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

Reading nice screenplays supplies beneficial screenwriting classes for both emerging or seasoned writers. Skilled script reader Ray Morton points out the craft ideas in ten of his favorite scripts.


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Editor’s notice: The linked screenplays are for instructional purposes solely.

There’s by no means a nasty time to take a look at a couple of Oscar®-winning screenplays and see what helpful classes they will train us.

One hundred seventy-four writing awards have been handed out over the 80-year historical past of the Oscars, but obviously we will’t look at them all, so I’ve selected a couple of of my favorites for us to explore:

Casablanca (1942)

Screenplay by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch, based mostly on the play Everyone Involves Rick’s by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison

Obtain the screenplay right here.

As I’ve written elsewhere, I think about Casablanca to be the greatest movie to ever come out of the American studio system and an excellent instance of the craft of screenwriting. To start with, it tells an entertaining story that is both thrilling and romantic and that has a completely crackerjack theme—when the chips are down, we must sacrifice our personal wishes for the larger good and doing so ennobles us.  the arc of the story’s protagonist immediately embodies this theme—Rick Blaine is a former freedom fighter who, embittered by past disappointments, now sticks his neck out for nobody. When his previous flame Ilsa Lund throws herself at him—providing to run off with him if he’ll help her husband, a fugitive resistance fighter, escape from the Nazis—Rick has the alternative to behave selfishly. However in the end, he provides up that opportunity because he realizes that his personal personal wishes must take a backseat to the larger good, a sacrifice that finally evokes him to renew his battle towards the forces of tyranny and oppression. One other of the script’s robust factors is its

characters. Each one of them—from the leads right down to the smallest bits—is absolutely realized, with particular attitudes  and distinctive traits. All are given scenes that show them off to wonderful benefit. Even the day players are given no less than one moment to take middle stage and shine. One other robust point is the dialogue—(arguably) the greatest ever written for a function film. It’s sensible, sharp, characteristic, effortlessly expository, and full of wry humor.  the script also incorporates more quotable strains than another in historical past: “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 Artwork of Withholding Info


The Godfather (1972)

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

Download the screenplay right 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 greatest film of the studio era, then  the Godfather is the greatest film of the post-studio era (and both of them are prime contenders for greatest American movie ever). Its story—which chronicles Michael Corleone’s journey from idealistic warfare hero to ruthless Mafia don—is gloriously epic, operatic and darkish, and is crammed with intriguing Shakespearean-level themes regarding family, power and future.  The structure and plotting are impeccably clear and precise, which is an especially impressive achievement provided that the story follows dozens of characters by means of many places over a 10-year interval.  The character work is superb—as in Casablanca, the leads are given lots of meaty scenes and all of the supporting characters get a least one distinctive moment to make an (typically explosive) impression on us.

As for the dialogue, this script incorporates about as many memorable and oft-quoted strains 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 skilled instance of the art of adaptation. In bringing Puzo’s sprawling novel to the display, he and Coppola situated the thematic and dramatic core of the materials after which stripped away anything that didn’t instantly pertain to them. Quite than dispose of this excised material, nevertheless, they encapsulated it all into a collection of small and very potent particulars that they then peppered throughout the script, giving the piece an unimaginable sense of depth and texture that makes the audience really feel that it has been completely immersed in a totally realized world, which is, I feel, one of the main reasons that the film has had such extraordinary staying power.


Basic Construction – ‘The Godfather’


The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

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

Download the screenplay right 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 isn’t a doubt that The Silence of the Lambs is a unprecedented thriller, but the Academy doesn’t often give awards to thrillers, it provides them to films and, make no mistake, Silence can also be a unprecedented film. One of the main causes is adapter Ted Tally’s choice to emphasize character moderately than plot. If Tally had chosen to focus solely on the story (which is, in any case, somewhat lurid), there’s a chance that the film might have wound up being simply another forgettable penny dreadful a few lunatic killer.

Nevertheless, by emphasizing the individuals—most particularly, 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 attainable for us to grow to be emotionally concerned in the tale to a a lot deeper degree than we often do with standard-issue thrillers. As a result of we care about the individuals and what happens to them, the whole lot in the story is far more intense—the personal exchanges are more affecting, the cat-and-mouse video games more riveting, and the suspense sequences rather more terrifying.

However Tally didn’t give the story brief shrift. To the contrary, he did an professional job of condensing and focusing Harris’ lengthy novel to satisfy the demands of a two-hour film. Th e dialogue is equally robust and crammed with its justifiable share of memorable strains (“fava beans” anyone?). However, as I’ve written earlier than, one of the fundamental causes that I’m so impressed with this screenplay is that I initially learn it years ago, before it was ever made into a film. When the film was finally made, I discovered that the issues that impressed me most about the movie have been precisely the similar things that had impressed me about the script. I noticed then and there one of the single most necessary classes about screenwriting that one can study—if it’s not on the web page, then it’s going to never be on the display.

The Condo (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 Condominium 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 monumental dramatic potential and lots of helpful classes to be discovered in exploring the darker points of life, however the problem is to seek out ways (that don’t repel audiences) to depict seamy premises, characters and actions so that viewers will stick round long sufficient to let you make your point. Many have tried, but not many have succeeded. One who did was Billy Wilder—one of the biggest 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 companion Charles Brackett).

The Condo is a cornucopia of unsavory parts: protagonist C.C. Baxter is a low-level employee at an enormous New York company who permits several of the company’s senior executives to use his condo to conduct extramarital dalliances after which willingly accepts the glowing performance evaluations they provide him in change. One of these women—Fran Kubelik, an elevator operator distraught over the shabby approach her lover treats her—attempts to kill herself in Baxter’s mattress. As Baxter spends a number of days nursing Miss Kubelik back to well being, he falls in love together with her, however then fails to pursue her when he learns that the government she is seeing is the CEO of the complete firm. He then accepts a hush-money promotion to the place of the CEO’s private assistant as an alternative.


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This is all deeply unpleasant material that may be problematic enough if it have been the topic of a grim drama, however Wilder compounds his challenges by making it the focus of a comedy as an alternative. Miraculously, he pulls it off triumphantly. Wilder does so first by making this a narrative about redemption— regardless of how questionable some of what Baxter does is, that is finally a tale of how his love for Miss Kubelik helps him reject the sordid path he finds himself on and regain his rules, his self-respect, and—ultimately—his soul. In fact, this flip doesn’t occur until the end, so to help us stay with the film until then, Wilder will get us concerned with the characters by refusing to accept the cardboard cutouts that often populate these types of movies and as an alternative develops them into absolutely three-dimensional human beings.

Baxter and Kubelik are both deeply compromised people, but by taking the time to point out 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 relatively than condemn them. As a result of we do, we’re prepared to hang in there with them as they travel via the darkness till they reach the mild. 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 correct quantity of sugar to allow some of the more bitter drugs to go down. Our reward for navigating our means by way of all of this dicey materials is to be profoundly entertained and moved by one of the most emotionally affecting human comedies ever made.

Annie Corridor (1977)

Screenplay by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman

Obtain the screenplay right here.

Along with being riotously funny and movingly bittersweet, Woody Allen’s 1977 Oscar-winner stands as a strong reminder that a screenplay is finally part of the general filmmaking course of relatively than an end in itself. Annie Corridor didn’t begin out as the story of neurotic comedian Alvy Singer’s romance with a delightfully eccentric young lady. As an alternative, it started as Anhedonia, a sprawling, comedic epic following Alvy, who has simply turned 40, as he appears back and tries to know why he has so much hassle getting any enjoyment out of life.

As initially conceived and written, the film was to be fairly episodic—consisting of a collection of loosely related bits fairly than a strongly constructed central narrative, but when it came time for Allen and editor Ralph Rosenblum to place the movie together, it turned out that a lot of this materials simply did not gel. The one aspect that did appear to work was initially a minor subplot involving Alvy’s relationship with Annie, so the filmmakers began recutting the film to give attention to it. As the new plot took shape, Allen and Brickman wrote further materials to flesh out and develop the new focus.

The top end result was clearly one thing far totally different than what Allen originally meant, however that was so highly effective and successful in its own proper it touched audiences in all places and have become Allen’s most popular film to that date. For me, Annie Hall serves as an exquisite reminder that, while I need to all the time consider in my material and battle arduous to take care of its integrity, I must not ever develop into inflexible or valuable about it. Finally, the remaining product is all that matters, and if I’ve to transform my writing, even radically, to acquire a greater outcome, then so be it.

Recent Takes

The Academy typically will get knocked for giving awards to protected, traditional scripts at the expense of brisker and extra cutting-edge materials, however while this has sometimes been true, a assessment of previous award winners exhibits that Oscars have fairly ceaselessly been given to some pretty unique work:

• Citizen Kane (1941): Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles’ masterpiece, which parodied a dwelling individual in a devastatingly roman à clef manner that had never been seen in cinema before, utilizing a method that uniquely mixed journalistic realism and heightened theatrical melodrama, and employed a groundbreaking prismatic construction that allowed the story to be advised from a number of points of view. The world didn’t actually know what to make of this startling movie in its day—it is now thought-about one of the biggest motion footage of all time.

Obtain the screenplay right here.

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—financial institution robbers—that in another oater would have been the villains. Goldman compounds his twist by having his protagonists do what John Wayne would by no means do and run away at the first sign of hassle. Goldman additionally informed his story in a singular conversational and self-referential writing type that at the time was utterly recent and proved to be so influential that it’s commonplace immediately.

Obtain the screenplay right here.

• The Hospital (1971) and Community (1976): Two devastating satires from the pen of Paddy Chayefsky that mixed kitchen sink realism in their depiction of milieu with narratives that bordered greater than sometimes on the surreal, together with highly stylized dialogue that was both grittily naturalistic and soaringly polemical. Chayefsky began his profession writing small-scale human dramas corresponding to Marty, however grew more outrageous, daring and impressive as time went on. Gratefully, the Academy recognized and acknowledged his progress.

Download The Hospital screenplay here, and Network here.

• Everlasting Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004): Another script from Charlie Kaufman, whose distinctly idiosyncratic mix of the real and the surreal, comedy and drama, off beat characters and meta self-referentialism, is totally unique. Nobody has or does write like Kaufman, and his work is completely unique, something the Academy clearly applauded.

Download the screenplay right here.

These scripts and others like them remind us that—as essential as a strong story, well-developed characters, and powerful dialogue are—the most significant factor of any successful screenplay is the unique imaginative and prescient offered by an professional author.

Hopefully these award-winning pieces will encourage you in your personal writing to the point where you’ll end up on the purple carpet some day. In the meantime, take a look at these terrific movies, hold working, and luxuriate in the Oscars.

Originally revealed in Script magazine January/February 2009

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