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February 25, 2022

Top 10 Best Screenwriters of All Time

In any profession, it's wise to look at the field's greats and see what we can learn from them. The tricky bit with screenwriting is that writers are rarely public-facing figures, so it's sometimes tricky to figure out who exactly is in that hall of fame. Today, I will highlight ten of the best screenwriters who've ever lived. Some of these folks are directors too, but we're exclusively thinking about their screenwriting today.

And a quick disclaimer: This list is in no particular order.

Top 10 best screenwriters

Walter Hill

Though he went uncredited for his extensive writing work on Alien, Hill's script has gone down as a bit of a folk legend among screenwriters. The script is supremely influential to this day because of its intensely anemic and impressionistic style, forgoing any semblance of purple prose and keeping most action lines to a single sentence or line.

Alien shows a true mastery of the craft, but his scripts for The Driver, The Warriors, and Southern Comfort show how a stripped-back writing style can wring the most out of simple but bountiful premises.

Akira Kurosawa

A true legend of Japanese cinema who wrote over 80 films and TV projects, Kurosawa was a master of both directing and storytelling. His stories stretch from the intimate to the epic, never forgetting the human in the middle of the story. With a distinctly existential edge to his most famous works, Kurosawa loves throwing characters into situations that fundamentally test who they think they are.

Every writer should read and watch Rashomon, which uses the medium of storytelling itself as the central thematic fulcrum of the script.

Nora Ephron

Perhaps the most excellent rom-com writer to ever have lived, Nora Ephron may not have strayed far from the central theme of love, but her stories have explored it like no others. Her scripts that could almost function as stage plays have such an intimate understanding of their characters that they don't feel like characters but truly fleshed out people.

Though her screenplays are all great, nothing beats When Harry Met Sally for its unconventional structure, brilliant character work, and such thematic incisiveness that the story still informs relationships to this very day.

When Harry Met Sally movie poster.

Spike Lee

While some writers try to blend in with the crowd, others strike out and do what's unique to them. It's pretty easy to tell when you're watching a Spike Lee movie, but that isn't a bad thing. His singular, abrasive, rebellious, and energetic style cuts through any pretension and finds the heart of whatever issue he's investigating.

I'd check out the back-to-back run of Do the Right Thing, Mo' Better Blues, Jungle Fever, and Malcolm X to show how a playful attitude to the form of cinema provides fresh perspectives on thorny issues.

The Coen Brothers

None of all the writers I'm highlighting today are more outwardly Shakespearean than the Coen Brothers. Each of their scripts has such a compelling central protagonist that it is forced to deal with some form of crime and the moral and legal repercussions of whatever mess they've gotten themselves into. Rarely has morality, justice, and religion been so effortlessly intertwined.

I recommend the endlessly enjoyable Fargo as a prime example of the trademark Coen absurdity potently mixed with dark existentialism and brutality that results in such a particular tonal ending that no other writer has ever been able to replicate successfully.

Aaron Sorkin

If you have heard of any of these writers, it's undoubtedly this guy. Truly the king of modern screenwriting, Aaron Sorkin made a name for himself on shows like The West Wing and movies like A Few Good Men with lightning-fast dialogue, quippy exchanges, and intelligent characters that it's hard not to be swept off your feet. You can feel his playwright roots in much of what he writes, but we're all the better for experiencing it.

The screenplay for The Social Network is a modern classic of the form. Every scene shows such a mastery of dramaturgy that it's hard to recommend any other screenplay for the learning screenwriter to read first.

William Goldman

William Goldman is the definition of the screenwriter's screenwriter. Though the public at large loves many others, there's perhaps no one better loved by those in the profession than Goldman. This is in part due to his excellent scripts for films like The Princess Bride, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and All the President's Men, but also due to his book Adventures in the Screen Trade.

Every writer needs to read Adventures in the Screen Trade, a part instructional book and part memoir that analyzes how movies get made in Hollywood and what goes into writing them.

Shonda Rhimes

Rhimes is the empress of Hollywood. After helming a truly legendary amount of TV shows over the past three decades, Rhimes has earned the respect of just about everyone in the industry for her work ethic, prolific output, and positive impact on the industry at large. The new golden age of TV is thanks to Rhimes's influential work on Grey's Anatomy and Scandal.

If you are able, I highly recommend checking out her class on Masterclass. Though screenwriters can talk about their work for ages, Rhimes explains the nuts and bolts of the craft in such a straightforward manner that it becomes less of an instructional class and more of an inspirational boost to any writer, regardless of their prestige.

Grey'a Anatomy movie poster.

Charlie Kaufman

"Weird" is often the first-word people use to describe this unique writer. Though his outward personality is idiosyncratic at best, his writing is all the better for it. Kaufman has single-handedly produced some of the most singular stories Hollywood has to offer, exploring the neurotic, absurd, and plain frightening aspects of everyday life.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a masterclass of narrative inventiveness, Synecdoche, New York is probably the most unique film I have ever seen, and Adaptation is the best story written about writing stories. These are must-reads for the emerging screenwriter.

Billy Wilder

Despite being an immigrant from Austro-Hungary, Billy Wilder's work has come to define Hollywood as we know it. No other writer was able to get under the skin of the everyday American experience quite like Wilder, using ordinary people (who are incredible wisecrackers) to explore the morally degenerate and thematically up-lifting.

Despite being made in 1960, The Apartment holds up extraordinarily well in modernity as an almost Shakespearean story in its intricacy and attention to character. Wilder nearly predicted the MeToo movement over five decades before it began.

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Top 10 Best Screenwriters of All Time
Alex D. Reid

Alex is a professional screenwriter who loves writing horror. He won the horror category at Austin Film Festival for his screenplay Delirium in 2019 and is currently studying for a Ph.D in English Literature with a focus on the horror genre

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