incredible subtlety and character depth. The screenplay allows character traits to manifest via action, so even though it is a dialogue-heavy film, that dialogue never feels tedious or overly expository.
- The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1976) by Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo: The first two films in the Godfather trilogy put a human face on the shadowy figures of organized crime that dominated the era in which the films were made. What’s notable about these feature film screenplays is their ability to merge the epic with the picayune. In one scene, Coppola and Puzo concoct drama worthy of William Shakespeare, and in the next scene they delve into the workaday details that perfectly capture Italian American family life in greater New York. Consequently, both of these movies are often cited in debates about the greatest film of all time.
- The Silence of the Lambs by Ted Tally (1991): Tally’s adaptation of the Thomas Harris novel is an exemplary blockbuster thriller. It combines a classic tormented hero, an iconic version of Hannibal Lecter, and a demented central plot that’s impossible to look away from. At the Academy Awards, Tally took home the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Study The Silence of the Lambs to see how great scripts can incorporate lurid material without losing their artistic integrity.
- Pulp Fiction by Quentin Tarantino (1994): Pulp Fiction inspired a generation of screenwriters with its nonlinear story structure and multiple plotlines—an unconventional approach to A-story and B-story. Pulp Fiction’s rapid-fire dialogue has often been imitated but rarely equaled. Seek out this script to see how Tarantino makes it all work on the page.
- Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind by Charlie Kaufman (2004): Charlie Kaufman convinced major Hollywood producers that weirdness could be a virtue and—if properly marketed—it could even lead to hits. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Kaufman merges a futuristic premise (intentional memory erasure) with the realistic rhythms of two people falling in and out of love. The film script demonstrates how to balance both high-concept and low-concept story elements.
- Some Like It Hot by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond (1959): Some Like It Hot is the film that launched a hundred screwball comedies. Its wacky premise features the cross-dressing Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis meeting up with the hypnotizing Marilyn Monroe in a story filled with surprise and mistaken identity. Use this script to study pacing and ways of conveying energy within a scene.
- Fargo by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (1996): If anyone ever tells you that a film can’t be funny, suspenseful, morbid, and downright strange all at the same time, sit them down and make them watch Fargo. Its representation of the Coens’ home state of Minnesota, combined with a tension-inducing story of a simple plan gone horribly awry, has made it a classic from film school classrooms to Writers Guild screenings to home viewing sessions.
- Chinatown by Robert Towne (1974): Chinatown shines for its ability to pay homage to the classic noir films of early American cinema without sacrificing thematic resonance. Observe the way this script blends style and substance.
Of course these nine screenplays are a mere starting point. As you work on your own spec script, seek out as many great screenplays as you can—including but not limited to Alan Ball’s American Beauty, William Goldman’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Christopher McQuarrie’s The Usual Suspects, Jeb Stuart and Steven de Souza’s Die Hard, Paddy Chayefsky’s Network. Read them carefully because if you want to be the best, you’ll want to study the best.
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