Hollywood Screenplays Worth Studying

Stack of Screenplays

There is a reason the Writer’s Guild is currently in a fight to raise wages among screenwriters. It’s because without well-written screenplays there would be no entertainment industry. Screenplays are the backbone of every film and scripted television series. They serve as the blueprints which guide the entire production process forward. Fortunately for new screenwriters, one of the best ways to learn the craft and hone your skills is to simply study successful scripts. Therefore, let’s take a look at some of the best screenplays to come out of Hollywood. This short list, which is by no means comprehensive, includes 5 classics that are worth studying as an aspiring screenwriter.

Casablanca (1942)
Written by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch
Casablanca, for various reasons, is widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made and consistently ranks at the top of AFI’s top 100 list. A large part of Casablanca’s success is due to its impeccable and masterful screenplay. Surprisingly, and perhaps more impressively, the script was famously written on the fly. Nevertheless, the film's story of love and sacrifice in wartime Casablanca is a masterpiece of pacing, character development, and emotional resonance. The screenplay also features some of the most iconic lines in cinematic history, including "Here's looking at you, kid." and "We'll always have Paris." The writers of Casablanca managed to balance romance, drama, and comedy in a way that modern films continue to strive toward.

The Godfather (1972)
Written by Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo
The Godfather is a cinematic masterpiece, and its screenplay is one of the primary reasons for its success. Co-written by Francis Ford Coppola and original author Mario Puzo, The Godfather tells the story of the Corleone family and their rise to power in the world of organized crime. The script’s compelling narrative, themes, and structure allow it to be masterclass in storytelling as well as in character development. As you read The Godfather screenplay, pay special attention to Coppola and Puzo’s ability to create, and sustain, complex, multi-dimensional characters. These are just some of the reasons why The Godfather is a touchstone for aspiring screenwriters and a classic of American cinema.

Related: Why Aspiring Screenwriters Should Read Scripts

Chinatown (1974)
Written by Robert Towne
Chinatown is a classic film noir that is widely considered to be one of the greatest screenplays ever written. In 1975 it won Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards and was nominated for 10 additional Oscars. The screenplay is a complex and intricate tale of corruption, betrayal, and murder set in 1930s Los Angeles. It was a throw-back to the noir films of Hollywood’s golden age. While you read the script, study the careful plotting and gripping dramatic tension. The dialogue is sharp and intelligent, and the characters are richly drawn and fully realized. Additionally, you’ll be able to study the film's twist ending which is one of the most memorable in movie history. Take extra time to examine how the story masterfully guides audiences through its mystery.

Back to the Future (1985)
Written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale
Back to the Future is a timeless classic that has captured the hearts of audiences around the world since its release in 1985. This is partly due to the Back to the Future screenplay and its ability to blend elements from the genres of science fiction, comedy, and adventure. Zemeckis and Gale were able to present time travel in accessible through engaging and well-written exposition. Additionally, the script makes Marty a relatable and likable protagonist who audiences can root for, while Doc Brown is an eccentric but lovable mentor figure. Finally, Back to the Future is tightly structured with every scene serving a purpose and advancing the plot. Just one example of this is the film’s opening sequence featuring the clock tower which immediately establishes the importance of time and the clock tower itself in the story.

Pulp Fiction (1994)
Written by Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary
Pulp Fiction is a postmodern masterpiece that redefined the crime genre and influenced a generation of filmmakers. The non-linear screenplay, written by Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary, is a complex interwoven narrative that features memorable characters and scenes. The dialogue is sharp and witty which is a trademark of all Tarantino-penned scripts. This is a great film to study how a film’s structure can allow for a sense of unpredictability and surprise. This is one of the elements that keeps audiences on the edge of their seats. Pulp Fiction's influence on modern cinema cannot be overstated, and its screenplay is a true masterpiece of the crime genre. Make sure this script gets added to your reading list.

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