What 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

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.

Megan Fox in Jennifer's Body (2008). Photo courtesy: 20th Century Fox

Megan Fox in Jennifer’s Body (2008). Photo courtesy: 20th Century Fox

No. 2 — Jennifer’s Body

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

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 don’t recommend including in a spec script. Still, I think there’s a lot here to learn from.

Alec Baldwin and Meryl Streep in It's Complicated (2009). Photo courtesy: Universal Pictures

Alec Baldwin and Meryl Streep in It’s Complicated (2009). Photo courtesy: Universal Pictures

No. 4 — It’s Complicated

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.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Kiera Knightly dance in Anna Karenina. Photo Courtesy of Focus Features.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Kiera Knightly dance in Anna Karenina. Photo Courtesy of Focus Features.

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.

Please note, ScreenwritingU does not advocate or encourage the pirating of screenplays. Where available links are provided to published screenplays for purchase. Other links are made to sites that provide copies for informational purposes only.

Let us know what you’re reading and what you’ve discovered from reviewing produced scripts. We’d love to hear some suggestions from you.


Marshall Thornton has an MFA from UCLA in screenwriting. He spent ten years writing spec scripts and has been a semi-finalist or better in the Nicholl, Samuel Goldwyn, American Accolades, One-In-Ten and Austin Film Festival contests. As a novelist, he writes the Lambda Award-winning Boystown Mysteries. The eight book series follows the cases of a gay detective in turbulent 1980s Chicago. Marshall has also been known to write the occasional romantic comedy. You can find him online at marshallthorntonauthor.com. You can follow him on Twitter: @mrshllthornton

7 Replies to "What Can You Learn From Reading Produced Screenplays"

  • comment-avatar
    Carl Caulfield November 7, 2016 (6:01 am)

    Anna Karina (Godard’s muse but not Tolstoy’s novel!)

  • comment-avatar
    Cyber Dave November 7, 2016 (6:57 am)

    The Imitation Game was a great read, the kind that is hard to put down.
    I am working on my first horror script so thanks for the tip on Jennifer’s Body.

  • comment-avatar
    John Hruby November 9, 2016 (2:18 pm)

    Thank you. I appreciate your article. All the best.

  • comment-avatar
    Jo November 10, 2016 (10:36 am)

    There used to be a site where you could download these for free. Does that not exist anymore? I’ve seen it before, but the link I had is no longer valid.

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton November 10, 2016 (10:57 am)

      While researching the script I found a number of sites with a wide range of pdfs. However, some required downloading software which I’m suspicious of and, of course, pdfs can be used to spread viruses. The sites I linked to seem reliable. I would, however, proceed with caution and definitely purchase when the screenplays have been published.

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