25 of the Greatest Screenwriters in Genre Storytelling

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Sep 30, 2017

September 2017 is Syfy’s 25th anniversary, so we’re using it as an excuse to look back and celebrate the last 25 years of ALL science fiction, fantasy, and horror, a time that has seen the genres we love conquer the world of pop culture. For us, that means lists! ALL THE LISTS! We’ll be doing two “25 greatest” lists per day all throughout September, looking back at the moments, people, and characters that shaped the last quarter century. So keep checking back. Please note: Our lists are not ranked; all items have equal standing in our brains.

What items in our lists were your favorites? Did we miss something? We welcome respectful debate and discussion, so please let us know in the comments!

As the classic saying goes, “if it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.” When it comes to film and television, there is nothing truer than that. All of the digital effects in the world don’t make a bit of difference if we don’t care about the story, and even a great actor can only do so much with an underwritten speech. The ideas and themes of a piece are born at the writing stage, and though it is only the first step in the process, it is vital to everything that comes afterward. Screenwriters create the map that the cast and crew will follow, and if the writers are good enough, the map will lead to something great. Grab your pen, tap those keys, and fire up your writing software of choice, as we take a look at the 25 best screenwriters from the last 25 years.

Alex Garland

Having cut his teeth writing excellent screenplays for Dredd, Never Let Me Go, and the creepy as hell Sunshine, Alex Garland hit a whole new level with Ex Machina, also taking the director’s chair. Garland’s tale of artificial life and the disco dancing jerks that created them is packed with philosophy and ethical quandaries. The effects that bring the robot Ava to life are fantastic, but it is the written journey of the character that makes her as effective as she is. 

Alfonso Cuaron

It’s no surprise that Alfonso Cuaron is always involved with his films on the script level, as the synthesis of story and direction in his films is nothing short of magical. The script for Gravity is very heavy on screen action, but without that precise planning, the movie wouldn’t have a chance. The same can be said for his work on Children of Men—the artistry of his long, unbroken shots take a mountain of planning, and they are born in the writing stage.  

Amanda Silver

Without Amanda Silver’s help, the new group of Planet of the Apes films wouldn’t be as great as they are. As co-writer of the first film, she helped lay the groundwork for all that came afterwards, and she most importantly helped to create the character of Caesar. This trilogy sinks or swims based on our interest in the leader of the apes, and if we’re not on his side, then none of it matters. Silver helped to ensure that Caesar was a hero for the ages. 

Charlie Kaufman

Here’s a man whose work deserves to be studied in film schools. His brain deserves to be studied by scientists. We don’t know how he manages to write at the level that he does, but we’re not complaining. Shooting to fame with the genius script for Being John Malkovich, Kaufman went on to write Human Nature, an adaptation of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, the universally adored Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the achingly beautiful Synecdoche, NY, and the stop motion animated Anomalisa. With the last two titles, Kaufman has also taken on directorial duties—making his worlds even more his own. For all of the brilliance of these works, however, it is his screenplay for the film Adaptation that continues to astound. It’s a three-tiered story that weaves together the notion of nature’s ongoing adaptations with the concept of adapting someone else’s work. When watching the film, you’re amazed that any of it works at all, but if you read the script, itself, you can see how it is possible. It’s a miracle film, and a gift that keeps on giving. 

Christopher Nolan

Here’s another director who creates puzzle boxes so intricate that he is always involved on the script level. Nolan loves to play with time, and that is born in the writing. In Memento, Inception, Interstellar, and most recently Dunkirk, Nolan (often co-writing with Jonathan Nolan) is able to create the perfect blueprints from which to begin. He also helped to write a world where Batman can be taken seriously again, first with David Goyer, and then again with Jonathan Nolan. He all but sums up the secret of his writing in his magical masterpiece The Prestige. Any magic trick has three parts—the Pledge, the Turn, and the Prestige. When watching that film, you suddenly realize that he has just told you how almost every great film works. 

Damon Lindelof

He has his hands in a number of different genre pies, including writing duties on the first two Trek reboot films, Prometheus, World War Z, Cowboys and Aliens, and Tomorrowland. He collaborated frequently on Lost, and if you want to discuss the finale of that show with him, well, good luck trying. His greatest contribution to genre would have to be creating The Leftovers, a show that started out good and got consistently better as it went along. Creating an epic, genre-based TV experience that manages to be satisfying in the end is not an easy thing to do, but Lindelof “stuck the landing” here, and he did it with aplomb. 

David Goyer

Together with Christopher Nolan, David Goyer helped write Batman Begins, the script that made us love Batman again. He also wrote the script to Man of Steel after cracking the story with Nolan, and though that film certainly has its detractors, it is memorable for breaking free of the Donner-verse based Superman that had previously had a chokehold on the character. Before both of these films, however, Goyer adapted all three of the Blade films, and helped to usher in the new age of comic book movies. Most recently, Goyer created the sadly short-lived (but excellent) TV adaptation of Constantine

David Lynch & Mark Frost

What have these two done, lately? Just the 18-part odyssey of magic and madness that was Twin Peaks: The Return. How you even begin to go about writing something like that boggles the mind, but they managed to do it. There is no middle-manager with this show—the images and ideas go right from David Lynch’s dreams on to the screen. More aptly in this case, they go on the page. With so much crazy dream logic and imagery at play, it’s good that Mark Frost is there to pull it all together with some kind of cohesion. Whether it’s big picture mythology, or Gordon Cole’s triumphant line of “…fix their hearts or die” this was an incredible achievement in writing.

David Robert Mitchell

A relative newcomer, David Robert Mitchell appears here for his first film, It Follows, both written and directed by him. Dealing with a supernatural being haunting a young girl after a sexual encounter, it is horrifying. It has been charged with giving new life to the genre of horror films, and rightfully so. Mitchell has said that he wrote the film based on recurring dreams he had when he was young, and audiences most likely had plenty of recurring dreams after seeing this thing. It was new, it was fresh, it was scary, and it heralded the arrival of a major new talent. 

Edgar Wright

The films of Edgar Wright work with the perfection of a Swiss watch, and, once again, it is no surprise that he co-writes all of them. His fusion of image and sound is something that has to be planned from the very beginning, and his work with Simon Pegg on Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End all show evidence of this. He took things up a level with his adaptation of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, but it wasn’t until this past summer’s Baby Driver (written by him, alone) that he proved what he is truly capable of. Almost every single beat in the movie is paired to the film’s soundtrack with utter precision, and it is something that started on the page. Long before cameras rolled, Wright painstakingly planned out what songs would be used, and where. He visualized the action and dialogue accordingly, and the result is a film that has a cohesion of picture, sound, and editing the likes of which has never been seen before. 

Frank Darabont

He was one of the original creators of the hugely successful (and still running) TV adaptation of The Walking Dead, but Frank Darabont is more well known for his adaptations of the work of Stephen King. His adaptations of both The Green Mile and The Mist are well done, but our hearts truly lie with The Shawshank Redemption, based on a short story from King. Darabont is largely responsible for expanding it into the epic of hope that we know and love.

Guillermo Del Toro

We have another visionary! He’s always involved, co-writing Crimson Peak, Pacific Rim, both Hellboy films, and The Devil’s Backbone. His greatest work, however, he wrote himself; Pan’s Labyrinth is pure Del Toro from the ground up, and that might be why it remains the most distilled glimpse of his genius. It is a timeless work of fantasy and, though it may feel like it had to be adapted from something, it is wholly original. Guillermo the Great also created the fantastic Trollhunters animated show for Netflix, and co-wrote the script for his new film, The Shape of Water, which can’t come soon enough. 

Hayao Miyazaki

How is anyone supposed to keep up with this? All of the beautiful masterpieces that this man makes, he writes as well. My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, Ponyo, the original version of Princess Mononoke, and the adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle—were all written by him. For him, story always comes first, and the result is storytelling that is every bit a match for the gorgeous animation that is used to present it. 

JJ Abrams

On TV, alone, JJ Abrams has created Alias, Fringe, and had his hands all over Lost. On the big screen, his efforts are even more prolific. He was one of the many screenwriters for Armageddon (!!), co-wrote Mission Impossible III, and then wrote Super 8 by himself. If that tale of kid filmmakers and train derailments seemed a bit more personal than drillers training to be astronauts, that would be the reason. He was very much involved with the scripts for both of his Star Trek films, helping to find a way to bring back classic characters without destroying what came before. His most impressive writing, however, has to be his collaboration with Lawrence Kasdan on Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Though the story certainly contained rhymes and echoes to what came before, it was the writing of the new characters that really lifted the movie off. Rey, Finn, Poe, Kylo, and BB-8 all felt like they belonged in that world the moment we met them, and writing instantly classic Star Wars characters is not an easy thing to do. 

Jordan Peele

We knew Jordan Peele was a funny writer, as any episode of his brilliant sketch show Key and Peele (created by Peele and Keegan Michael-Key) will prove. We didn’t necessarily know that he was capable of something like Get Out. Both written and directed by Peele, it is a genre subversion, an examination of race, and a genuine scare machine all at the same time. The script has you laughing one moment, then has you scared to bits by the clinking of a spoon on a teacup the next. One minute you’re enjoying the silly antics of a TSA employee, and then WHAM, you’re in the middle of some kind of auction and thinking very deep thoughts about how you’re probably complicit in systemic racism. It’s a crazy ride of a film, and we can’t wait for whatever Jordan Peele writes (and/or directs) next. 

Joss Whedon

We’ll start with Joss Whedon’s work with Marvel, which found him writing the screenplays for both big team outings for the Avengers. With the first film, he found a way to bring a ton of characters together into one coherent movie, and he made it satisfying beyond belief. With the second, he tossed in a bunch more characters, and told a much deeper tale. Avengers: Age of Ultron is not as popular as the first film, but the quality is still there, as evidenced by every line uttered by The Vision. Elsewhere in film, he helped to write the very first Toy Story (as well as the script to his Firefly finale film, Serenity), but it is his TV writing that made him a star. As the creator of the shows Dollhouse, Firefly, Angel, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, he was often responsible for writing many of their best episodes. He has a gift for snappy quips and one-liners, but he also has a gift for letting you get attached to characters before he tortures and/or kills them. He turned Angel into an evil psychopath for half a season, killed Winifred and had her body taken over by an ancient demon, endlessly tortured Giles, and had Wash impaled by a stake the size of a skyscraper. He also wrote a full musical episode in Buffy season 6. 

Lawrence Kasdan

We can’t mention the greatest contributions by this screenwriting legend, as both The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark came out well over 25 years ago. Did that slip out, anyway? Whoops. Still, Lawrence Kasdan’s contributions since those classics cannot be overlooked. He has thankfully come back to the galaxy far, far, away, and was the other half of the writing staff for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Disney had gotten rid of most of George Lucas’ original outline, and people weren’t happy with the draft that they had, so JJ Abrams and Kasdan were brought in to save the day. As mentioned in the JJ Abrams entry, it is no small thing creating iconic Star Wars characters, and Kasdan surely had a great impact on that. He has also proved over the years that he knows the perfect way to write for Han Solo, which may be a part of why Han was so great in the film. Tell that to Kanjiklub! 

Luc Besson

The crazy, go-for-broke style of Luc Besson’s directing would only work if a similar style was employed in the writing of his movies, and that is guaranteed by the fact that Besson writes his own work. Recently adapting Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, he also wrote the scripts to Lucy and The Fifth Element. Both of the latter two films are absolutely bonkers in their ideas and their stories, and they are just plain fun. With The Fifth Element, in particular, you get a feeling with every passing scene that Besson was laughing himself silly behind his computer screen while writing it. He is also responsible for co-writing the first Transporter film as well as the first Taken film— so, you could say that he has a very special set of skills. 

Michael Arndt

Every Pixar film has multiple geniuses working on it at the story level, but Michael Arndt is repeatedly said to be the main guy who was behind the pen on Toy Story 3. It’s the third film in the series, so you already care about these sentient toys, but Arndt ratchets that up to a place we never thought possible. Through the story, you realize that you don’t just care about the toys, you LOVE the toys, and he gives every indication that he is truly going to send them all into the incinerator at the end. In a movie supposedly made for children, Arndt proves that the story is capable of going anywhere, and for a horrifying moment, scorching and burning toys is a real possibility. 

Neil Gaiman

Coming off of his epic achievement with the Sandman comics, Neil Gaiman turned to television, creating the 6-part Neverwhere series. After introducing us to the world of London Below, he mostly took to his epic run of books, but he still returned to screenwriting now and then. He wrote the English adaptation for Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, and also co-wrote the fantasy film MirrorMask with Dave McKean. We’re now at a point where most of his writing is being adapted by others—Coraline and Stardust have already had film adaptations, and his exemplary novel American Gods is in the midst of a first class run on TV. Gaiman is getting back at it himself nowadays, currently adapting Good Omens for Amazon, a book that he co-wrote with the dearly departed Terry Pratchett. Before taking that on, however, Gaiman contributed two dynamite scripts for sci-fi mainstay Doctor Who. His second effort, “Nightmare in Silver”, made the cybermen scary again, but it is his first script in Season 6 that stands out. “The Doctor’s Wife” shows us what happens when the Doctor’s TARDIS has its soul put in a human body, and the result is hilarious and beautiful. Gaiman’s soulful writing make it one of the best episodes in all of New Who. 

Nicole Perlman

James Gunn didn’t write all of Guardians of the Galaxy by himself—he had help, in the form of the wonderful Nicole Perlman. Any script that makes you care about a machine gun crazy raccoon and a sentient tree that only utters one phrase is bound to be a challenge, and Perlman is doubtlessly a part of why the film was a success. She has been in high demand ever since, with a ton of projects in the works, including: an adaption of ROM, something to do with the old M.A.S.K. toys, and the script for the MCU’s debut of Captain Marvel. 

Pete Docter

Here’s another Pixar magician, and he’s one of the best. Pete Docter has story credits on the first two Toy Story films, Monsters Inc, and WALL-E, but the films Up and Inside Out were both written by him. Both of those films are instances of stories that really shouldn’t work, but they do. In the case of Inside Out, it took an old premise and made it new and exciting. The concept of a control room full of people working inside your head has been done, but never as well as it was done here. Then there’s Up, and, well, we don’t really know what to say about that one. It’s a perfect film, one that perfectly captures the pain of loss, while also featuring talking dogs and flying houses. Both Up and Inside Out are full of joyful, unrestrained imagination, and they are two of Pixar’s best. 

Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh & Peter Jackson

How exactly do you go about adapting the greatest fantasy story of all time? You do it the way the fellowship accomplishes their own mission—not alone. Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh had already co-written The Frighteners as well as the exceptional Heavenly Creatures, but for this task they brought in a third warrior, in the form of Philippa Boyens. It had been said, and said often, that LOTR was impossible to adapt to film, but they were going to do it anyway. The films were originally pitched as two movies, but it was New Line that, thankfully, told them to make them three—three films for three books. The rest, as they say, is history. Time was tight in these films, so, often, a scene needed to pull triple or quadruple duty. It couldn’t just be a scene of exposition, it had to be exposition, comic relief, a character moment, and an action beat all at the same time. The trio proved triumphant with LOTR, so they went on to write a masterful remake of King Kong, an adaptation of The Lovely Bones, and the massively underappreciated Hobbit trilogy. 

Simon Pegg

Perhaps best known (writing-wise) as Edgar Wright’s partner on Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End, Simon Pegg has gone on to co-write the sci-fi send up Paul with Nick Frost, as well as co-writing Star Trek: Beyond, a film in which he was already acting. The latter entry was memorable because it played more like a big screen version of a classic Trek episode, and the character moments (specifically with Spock and Bones) are brilliantly written. The film also worked as a celebration of Trek at 50, with Pegg and company throwing in a few emotional sucker punches along the way. He’s written for television, too, co-writing the brilliant Spaced with series co-lead, Jessica Hynes. If you like Pegg’s work and have never seen that show, it’s streaming on Hulu now. It’s a must-watch. 

The Wachowskis

Rocketing to public attention with the wild success of The Matrix, the Wachowskis have become sci-fi mainstays ever since. Of course, the first Matrix movie was full of dazzling imagery, but it was the ideas expressed in the writing that really stayed with people. The team got a lot more ambitious with the writing for their sequels, and though they can be hit and miss, they’re always going big. Since then, they’ve adapted Speed Racer, V for Vendetta, and Cloud Atlas, and also created their own crazy space beast with Jupiter Ascending. For TV, they found great success with the cult hit Sense8, and though Netflix cancelled it, they are letting them wrap it up with a short miniseries. 

These were OUR choices from the last 25 years. What are yours? Let us know in the comments which screenwriters you’d put on your list!

And be sure to check out our complete “25 Greatest” lists here!