What are your favorite screenplays to read?
Professional writers will emphasize over and over again how important it is to be reading screenplays. As Scott Myers said for The Black List: “Reading scripts is a key part of immersing oneself in the world of cinema, something we all should be doing. It’s more than just writing a screenplay. It’s about learning to think like a screenwriter.”
Indeed, Myers breaks down seven different ways to approach reading screenplays, from the first pass to identifying themes to studying the style and language of the screenwriter. Reading screenplays thoughtfully and critically will keep you sharp and help you continue to grow in your own voice as a writer.
Here are a few of my personal favorites screenplays to read:
Enter the WeScreenplay Feature Contest. All entries receive FREE feedback!
Promising Young Woman (2020)
Let’s get started with a Best Original Screenplay Academy Award Winner, shall we? Emerald Fennell’s thriller about a young woman seeking revenge against the men (and their enablers) who raped her friend was sublime in its ability to shine a light on abusers who truly think they’re good guys. It has a fresh premise and delicious servings of “just desserts.”
It also plays fast and loose with “screenwriting rules” proving that if you’re able to tell a compelling story, it won’t matter if you have action lines that contain “we linger” or more than three lines of text. The old adage is alive and well here: capture your reader’s attention in the first ten pages. Fennell gives a thrilling twist at the bottom of page ten and the rest of the read is a seductive page-turner as we root for the protagonist and what she’ll do next.
Download the script for Promising Young Woman!
Palm Springs (2020)
Let’s talk comedy. Humor is subjective so it can be very challenging to get laughs from the page. One of my favorite practices is to read a comedy script in tandem with watching the final produced film or episode. Palm Springs by Andy Siara doesn’t make the kind of impression that the film does — and that’s okay. A screenplay is meant to be a blueprint for a visual medium.
Comedy is fast. Great actors bring jokes to life. Jokes can even be buttoned by reactions created in the editing room. The screenplay for Palm Springs really takes its time capturing the attention of, at least, this reader.
Once Palm Springs does get to its inciting incident, however, and (spoiler alert) Nyles is unsurprised to be interrupted mid-wedding hookup with Sarah by being shot with an arrow by a mystery assailant he calls Roy, the rest of the script poses questions that come with entertaining and satisfying answers.
Palm Springs is one of my favorite comedies — but how would it serve an emerging writer as a sample? Even Siara admitted he wasn’t sure about it when he finished the last draft. The educational value of reading it with a critical frame of mind can help you identify where your own scripts need some work.
There are lulls in the first ten pages of Palm Springs that are filled in the first ten minutes of the film. Pay attention to how the creators did that and then train yourself to look for lulls in your own scripts (especially comedies, which should be peppered with laughs).
Palm Springs went on to slay Sundance — and my heart, just like one of Roy’s arrows. This one is definitely one of the best screenplays to read if you want to learn how to write comedy.
Download the script for Palm Springs!
Lady Bird (2017)
Greta Gerwig has proven herself to be a clever and sensitive screenwriter, from her mumblecore beginnings to recent Academy Award-nominated films Little Women (2019) and Lady Bird (2017), the latter of which is a sublime coming-of-age story steeped with subtext, humor, and tender humanity.
The opening pages paint museum-worthy images of mother and daughter Marion and Lady Bird, from their similarities to the differences that will tear them apart. So much of it is done with Gerwig’s amusing dialogue — but she is also a master of splashing in the unexpected; Lady Bird’s solution to an argument with her mother is to jump out of the moving vehicle.
“They slow for a stop light and Lady Bird dramatically opens the door and rolls out of the car. Marion screams.”
With that, the scene is over and Gerwig cuts to a close on Lady Bird’s new cast with “fuck you, mom” written in small letters.
Gerwig’s writing is concise, illustrative, and full of heart. Lady Bird is one of my favorite screenplays — so much so that I bought the A24 bound hardback.
And if you like Lady Bird, check out Gerwig’s Little Women, a bold non-linear adaptation of the beloved film that utilizes both red and black text and a writer’s note about simultaneous or quick dialogue.
When Gerwig has a vision, she makes sure you can see it, too — a gift of an accomplished screenwriter.
Download the script for Lady Bird!
It’s invaluable to read screenplays, especially in the genre you’re focusing on. Sometimes it can be difficult to know which screenplays to read, but they all really offer something of value. Great ones will inspire you. Abysmal ones will teach you to identify what to avoid. Some will simply entertain and delight you. There have been so many times when I’ve struggled to break a story or a scene and I’ve found inspiration in the pages of another project.
Reading screenplays will hone your craft and help keep you in the mindset of a screenwriter. They’re part of the job so you may as well have some fun with it!
Once you’ve read through a bunch of them, it’s time to get writing! Check out the writing rituals of some of the most successful writers in Hollywood for inspiration.
Shannon Corbeil is a writer, actor, and filmmaker in Los Angeles with recent appearances on SEAL Team and The Rookie. An Air Force veteran, her articles have been published in Business Insider, We Are The Mighty, and Military.com. She has written and produced hundreds of digital videos with millions of views. You can read more about her on her website or come play on Instagram and Twitter!