A collage grid of 15 famous movie posters including Casablanca, The Godfather, Pulp Fiction, The Silence of the Lambs, and more.

15 Best Screenplays to Learn from as Aspiring Screenwriters

Every aspiring screenwriter knows that reading successful scripts is absolutely essential for learning the craft.

By studying how professional screenwriters structure their stories, develop complex characters, write witty dialogue and bring movie magic to the page, you can improve your own screenwriting skills.

But with thousands of produced scripts out there, which ones are the absolute must-reads for new writers?

I’ve compiled this list of the 15 best screenplays that every aspiring screenwriter should dive into to gain screenwriting knowledge.

These scripts have stood the test of time due to their razor-sharp writing, memorable characters and ability to keep audiences hooked from fade-in to fade-out.

Learn from the masters of the craft by studying these brilliantly written screenplays that launched iconic films.

  1. Casablanca (1942)

Widely considered one of the greatest scripts ever written, Casablanca teaches aspiring screenwriters volumes about sharp character development and timeless romantic tension.

Written by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch, the script contains some of the most quotable movie dialogues that cinephiles still reference today such as “Here’s looking at you, kid”, “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine” and “Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By’”.

By using subtle exchanges of dialogue and glances between Rick and Ilsa, the script builds an undercurrent of emotional and sexual tension that erupts in the end when Rick makes the ultimate sacrifice for love.

Casablanca demonstrates how to craft multidimensional characters that leave a lasting impression through restrained but powerful dialogue.

  1. The Godfather (1972)

Adapted from the bestselling novel by Mario Puzo, The Godfather script is a masterclass in developing complex character arcs and moral ambiguity. It’s near-perfect pacing also demonstrates expert command over the overall story structure.

The script deftly handles multiple character arcs, interweaving violent mob wars with tender family moments. In particular, it tracks eldest son Michael Corleone’s loss of innocence as he’s drawn deeper into the ruthless family business. Scenes are laden with subtext and irony, forcing audiences to question their sympathies.

From the iconic horse-head scene to Don Corleone’s garden heart-attack, the script is packed with memorable dramatic beats that build tension and foreshadow events to come.

Aspiring screenwriters should study it as an example of subtle theme development through crystal-clear character motivations and actions.

  1. Pulp Fiction (1994)

Quentin Tarantino’s cult classic Pulp Fiction shows aspiring writers how to play around with narrative structure in an engaging way. The script utilizes nonlinear sequencing and interlocking storylines to create a stylized landscape of offbeat characters.

Tarantino employs plenty of dark humor, razor-sharp dialogue and pop culture references to create iconic moments that stick in viewers’ minds. The twisting narrative rewards audiences for paying attention to subtle clues peppered throughout.

Notably, the script deviates from standard screenplay format to capture Tarantino’s unique voice and make the reading experience more immersive. For screenwriters looking to break conventions, Pulp Fiction demonstrates fearless originality done right.

  1. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

This multiple Oscar-winning script written by Ted Tally provides an masterclass in crafting thrillers that truly thrill. It introduces one of cinema’s most chilling and sophisticated villains, Hannibal Lecter, trading perilous words with FBI agent Clarice Starling.

The relationship between Clarice and Hannibal forms the script’s spine, as he delves into her psyche while helping track a separate serial killer.

Every scene crackles with electric tension and foreshadowing that pays off satisfyingly. It’s a brilliant study in protagonist growth, as Clarice overcomes significant obstacles and inner demons on her hero’s journey.

Aspiring thriller writers should explore how the script carefully calibrates visceral scares, mind games and plot twists that keep audiences both frightened and fully invested in the characters.

  1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

This fantastically original script from Charlie Kaufman provides important lessons in premise generation and nonlinear structure. It uses a reverse chronological order to unfold the scientifically induced memory erasure of a broken relationship.

Scenes constantly subvert expectations by jumping backward in time to rewrite the audience’s understanding of events. The device challenges screenwriters to access character psychology and backstory in creative ways.

Despite the high-concept sci-fi premise, the script maintains emotional resonance through vivid slices of relatable relationship dynamics.

Aspiring writers should study how Kaufman weaves genre-bending ideas with human pathos by keeping characters and their flawed decisions front and center.

  1. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Frank Darabont’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novella demonstrates the power of executing an uplifting theme to craft a truly cathartic viewing experience. Protagonist Andy Dufresne’s growth from wrongly convicted prisoner to free man parallels fellow inmate Red’s redemption.

The script expertly tracks their emotional journeys through patient character development, folding in backstory gradually to reveal motivations. Although set in a bleak prison, hopeful themes of resilience and camaraderie shine through.

Writers aiming to move audiences can learn valuable lessons from this script’s elegant emotional beats and perfectly paced climax.

The ending, when Red finally breaks parole to meet Andy on the Pacific shore, offers an unforgettable emotional payoff for both characters and viewers after enduring the long, difficult journey.

  1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Lawrence Kasdan and George Lucas’ legendary adventure script whipped up an instant classic in Indiana Jones, crafting white-knuckle cliffhangers and pulse-pounding sequences. It’s an excellent case study for aspiring writers looking to master action screenwriting.

The Nazis seeking biblical relics and booby-trapped temples create high stakes, while Jones’ whip-smart problem solving keeps peril felt. The obstacles constantly build upon each other, with witty asides offering delightful punctuations of levity.

Perhaps most impressively, the story moves at a relentless pace but still thoughtfully establishes Jones’ motivations and vulnerability, keeping viewers invested through every chase. Above all, it captures a genuine sense of wonder and adventure vital to the action genre.

  1. When Harry Met Sally (1989)

Nora Ephron’s beloved romantic comedy script masterfully blends laugh-out-loud humor with sincere poignancy. The central “Can men and women just be friends?” dilemma plays out through witty exchanges between Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan as the stubborn pair deny their growing attraction.

Scenes shine light on relationship truths through Ephron’s razor-sharp dialogue. The karaoke scene where an older couple discusses love stands out for imparting wisdom. Ephron layers in clever metaphors like Harry and Sally’s opposing views on ordering food.

The alternation between comic moments and earnest emotion exemplifies expert tonal control throughout the script. The ending proposal scene when the couple finally realizes their friendship has blossomed into more encapsulates themagic touch that makes this script required reading for aspiring rom-com scribes.

  1. Chinatown (1974)

Robert Towne’s intelligent script for this noir mystery thriller employs atmospheric tension, morally ambiguous characters and an intricate plot involving political corruption and deception.

The protagonist J.J. Gittes’ persistent probing of a seemingly routine adultery case leads to the uncovering of challenging truths.

The script masterfully plays with audience expectations, peppering clues that take on new significances with each twist and turn. The final revelation upends everything Gittes and viewers think they’ve learned.

For screenwriters aiming to perfect the art of the twist, Chinatown offers invaluable lessons in subtext, elegant foreshadowing and pulling the rug out from audiences in a narratively satisfying way.

  1. Toy Story (1995)

Alongside its pioneering computer animation, Pixar’s first feature revolutionized family films through whip-smart writing full of heart, colorful characters and winking pop culture references.

The premise of sentient toys exploring ideas of purpose and destiny when humans aren’t around provide the foundation for impactful themes of friendship, growing up and finding one’s place in the world.

The hilarious odd couple pairing of earnest cowboy Woody and rebellious space ranger Buzz as mismatched friends forced to overcome their differences could teach aspiring writers volumes about crafting relationship-driven conflict. Toy Story proved even films aimed at children could tell impactful stories that resonate with audiences of all ages.

  1. The Truman Show (1998)

Andrew Niccol’s prescient script explores reality television and surveillance culture through an ingenious high-concept premise – Truman Burbank’s life is unknowingly broadcast continuously as a global 24/7 soap opera.

The airtight plotting offers valuable lessons about slowly revealing world truths through clever exposition. Truman noticing staged anomalies in his surroundings allows the screenplay to organically disclose the truth without obvious exposition dumps.

The script’s masterful balance of cerebral social commentary with an emotional character journey makes it required reading. Truman breaking free from manufactured reality to discover his agency provides a cathartic conclusion.

  1. Thelma & Louise (1991)

Callie Khouri’s groundbreaking script created one of cinema’s greatest feminist tales by subverting conventions. Instead of demonizing the central characters on the run after an accidental murder, the screenplay makes them complex antiheroines that earn audience sympathy and respect.

Each escalating criminal act serves as an act of empowerment, with humorous moments punctuating the darker descent. The bittersweet ending offers a profound emotional release.

For writers looking to challenge genre tropes and expectations, Thelma and Louise shows the power of crafting fully-realized female protagonists that boldly break the mold.

  1. Die Hard (1988)

This fantastically entertaining action film redefined the genre by employing an everyday protagonist in John McClane. Wisecracking cop McClane uses his grit and wit – not superhuman abilities – to foil a terrorist takeover of an office building.

Steven E. de Souza and Jeb Stuart’s script masters escalating tension and stakes through McClane’s daring cat-and-mouse game with exceptional pacing and razor-sharp dialogue amid the thrill-ride set pieces.

McClane’s relatable vulnerability crucially draws viewers in as he clings to his humanity while single-handedly saving the day.

Aspiring writers should note how the script takes an elegant high-concept premise and grounds it with genuine character development.

  1. The Social Network (2010)

Aaron Sorkin’s rapid-fire script captures the obsessive drive of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg by depicting his genius and flaws in equal measure. It masterfully adapts the sprawling story into a propulsive character study about the costs of success.

Sorkin’s use of tightly-written exchanges, cleverly integrated exposition and evocative language mirrors Zuckerberg’s own relentless focus and innovative thinking. Short vignettes provide insight into the entrepreneurial mindset through behavioral details.

For screenwriters hoping to write real-life inspired stories, The Social Network demonstrates how to turn potentially dry concepts into a wholly cinematic viewing experience through larger-than-life characters and thematic depth.

  1. The Matrix (1999)

The Wachowskis’ seminal sci-fi script introduced visionary new cinematic concepts through a thrilling cyberpunk story questioning reality and human existence. Beyond its groundbreaking action set-pieces, the screenplay succeeds largely through fully-realized characters.

Neo’s emotional refusing-the-call and disillusionment anchors the high-concept premise in relatable psychology. The rich philosophical themes and religious symbolism add further substance without overshadowing the explosive plot.

For screenwriters attempting big-canvas worldbuilding, The Matrix perfectly grounds its ambitious ideas in universal human struggles. It proves thought-provoking concepts married with electrifying visual storytelling captivate audiences.

Key Takeaways – Best Screenplays to Learn from

Reading produced scripts should be a cornerstone of every aspiring screenwriter’s learning process. Dissecting how master scribes successfully translated ideas to the page provides endless writing lessons.

Some key takeaways from studying excellent screenplays like the 15 above include:

  • Memorable characters drive the best stories. Complex, flawed and surprising protagonists engage viewers across any genre or concept.
  • Genre conventions exist to be subverted. Surprising audiences with unconventional narratives and plot twists keeps things fresh.
  • Relatable struggles and universal emotional truths resonate. The most moving stories explore what it means to be human.
  • Conflict drives momentum. High stakes unfolding at a gripping pace immerse audiences.
  • Masterful dialogue has a distinctive voice. Concise, impactful exchanges reveal character and advance the narrative.
  • Nearly every scene should reveal new character insights or plot points. Avoid filler.
  • Payoffs feel most satisfying when set up properly. Plant important clues and foreshadowing early on.
  • The best high-concept premises are grounded in real character motivations and psychology.

So read these iconic screenplays and more with a critical eye for how the writers’ choices and techniques resonate with audiences. Identify what works, what doesn’t, and why.

Then implement the lessons learned in your own writing to develop authentic screenwriting mastery. Remember that talent can be honed through diligent study and practice.

By learning from these best-of-the-best scripts, you’ll have models of excellence to inspire your own future masterpieces. The blank page is yours to fill – so make it a story worth telling.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the best script of all time?

Many consider Casablanca or The Godfather to have the best scripts of all time due to their sharp dialogue, complex characters, and enduring themes. Casablanca’s script in particular is renowned for its memorable quotes and romantic tension.

What is the #1 rule when writing a screenplay?

The #1 rule is to make sure your script keeps moving the story forward. Every scene and line of dialogue should reveal new information, develop characters, or advance the central conflict. Avoid filler.

What are the 3 C’s of writing a good script?

The 3 C’s are:

  • Clarity – The plot and character motivations should be clear and easy to follow.
  • Concision – Don’t waste words. Make your writing tight and lean.
  • Compelling – Hook the reader from page 1. Create an emotional connection to the story.

Who is considered the greatest screenwriter of all time?

While subjective, many consider William Goldman the greatest ever for acclaimed scripts like Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and All The President’s Men. Others cite Ernest Lehman (North By Northwest), Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather), and Robert Towne (Chinatown).

Which film has the best screenplay?

Casablanca and The Godfather are consistently ranked among films with the best screenplays. Pulp Fiction, Chinatown, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and The Shawshank Redemption also frequently top lists for their brilliant writing.

Who is the youngest script writer ever?

Flora Cross is believed to be the youngest credited Hollywood screenwriter, having written the film Bee Season in 2005 at the age of 15 based on her own novel.

How many pages of a screenplay should I write per day?

Experts recommend writing 5-10 polished pages per day on a script. Quality over quantity is key – consistent daily writing yields finished scripts faster than trying to write large amounts at once.

What is the hardest part of writing a screenplay?

Many writers find developing a truly compelling premise and characters to be the most challenging aspects. Perfecting pacing and plot to keep viewers engaged is also difficult. Writing convincing dialogue is another common obstacle.

What should be in the first 10 pages of a screenplay?

The beginning should immediately establish the central protagonist and conflict, provide a compelling inciting incident, and set the overall tone and style. The first 10 pages are crucial for hooking the reader’s interest.

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