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.
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!
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.
Quick, Overlapping Dialogue
Hawks strongly believed that any script that "read well" would probably make a terrible film.
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.
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.
Action Over Dialogue
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."
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.
Hawks recalled a time when he was working on "The Big Sleep," a 1946 film noir written by Raymond Chandler.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Rebel Pancho Villa becomes a bandit who attacks the wealthy to protect the poor.
This romantic screwball comedy follows a man who attempts to rekindle his love with his now-famous actress ex to save his career.
This is a film about the gold rush days in San Francisco.
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.
Western legends are pitted against each other over the law and the attention of a country-western vixen.
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.
This is a tense and exciting action flick following the events of WWII.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A sheriff enlists the help of three unlikely men to hold a bad guy behind bars.
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.
A group of unlikely partners works together to help a rancher fight a rival rancher trying to steal his water.
Following the Civil War, a man searches for two traitors who caused the defeat of his unit and the death of a close friend.
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.
Try this new method of writing on for size, and let us know how it goes!
Here's to trying something new,