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April 5, 2022

9 Best Screenplays To Read (For Any Screenwriting Lesson)

If you prefer to learn screenwriting through reading, there is no shortage of books and blogs to check out. (This is one of them.) But in my opinion, the best things to read are the screenplays themselves.

Here are a my pick of the top 9 best screenplays to check out and things they do exceptionally well that you can borrow (or straight-up steal!) to make your work stronger.

Top 9 best screenplays from every genre


Barry Jenkins does so well in his adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney's play to break the rule of including "unfilmable." Many big scenes don't include specific actions, but lines like:

Did the world just move?


A long pause from Kevin, the song wedging itself in his thoughts right now, pushing everything aside.

The script is full of great stuff like this, and reading this one (and If Beale Street Could Talk as well) will help you see that this "rule" can be broken fairly regularly if done so clearly and with intention.


If you've studied film editing in any way, you've learned about the Kuleshov effect. Eric Heisserer's adaptation of Ted Chiang's short effectively uses it in a structural sense.

After you read, reflect on the structure of this script and how the order of information affects the story separate from chronology, and look at the ways it uses the audience's assumptions against them to the effect that mirrors perfectly with the premise itself.

The Social Network

The Social Network movie poster.
Aaron Sorkin shows his mastery of dialogue and subtext in the Social Network.

The reason Aaron Sorkin is consistently in the conversation about good dialogue isn't just because his characters are intelligent and witty. It's because he understands that dialogue is effectively action, and here there's such a pinpoint on the way people speak to each other and are spoken to that impacts their feelings.

As you read, see if you can identify the subtext underneath each line, and then look at how the scene construction is robust even without the lines themselves. Every scene has significant dramatic underpinnings, so almost any dialogue that reflects it will work, but having it be so intelligent and witty is what elevates it.

Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid

As you read, ask yourself what genre this William Goldman script is in.

Is it a western masquerading as a comedy? Or is it a comedy masquerading as a western? Or underneath either of those, is it a tragedy that neither the characters nor the audience sees until it's too late?

This script is an excellent example of how mood and tone do not have to match the subject matter perfectly, and at times it can intentionally obscure meaning.

Back To The Future

Two words: setup and payoff.

Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale planted setup after setup after setup and then knocked them down one after the other. They make it look easy, but this script is still just a masterclass in this straightforward tool that, when used effectively, produces one dopamine hit after another.


Hitchcock's film overshadows Ben Hecht's screenplay adaptation of John Taintor Foote's story, but in my opinion, the premise is the real star of this thing.

This script's story setup is the closest thing to "bulletproof" I've ever read, simultaneously high-concept and character-focused.

(The only argument against the "bulletproof-ness" of this premise can be found in Mission: Impossible II, which borrowed the setup wholesale and it didn't fare too well.)

Did you know Mission: Impossible II is a remake of Hitchcock's Notorious?


Charlie Kaufman's quasi-biographical, meta-story about adapting Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief is worth your time to read to see the types of stories that are available to tell. (Plus, it's just great to commiserate with someone over the process of adapting someone else's work.)

Charlie Kaufman's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (and its excellent use of flashbacks) also shows up often on lists of top screenplays. It is equally worth reading, just for more examples of his craft and style as examples of how he approaches writing/art.

The Prestige

I'm going to say it: This script should be a mess. The reader is bouncing in and out of competing perspectives, often nested within another, jumping through various points in time.

Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan adapted Christopher Priest's novel and somehow cleverly keep us oriented despite it all.

While folks may argue that it's neither Jonathan's nor Christopher's most thought-provoking or insightful work, it's their most earnest, which is a tough feat considering the perspective-hopping, time-jumping aspects I mentioned earlier.

When Harry Met Sally

Meg Ryan and Billy Cyrstal in a still for When Harry Met Sally.
When Harry Met Sally is not your average rom-com.

Romantic comedies have been unfairly diminished as worthwhile for years now. While a slew of bad imitators is partially to blame, Nora Ephron's work here still doesn't get the credit it deserves, in my opinion.

While her comedy in this script has been tallied, I think the underlying drama of this script makes it work. The stakes are minimal: these two people may lose their friendship. The film doesn't even imply that it will irreparably destroy them. But as a reader, the stakes of losing their friendship feel like life and death.

One could argue that the stakes aren't about their friendship, but about their romantic relationship, but I think the film implies that the friendship is underneath that, supporting their romantic involvement on top.

So what's ostensibly to blame for the endless New York meet-cute knockoff scripts deep down isn't about romance at all, but relationships, and it's this thoughtfulness that I think deserves more attention.

Read your favorite screenplay

I'm not just writing this because I couldn't find a tenth. Seriously, reading your favorite screenplay (even if you don't think it's the best or if you think it's a "guilty pleasure") can help you uncover lessons not only about writing but about yourself.

We often know our favorite works deeper than even we realize. When you're so familiar with something, there's a comfort that allows you to explore nooks and crannies as they relate to the whole. It's much easier for me to see a detail about the whole when I've read something multiple times, and to be honest, if I'm going to read something numerous times, I'd like it to be something I enjoy!

Bruce Lee said he's not afraid of the guy that practiced a thousand kicks; he's afraid of the guy that practiced one kick a thousand times. 

Reading and rereading scripts is a great way to learn what's going on, and favorites are easier to reread.

Further reading

For more screenplays worth reading, check out the 20 Best Original Screenplays of All Time and the 15 Best Adapted Screenplays of All Time.


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9 Best Screenplays To Read (For Any Screenwriting Lesson)
David Wappel

David Wappel is a feature writer. Recent work includes the screenplay for Long Gone By, now available on HBO. He was named a Top 25 Screenwriter to Watch in 2020 by the ISA and is the 2019 Stowe Story Labs Fellowship winner. He is an avid Shakespeare and Tolkien fan.

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