Learn Screenwriting Lessons by Reading Screenplays — 10 Best of the Best - Writer's Digest

Learn Screenwriting Lessons by Reading Screenplays — 10 Best of the Best

Reading great screenplays provides valuable screenwriting lessons for both emerging or seasoned writers. Professional script reader Ray Morton points out the craft tips in ten of his favorite scripts.
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Reading great screenplays provides valuable screenwriting lessons for both emerging or seasoned writers. Professional script reader Ray Morton points out the craft tips in ten of his favorite scripts.

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Editor's note: The linked screenplays are for educational purposes only.

There's never a bad time to look at a few Oscar®-winning screenplays and see what valuable lessons they can teach us.

One hundred seventy-four writing awards have been handed out over the 80-year history of the Oscars, but obviously we can’t examine them all, so I have selected a few of my favorites for us to explore:

Casablanca (1942)

Screenplay by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch, based on the play Everybody Comes to Rick’sby Murray Burnett and Joan Alison

Download the screenplay here.

Reading great screenplays provides valuable screenwriting lessons for both emerging or seasoned writers. Professional script reader Ray Morton points out the craft tips in ten of his favorite scripts.

As I have written elsewhere, I consider Casablanca to be the best movie to ever come out of the American studio system and a brilliant example of the craft of screenwriting. To begin with, it tells an entertaining story that is both thrilling and romantic and that has an absolutely crackerjack theme—when the chips are down, we must sacrifice our personal desires for the greater good and doing so ennobles us. the arc of the story’s protagonist directly embodies this theme—Rick Blaine is a former freedom fighter who, embittered by past disappointments, now sticks his neck out for no one. When his old flame Ilsa Lund throws herself at him—offering to run off with him if he’ll help her husband, a fugitive resistance fighter, escape from the Nazis—Rick has the opportunity to act selfishly. But in the end, he gives up that opportunity because he realizes that his own personal desires must take a backseat to the greater good, a sacrifice that ultimately inspires him to resume his fight against the forces of tyranny and oppression. Another of the script’s strong points is its

characters. Every one of them—from the leads down to the smallest bits—is fully realized, with specific attitudes and distinctive traits. All are given scenes that show them off to excellent advantage. Even the day players are given at least one moment to take center stage and shine. Another strong point is the dialogue—(arguably) the best ever written for a feature film. It’s smart, sharp, characteristic, effortlessly expository, and full of wry humor. the script also contains more quotable lines than any other in history: “Here’s looking at you, kid”; “Round up the usual suspects”; “I’m shocked, shocked to find there’s gambling going on here”; “Of all the gin joints in all the world...”; “Play it, Sam.”

'Casablanca' and the Art of Withholding Information

The Godfather (1972)

Screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, based on the novel by Puzo

Download the screenplay here.

Reading great screenplays provides valuable screenwriting lessons for both emerging or seasoned writers. Professional script reader Ray Morton points out the craft tips in ten of his favorite scripts.

Marlon Brando in The Godfather PHOTO: PARAMOUNT HOME ENTERTAINMENT

If Casablanca is the best movie of the studio era, then  the Godfather is the best movie of the post-studio era (and both of them are top contenders for best American movie ever). Its story—which chronicles Michael Corleone’s journey from idealistic war hero to ruthless Mafia don—is gloriously epic, operatic and dark, and is filled with intriguing Shakespearean-level themes concerning family, power and destiny. The structure and plotting are impeccably clear and precise, which is an especially impressive achievement given that the story follows dozens of characters through many locations over a 10-year period. The character work is excellent—as in Casablanca, the leads are given plenty of meaty scenes and all of the supporting characters get a least one distinctive moment to make an (often explosive) impression on us.

As for the dialogue, this script contains about as many memorable and oft-quoted lines as Casablanca: “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse”; “It’s not personal, it’s only business”; “ ... take the cannoli.” Finally, The Godfather is an expert example of the art of adaptation. In bringing Puzo’s sprawling novel to the screen, he and Coppola located the thematic and dramatic core of the material and then stripped away anything that did not directly pertain to them. Rather than dispose of this excised material, however, they encapsulated it all into a series of small and very potent details that they then peppered throughout the script, giving the piece an incredible sense of depth and texture that makes the audience feel that it has been totally immersed in a fully realized world, which is, I think, one of the primary reasons that the movie has had such extraordinary staying power.

Classic Structure – ‘The Godfather’

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Screenplay by Ted Tally, based on the novel by Thomas Harris

Download the screenplay here.

Reading great screenplays provides valuable screenwriting lessons for both emerging or seasoned writers. Professional script reader Ray Morton points out the craft tips in ten of his favorite scripts.

There is no doubt that The Silence of the Lambs is an extraordinary thriller, but the Academy doesn’t usually give awards to thrillers, it gives them to films and, make no mistake, Silence is also an extraordinary film. One of the primary reasons is adapter Ted Tally’s decision to emphasize character rather than plot. If Tally had chosen to focus solely on the story (which is, after all, rather lurid), there’s a chance that the film could have wound up being just another forgettable penny dreadful about a lunatic killer.

However, by emphasizing the people—most especially, fledgling FBI Agent Clarice Starling, the elegantly mannered serial cannibal Dr. Hannibal Lecter, and the oddly sympathetic relationship that develops between them—Tally makes it possible for us to become emotionally involved in the tale to a much deeper degree than we usually do with standard-issue thrillers. Because we care about the people and what happens to them, everything in the story is much more intense—the personal exchanges are more affecting, the cat-and-mouse games more riveting, and the suspense sequences much more terrifying.

But Tally didn’t give the story short shrift. To the contrary, he did an expert job of condensing and focusing Harris’ lengthy novel to meet the demands of a two-hour movie. Th e dialogue is equally strong and filled with its fair share of memorable lines (“fava beans” anyone?). But, as I have written before, one of the main reasons that I am so impressed with this screenplay is that I originally read it years ago, before it was ever made into a movie. When the film was finally made, I found that the things that impressed me most about the film were exactly the same things that had impressed me about the script. I realized then and there one of the single most important lessons about screenwriting that one can learn—if it’s not on the page, then it will never be on the screen.

The Apartment (1960)

Screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond

Download the screenplay here.

Reading great screenplays provides valuable screenwriting lessons for both emerging or seasoned writers. Professional script reader Ray Morton points out the craft tips in ten of his favorite scripts.

Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon in The Apartment PHOTO: MGM VIDEO

One of the hardest things for a screenwriter to do is to make the unsavory palatable. All artists know that there is enormous dramatic potential and many valuable lessons to be learned in exploring the darker aspects of life, but the challenge is to find ways (that don’t repel audiences) to depict seamy premises, characters and actions so that viewers will stick around long enough to allow you to make your point. Many have tried, but not many have succeeded. One who did was Billy Wilder—one of the greatest screenwriters of all time and one of only four to ever receive three Academy Awards® for writing (the other three being Paddy Chayefsky, Francis Ford Coppola, and Wilder’s occasional writing partner Charles Brackett).

The Apartment is a cornucopia of unsavory elements: protagonist C.C. Baxter is a low-level employee at a big New York corporation who allows several of the company’s senior executives to use his apartment to conduct extramarital dalliances and then willingly accepts the glowing performance reviews they give him in exchange. One of these girls—Fran Kubelik, an elevator operator distraught over the shabby way her lover treats her—attempts to kill herself in Baxter’s bed. As Baxter spends several days nursing Miss Kubelik back to health, he falls in love with her, but then fails to pursue her when he learns that the executive she is seeing is the CEO of the entire company. He then accepts a hush-money promotion to the position of the CEO’s personal assistant instead.

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This is all deeply unpleasant material that would be problematic enough if it were the subject of a grim drama, but Wilder compounds his challenges by making it the focus of a comedy instead. Miraculously, he pulls it off triumphantly. Wilder does so first by making this a story about redemption— no matter how questionable some of what Baxter does is, this is ultimately a tale of how his love for Miss Kubelik helps him reject the sordid path he finds himself on and regain his principles, his self-respect, and—eventually—his soul. Of course, this turn doesn’t occur until the end, so to help us stay with the film until then, Wilder gets us involved with the characters by refusing to settle for the cardboard cutouts that usually populate these sorts of films and instead develops them into fully three-dimensional human beings.

Baxter and Kubelik are both deeply compromised individuals, but by taking the time to show us the dashed hopes, the loneliness, and the frustration that have brought them to this place in life, Wilder allows us to sympathize with them rather than condemn them. Because we do, we are willing to hang in there with them as they travel through the darkness until they reach the light. Wilder’s other ace card is humor—he and his co-author I.A.L. Diamond find laughs in even the darkest corners of the story, using just the right amount of sugar to allow some of the more bitter medicine to go down. Our reward for navigating our way through all of this dicey material is to be profoundly entertained and moved by one of the most emotionally affecting human comedies ever made.

Annie Hall (1977)

Screenplay by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman

Download the screenplay here.

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In addition to being riotously funny and movingly bittersweet, Woody Allen’s 1977 Oscar-winner stands as a powerful reminder that a screenplay is ultimately part of the overall filmmaking process rather than an end in itself. Annie Hall did not start out as the story of neurotic comic Alvy Singer’s romance with a delightfully eccentric young woman. Instead, it began as Anhedonia, a sprawling, comedic epic following Alvy, who has just turned 40, as he looks back and tries to understand why he has so much trouble getting any enjoyment out of life.

As originally conceived and written, the film was to be fairly episodic—consisting of a series of loosely connected bits rather than a strongly constructed central narrative, but when it came time for Allen and editor Ralph Rosenblum to put the film together, it turned out that much of this material simply failed to gel. The one element that did seem to work was originally a minor subplot involving Alvy’s relationship with Annie, so the filmmakers began recutting the film to focus on it. As the new plot took shape, Allen and Brickman wrote additional material to flesh out and develop the new focus.

The end result was obviously something far different than what Allen originally intended, but that was so powerful and successful in its own right it touched audiences everywhere and became Allen’s most popular film to that date. For me, Annie Hall serves as a wonderful reminder that, while I must always believe in my material and fight hard to maintain its integrity, I must never become rigid or precious about it. Ultimately, the final product is all that matters, and if I have to rework my writing, even radically, to obtain a better result, then so be it.

Fresh Takes

The Academy sometimes gets knocked for giving awards to safe, traditional scripts at the expense of fresher and more cutting-edge material, but while this has occasionally been true, a review of past award winners shows that Oscars have quite frequently been given to some pretty original work:

Citizen Kane (1941): Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles’ masterpiece, which parodied a living person in a devastatingly roman à clef manner that had never been seen in cinema before, using a style that uniquely combined journalistic realism and heightened theatrical melodrama, and employed a groundbreaking prismatic structure that allowed the story to be told from multiple points of view. The world didn’t really know what to make of this startling film in its day—it is now considered one of the greatest motion pictures of all time.

Download the screenplay here.

 Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles in Citizen Kane

Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles in Citizen Kane

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969): William Goldman’s iconoclastic take on the Western, which turned the conventions of the genre on its head by making heroes of characters—bank robbers—that in any other oater would have been the villains. Goldman compounds his twist by having his protagonists do what John Wayne would never do and run away at the first sign of trouble. Goldman also told his story in a unique conversational and self-referential writing style that at the time was completely fresh and proved to be so influential that it is commonplace today.

Download the screenplay here.

The Hospital (1971) and Network (1976): Two devastating satires from the pen of Paddy Chayefsky that combined kitchen sink realism in their depiction of milieu with narratives that bordered more than occasionally on the surreal, along with highly stylized dialogue that was both grittily naturalistic and soaringly polemical. Chayefsky began his career writing small-scale human dramas such as Marty, but grew more outrageous, daring and ambitious as time went on. Gratefully, the Academy recognized and acknowledged his growth.

Download The Hospital screenplay here, and Networkhere.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004): Another script from Charlie Kaufman, whose distinctly idiosyncratic blend of the real and the surreal, comedy and drama, off beat characters and meta self-referentialism, is completely unique. No one has or does write like Kaufman, and his work is utterly original, something the Academy clearly applauded.

Download the screenplay here.

These scripts and others like them remind us that—as important as a solid story, well-developed characters, and strong dialogue are—the most vital element of any successful screenplay is the unique vision provided by an expert writer.

Hopefully these award-winning pieces will inspire you in your own writing to the point where you’ll find yourself on the red carpet some day. In the meantime, check out these terrific films, keep working, and enjoy the Oscars.

Originally published in Script magazine January/February 2009

More articles by Ray Morton on Script

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