Screenwriters are filmmakers. So, in the same way that aspiring architects study buildings, aspiring screenwriters should study, first and foremost, the films themselves. A book like Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach
, by Paul Gulino, has beat by beat analysis of well known movies that illustrate story structure
, sequencing, plant and payoff and other techniques.
That said, there are a number of scripts that beautifully illustrate how screenwriters use the written word to indicate visuals, tone, style, pacing, structure, character, tension and action: words that define the finished movie like the lines of an architect's blueprint.
It is also very instructive to look at early drafts of screenplays to discover how the film was changed and revised during production. Sometimes brilliant scripts were made into mediocre movies. Sometimes problematic scripts were solved in the process of shooting and editing.
Here is a list of feature scripts that agents, executives, film school professors, and screenwriters themselves often cite as influential and instructive to aspiring screenwriters.
Five mainstream Hollywood scripts often cited as perfect in style, structure, content, and execution are:
- Die Hard
- Groundhog Day
- American Beauty
Since so many movies are adaptations, it is instructive for screenwriters to read the underlying material (usually a novel), and then read the screenplay adaptation. Five scripts often recommended are:
- Cider House Rules
- Silence of The Lambs
- The Shawshank Redemption
- The English Patient
Classic Scripts most often recommended:
- Treasure of The Sierra Madre
- The Sweet Smell of Success
- Some Like It Hot
- His Girl Friday
Taste in indie film is more eccentric and subjective. But I would list these independent voices as instructive to ALL screenwriters:
- Ronnie Rocket (unproduced script by David Lynch
- Mystery Train
- Lone Star
- The Spanish Prisoner
There are certain celebrity screenwriters who are able to write in such a way that reading the script is an enjoyable and enlightening experience, separate from the experience of watching the film. Love them or hate them, it’s instructive to read scripts by:
The Coen Brothers
Female scribes are often neglected in these lists, but men and women alike can learn from the unique voices of:
Here is the WGA’s list of the 101 Greatest Screenplays
with links to read them:
(However, you’ll need tomake friends with an agent, manager or film executive to get your hands on copies of the above.)
Every year “The Blacklist” is compiled by hundreds of film executives, each of whom contribute the names of up to ten of their favorite unproduced scripts of the year. 2010’s list can be found HERE
In general, in order to getcopies of screenplays on the net, go to: My pdf scripts Simply Scripts The Internet Script Database
(Also see answers to the related question: Screenwriting: Where can I download screenplays of films to read / study?
The key is to look for EARLY DRAFTS OF THE SCREENPLAY, not just the official “shooting script” which is often a simple transcription of the finished film.
Even maverick writer-directors working outside the Hollywood system and writers who want to challenge mainstream formulas of three-act-structure, conflict-centered storytelling, and concept-driven subject matter would do well to study these scripts. A screenplay is ultimately a communication tool, like a blueprint, to be given to actors, cinematographers, production designers and editors. Even if you aspire to make movies like Tarkovsky and HATED Lethal Weapon, you can still learn from the way successful screenwriters clearly and competently convey style and cinematic action to their collaborators.
As a final note, perhaps the best place to start is to read the screenplays for a couple of your favorite films. Reading them will feel like play rather than work. And there is no faster way to learn the format and tools of the screenwriter's craft.