Screenwriting Blog
Posted on by Courtney Meznarich

How to Use the Howard Hawks Screenwriting Method

The Howard Hawks screenwriting method focuses on talking drafts, snappy, interruptive dialogue, action over dialogue, and character over plot.

The result is a quick-reading script (and later, film) that keeps audiences engaged no matter how thin the storyline.

In this blog, learn how to employ the Howard Hawks screenwriting method to improve your screenplays, plus more storytelling fundamentals from the early filmmaker.

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Use the Howard Hawks Screenwriting Method

What is the Howard Hawks Screenwriting Method?

The Howard Hawks screenwriting method is composed of several different styles of writing processes – from how he got words down on the page to how he simplified storytelling by always focusing on character over plot.

Below, find a detailed description of how he approached screenwriting to see if you can use these processes for yourself!  

Talking Drafts

Perhaps the most differentiated element of Hawks' screenwriting process was how he wrote his first draft screenplays.

There was no storyboarding, no vomit drafts, no 3x5 cards, but rather a tape recorder and his voice. He coined the talking draft, which he felt was the fastest way to create scenes. He'd develop a story outline, then work with a screenwriter to perform the dialogue and action between characters during each scene, record it, and transcribe it into screenplay format once he was happy with the back and forth.

The method results in a more natural, exciting speech pattern that captivates audiences and keeps scenes moving ahead.

"We usually met each day after breakfast, down on the beach. We would sit on the beach, in the sun, and talk over the story, and break now and then to take a swim," said Wells Root, a screenwriter who worked with Hawks on the film "Tiger Shark." "He would never sit down with a paper and pencil. It was all talk, and then I would go and write it."

Quick, Overlapping Dialogue

Hawks strongly believed that any script that "read well" would probably make a terrible film.

"If you have to read it three times to understand it, you've got a chance of getting a movie out of it," he once said.

He meant that the way people speak almost must be seen and heard rather than read to understand the essence of the conversation. This is true visual storytelling, which is what screenwriting is all about. Whether he wrote the script or hired writers to do it, Hawks felt that the screenwriting process couldn't be so far removed from the directing process for scenes to be believable. It all must work in tandem.

"It isn't done with cutting," he explained. "It's done by deliberately writing dialogue like real conversation. You're liable to interrupt me, and I'm liable to interrupt you, so you write in such a way that you can overlap the dialogue but not lose anything. You must allow for it in your dialogue with just the addition of a few little words in front.

"Well, I think -" that's all you need, and then say what you have to say. All you want to do is to hear the essential things; if you don't hear those in a scene, you're lost. You have to tell the soundman what lines he must hear, and he must let you know if he does."

You're likely to find this dialogue similarity among all Hawks' films because it made scenes interesting even if they weren't interesting as written.

"It's short, quick, and rather hard," Hawks explained. "You put a few words in front of somebody's speech and put a few words at the end, and they can overlap it.  It gives you a sense of speed that doesn't exist. And then you make the people talk a little faster."

Action Over Dialogue

"I think motion is more interesting than just talking," Hawks once said.

Hawks emphasized action over dialogue when working with screenwriters if something could be said in movement rather than words. It adds interest to a scene and brings your audience along for the ride.

For example, rather than opening a scene with a group of people sitting and talking at a dinner table, enter instead on someone entering the room. Otherwise, Hawks said, "the scene sits down with them."

"The best thing to do is to tell a story as though you're seeing it," he said. "Tell it from your eyes. Let the audience see exactly as they would if they were there. Just tell it normally."

Character Over Plot

Hawks felt that great characters could make a movie, with no complicated plot necessary.

His storytelling style was so straightforward and simplistic that it relied heavily on characters to engage the audience. Audiences feel connected to a story through its characters, and Hawks deeply understood that.

"There are about thirty plots in all of drama," Hawks explained. "But if you can do characters, you can forget about the plot … Let them tell the story for you, and don't worry about the plot. Movements come from characterization."

Hawks recalled a time when he was working on "The Big Sleep," a 1946 film noir written by Raymond Chandler.  

"I never figured out what was going on, but I thought that the basic thing had great scenes in it, and it was good entertainment," he said. "After that got by, I said, "I'm never going to worry about being logical again."

Who Is Howard Hawks?

Howard Hawks was an American filmmaker, born at the end of the 19th century and famous during the classic Hollywood era between 1910 and 1960. Some of his most famous movies include "Scarface," "Bringing Up Baby," "The Big Sleep," "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," and "Rio Bravo."

He got his start as a director while on set for "The Little Princess," starring Mary Pickford. The director didn't show up, so Hawks jumped in to direct a scene. Pickford was reportedly impressed, and the rest is history.

Hawks had a special bond with screenwriters on his films, especially if he wasn't doing the writing himself. Even if he did have a heavy hand in the screenplay, he rarely took credit. Some of his favorite screenwriting friends included the likes of Billy Wilder, Leigh Brackett, William Faulkner, and Jules Furthman.

Hawks passed away in 1977.

What Was Howard Hawks Known For?

Howard Hawks was known for being a jack of all genres, having made Westerns, comedies, dramas, and film noir, to name a few.

But even with his lack of genre preference, his filmmaking style was unmistakable: straightforward stories, even lighting, shots that were only as long as they needed to be, overlapping, fast dialogue, and a no-nonsense approach to visuals.

Hawks is also responsible for the "Hawksian Woman," a term coined to describe a female character that was strong, witty, and with fewer traditionally feminine characteristics. These women usually staked a claim on the male protagonist's heart.

How Many Movies Did Howard Hawks Make? 

Throughout his career, which spanned more than five decades, Hawks made at least 40 films. According to HowardHawksMovies.com, those films included these titles.

The Road to Glory (1926)

A woman goes blind after a car accident and relies on praying in order to get her sight back.

Fig Leaves

The film begins with an Adam and Eve prologue, then follows a couple in New York City who survives off poor quality bootlegs and suffers problems in their marriage.

The Cradle Snatchers

Three wives hatch a plan to show up to a party with some flirty college boys to prove a point to their flirtatious husbands, but it backfires when they show up with flappers.

Paid to Love

An American banker finds love in an Apache café after befriending the crown prince of a Balkan kingdom.

A Girl in Every Port

This action-comedy was ahead of its time, featuring two sailors and a series of women.

Fazil

An Arab chieftain marries a Parisienne, but she is unhappy living in the desert.

The Air Circus

A pretty female aviator helps two men overcome their fear of flying at flying school.

Trent's Last Case

A man commits suicide, but murderous doubt is cast upon his wife and secretary.

The Dawn Patrol

This story follows a lifelong group of World War I aviators, and it uses actual aerial footage and stars Hawks as a stunt pilot.

The Criminal Code

A tough district attorney-turned-prison warden must face many of the criminals he sent to jail.  

Scarface

This dark gangster thriller is based loosely on real-life gangster Al Capone.

The Crowd Roars

This film was made famous for its three major racing sequences, starring James Cagney as a race car driver.

Tiger Shark

A one-armed tuna fisherman marries a woman who doesn't love him.

Today We Live

Two WWII officers compete for the affection of the same woman.

The Prizefighter & The Lady

A boxer gets a shot at the heavyweight title.

Viva Villa! 

Rebel Pancho Villa becomes a bandit who attacks the wealthy to protect the poor.

Twentieth Century

This romantic screwball comedy follows a man who attempts to rekindle his love with his now-famous actress ex to save his career.

Barbary Coast

This is a film about the gold rush days in San Francisco.

Ceiling Zero

An irresponsible commercial airline pilot must find a way to make amends following a fatal barnstorming accident.

The Road to Glory (1936)

The story follows a regiment in the French Army into the trenches in WWI.

Come and Get It

A lumberjack ditches his saloon girl lover to marry into wealth, only to become infatuated with his former lover's daughter years later.

Bringing Up Baby

This screwball comedy follows a paleontologist trying to secure money for his museum, only to be irritated by a flighty heiress and her pet leopard.

Only Angels Have Wings

An air freight manager must risk his pilots' lives to win an important contract.

His Girl Friday

A newspaper editor attempts to keep his successful reporter ex-wife from remarrying.

The Outlaw

Western legends are pitted against each other over the law and the attention of a country-western vixen.

Sergeant York

Two men are drafted into war, and one must struggle with his pacifist inclinations to become a hero.

Ball of Fire

The story follows a group of writers who bring in a woman to help her escape her gangster boyfriend.

Air Force

This is a tense and exciting action flick following the events of WWII.

Corvette K-225

The story follows a Canadian submarine commander in the Atlantic during WWII.

To Have and Have Not

This WWII thriller follows an American ex-pat who helps bring a French resistance leader and his wife to Martinique.

The Big Sleep

A wealthy family hires a private detective who must sort through murder, deception, and love before the story concludes.

Red River

A cattle drive results in a mutiny by the tyrannical leader's own adoptive son.

A Song is Born

A nightclub singer falls in love while hiding at a research institution while the cops pursue her gangster boyfriend. 

I Was a Male War Bride

An American Lieutenant and a French Captain attempt to return to America following war using the War Bride Act.

The Thing

A team of scientists in the Arctic thaw out an extraterrestrial.  

The Big Sky

Two men explore the Missouri River by riverboat and peacefully encounter Indians.

O. Henry's Full House

This comedy short follows two gangsters who kidnap an obnoxious little boy only to pay his hillbilly parents to take him back.

Monkey Business

A chemist's life is turned upside down when his chimpanzee discovers the fountain of youth.

Gentleman Prefer Blondes

Two showgirls travel to Paris, pursued by a private detective.

Land of the Pharaohs

Thousands of people make up the cast in the story about the construction of a pyramid.

Rio Bravo

A sheriff enlists the help of three unlikely men to hold a bad guy behind bars.

Hatari!

A group of men captures animals in Africa for American zoos before a photographer arrives to change their ways.

Man's Favorite Sport

A fishing expert who can't fish is entered into a fishing tournament.

Red Line 7000

This racing film follows three women who constantly worry about their three men, all of which are race car drivers.

El Dorado

A group of unlikely partners works together to help a rancher fight a rival rancher trying to steal his water.

Rio Lobo

Following the Civil War, a man searches for two traitors who caused the defeat of his unit and the death of a close friend.

In Conclusion

Howard Hawks' career is storied and vast, but his signature style is the thread that binds these stories even across genres.

Using his screenwriting method, you can focus on character, dialogue, and visuals that help drive your screenplay forward in a compelling, engaging way that has little to do with the plot.

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