Can You Learn From Reading Produced Screenplays?

One bit of advice that writers are always given is: read, read, read.

For screenwriters that advice is sometimes: watch, watch, watch. But only watching movies, and not reading scripts, can be a real mistake.

Reading screenplays, particularly of movies you respect, can be an invaluable experience.

Here is a list of five screenplays you might fight interesting. They’re not necessarily the best scripts out there, but they do represent a wide range of genres and come from some of the most respected screenwriters today.


No. 1 — Lincoln

(link takes you to Amazon. Suggest you search for the script from other legal sources)

Tony Kushner – A Tony award winning playwright, Kushner adapts Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln for Steven Spielberg.

Lincoln is a useful script to study because it is somewhat epic, the finished film is 2 hours and 30 minutes, and the film’s focus is very cerebral. This is also a great script to study if you’re writing a bio-pic, or a political film, or a historical drama.


No. 2 — Jennifer’s Body

(link to script)

Diablo Cody – This is not necessarily a great horror film according to Rotten Tomatoes but it is by a screenwriter who got very hot, very quickly.

And, it does get credit for clever dialogue. Cody is the also writer of Juno and is somewhat famous for her stripper-turned-screenwriter bio.

Certainly, if you’re writing horror it’s worth a read to see how it compares to the final film. She’s also worth studying because she began as a spec writer just as most of you will. How she puts this script together can tell you a lot about why she’s a success.

No. 3 Gravity

(link to script)

Alfonso Cuaron & Jonas Cuaron – This script seemed worth including mainly because so much of the film ended up being one character on her own.

How that’s handle on the page is a very important lesson. That said, one of the writers is also the director and the script includes lots of camera angles, as well as, some very expensive music cues.

Things I NEVER recommend including in a spec script. Still, I think there’s a lot here to learn from.


No. 4 — It’s Complicated

(link to script)

Nancy Meyers – A master of the female-driven comedy, Meyers also manages the unexpected feat of writing successful movies about older characters.

In order to do that she’s got to attract top acting talent. If you read this script, or one like it, try to figure out what it is that gets A-list talent to commit to a script.

Most of all, there’s a lot to be learned from a writer/director who manages to forge her own way while still being commercial.


No. 5 — Anna Karenina

Tom Stoppard – A legendary playwright, Stoppard tackles the Tolstoy classic in this unusual adaptation. The film is boldly theatrical and conceptual in its approach to the narrative. This is certainly a lesson in thinking outside of the box. I wouldn’t say it’s a hundred percent successful but the risks it takes are worthy of study.

If you’re studying screenwriting in general, these scripts should provide some interesting lessons. If you’re looking for something specific pertaining to a script you’re working on, you may want to find other scripts to look at. Scripts that are more specific to what it is you’re trying to do. Whether you’re looking at genre, or character, or structure, or tone, there are hundreds of examples available online.