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The Defining Scripts of Tarantino

By Kevin Nelson · September 27, 2021

Quentin Tarantino is one of the most influential writers and directors of the last twenty years. His maverick trademark style helped redefine narrative norms and helped inspire a new era of daring filmmakers to push the boundaries of form and function.

His stylized authorship is distinctive for its innovative structuring, strong dialogue, and the ability to build suspense and tension simply by putting two conflicting characters in a room together. Throughout his rich filmography, some moments truly stand out. 

Let’s take a look at some of his best scripts to find out what makes them so iconic.

Scripts from this Article

Inglourious Basterds

Tarantino worked on the script for Inglourious Basterds for over a decade. It was meant to be his masterpiece, and many consider that to be true for good reason. After all, no other filmmaker has been brave enough to write an alternate history where a despised historical figure is brutally gunned down in a flight of fantasy quite like Tarantino.

Building Tension

Tarantino often uses dialogue to build suspense — with tension increasing as conversations draw on like the tightening of a string. As the tension tightens around the protagonists, the audience feels that the string can break at any point. Tarantino likes to delay that snap for as long as possible. Three scenes in particular are ripe with tension and suspense in the film.

Chapter One Opening

Tarantino reveals important information to the viewer/reader so that the weight of Colonel Hans Landa’s visit presses down on their chest. We see people hiding under the floorboards as he describes them as being pests that need exterminating. Tarantino considers this to be one of the best scenes he’s written and it’s no wonder why. Dread permeates throughout the scene. It ends with Shoshanna escaping while her family is massacred. 

This foreshadows her own revenge by the massacre at the other end of the film (even the graphic match of the Basterds shooting down from the balconies in the climax mirrors this opening scene except the tables have turned). It also sets up her need to hide her Jewish identity, which will become pivotal in some extremely suspenseful scenes later in the script. 

The Strudel Scene

Only Tarantino can turn a delicious Austrian pastry and a glass of milk into a sign of impending doom. 

Granted, there is plenty of tension-building material in this particular scene. You’ve got Nazi secret police, Joseph Goebbels, and Shoshanna who is in hiding and going by the name Emmanuelle — but then Tarantino throws Hans Landa into the mix, the one who ordered the murder of Shoshanna’s entire family, who is no doubt been on the hunt for her since she escaped. Those two individuals…in the same room…again…only this time, we’re not sure if Landa knows her true identity. Very tense, indeed.

But then, Tarantino masterfully introduces the strudel and the milk. A waiter approaches as Landa and Shoshanna share a table at Chez Maurice. Landa orders for the two of them: two strudels, an espresso for him, and a glass of milk for her.

Landa found and killed Shoshanna’s family at a dairy farm. He definitely knows who she is. Or maybe not. Or…

The Bar Scene

The same can’t be said for perhaps the most infamous scene of the film in Chapter Four: the basement scene. As Nazi Sergeant Wilhelm interrogates Lieutenant Archie Hicox (who is acting undercover as a German officer) over jovial drinks and games, it’s clear that there’s only one way in and out — and not everyone will survive. Where Shosanna succeeds in hiding her identity, Hicox fails.

A simple hand gesture when ordering three drinks gives their identities away — leading to one of Tarantino’s favorite tropes — the tipping point in the stand-off when every gun is fired and we wait for the smoke to clear to see who survived. 

Tarantino was self-aware of his achievement by finishing the script with:

“You know somethin’, Utivich? I think this just might be my masterpiece.”

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Pulp Fiction

When Pulp Fiction hit the market in 1994, it set off a brash new era of filmmaking and caused a frenzy in the process. The nonlinear structure, explicit language, and nonsensical violence set it apart from conventional films of the time. 

Tarantino spoke about the impact nonlinear narratives have on audiences in the Pulp Fiction DVD extras:

“One thing that’s cool is that by breaking up the linear structure, when I watch the film with an audience, it does break [the audience’s] alpha state. It’s like, all of a sudden, ‘I gotta watch this … I gotta pay attention.’ You can almost feel everybody moving in their seats. It’s actually fun to watch an audience, in some ways, chase after a movie.”

Non-Linear Structure

The narrative structure is nonlinear and is told out of chronological order, where the sum of the parts equals the whole story. Three individual storylines circle each other, each one told through the point of view of different characters. The structure is composed of seven sequences, with the prologue and epilogue taking place at the same time and place, told through different perspectives.

What seem like random vignettes of different strangers, Tarantino finds a way to fold each of them into the larger narrative, making each scene feel like brand new yet strangely familiar as you try to piece together the mystery of what connects them.

Mundane and Comical Dialogue

Tarantino’s use of mundane and comical dialogue as two enforcers go about their dirty work is a great juxtaposition of light and dark elements. Audiences find themselves laughing when maybe they shouldn’t. His film knowledge translates high art through a grimy, street-level lens.

One of the most famous lines is when Jules recites a Biblical passage before killing someone. 

“And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know I am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you.”

Here again, you see the juxtaposition between exalted text and the luridness defined in the opening title card. It’s pop art in a fine art frame.

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Reservoir Dogs

This film helped Tarantino stand out. Pretty soon, the industry in 1992 was buzzing about a young emerging writer/director named Quentin Tarantino who seemingly came out of nowhere.​ 

Playing with Genre

Most heist movies are centered around the heist. Reservoir Dogs is concerned with the aftermath. As the criminals arrive at the rendezvous point after a bank robbery goes horribly wrong, the question grows: which one of them is the rat who sold them out to the cops. It’s a different and fresh take on a classic subgenre.

Duality

The most famous scene from the film that became synonymous with the song featured, is when Mr. Blonde gleefully tortures a cop that he kidnapped. The scene is written how it appears in the film, with an action line that notes the sequence should be timed with the music. His happy-go-lucky disposition in the face of doing something heinous is a duality that Tarantino often explores.

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True Romance

True Romance is a tale of when preparedness meets opportunity in a way that changes the course of film history. No, that’s not the plot of the movie but the story of how Tarantino became a household name.

Breaking in the Tarantino Way

Longtime collaborator Roger Avary approached Tarantino in 1988 with a script that he was struggling with titled, The Open Road. Tarantino asked to take a crack at it and a year later had the original script for True Romance.

The script received some pretty harsh feedback and went nowhere until Tarantino saw an opportunity. His friend was working as an assistant on Tony Scott’s The Last Boy Scout, and the budding young writer was able to get two scripts into Scott’s hands after cornering him on set. 

The famous director read both True Romance and Reservoir Dogs on a flight back to London and by the time he landed he wanted to direct both. Tarantino told him he can only direct one. He sold the True Romance for $50,000 and used that as seed money for Reservoir Dogs.  

The original script featured Tarantino’s nonlinear storytelling technique, but director Tony Scott opted for a linear version. Aside from this change, the director was faithful to the script. The film captured Tarantino’s signature style of brutal violence, politically incorrect dialogue, and of course an epic standoff. 

The only other major change was the ending, which Tarantino originally opposed. In the original script, the star-crossed lovers die. Tarantino relented when seeing both endings.

Tony Scott stated:

“I just fell in love with these two characters and didn’t want to see them die.”

True Romance was released after Reservoir Dogs had already made waves, solidifying Tarantino as an edgy newcomer worth the investment. He’d use that momentum to create one of the best films of the 1990s, Pulp Fiction.

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Kill Bill: Vol. 1

Tarantino is known for ripping from the films that inspired him, so clearly his films are loaded with references. Tarantino established that precedent early on in his career:

“I steal from every single movie ever made.”

Paying Homage

Serving as a homage to classic martial arts and grindhouse films, Kill Bill: Vol. 1 is a revenge story of The Bride, who awakens from a coma and seeks revenge on those responsible. Both Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 were supposed to be one film, but clocking in at four hours, Tarantino split the story into two.

Like many of his movies, the plot took inspiration from exploitation B-movies from the late 1970s, as well as from the Shaw Brothers and films like Lady Snowblood (1973) and The Bride Wore Black (1968).

But it wasn’t just the plot — nearly every inch of this film calls back to something from the past, from the costumes to the cinematography to the dialogue to even the title cards.

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There’s no denying the influence that Quentin Tarantino has made in the world of cinema. His daring approach to sensitive subject matters and his wicked sense of humor set him apart from the filmmakers who came before him. By taking narrative and visual elements from his favorite movies, he’s able to brew up films that feel distinctive and fresh. 

They say that there are no new stories under the sun but no two storytellers share the same life experience. By studying and stealing Tarantino the same way he studied and stole from the greats, you’ll only come away with a stronger framework to fill with your unique voice.  

Scripts from this Article