Editor Roundtable: True Grit

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In this week’s episode, the team rides off across wide-open country with the 1969 Western True Grit, written by Marguerite Roberts based on Charles Portis’s bestselling 1968 novel. Comment below or visit us on Twitter @StoryGridRT to let us know what you think of our analysis.

You can find the Foolscap Global Story Grid here (sheet 11).

You can find the movie via Amazon or iTunes.

The Story

Here’s a synopsis of the movie adapted from Wikipedia.

When family man Frank Ross is murdered in Ft Smith by his drunken farmhand, Tom Chaney, Ross’s fifteen-year-old daughter, Mattie, travels to the town to claim his body. She learns that Chaney has escaped Arkansas justice by fleeing to Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma) in company with the Lucky Ned Pepper gang of train robbers.

Mattie hires the aging US Marshal Reuben “Rooster” J. Cogburn, a man of true grit, to capture Chaney and bring him back to hang for his crime.

Over Mattie’s protests, a young Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (pronounced “LaBeef”), who is also pursuing Chaney, joins forces with Rooster Cogburn. The two men try to leave her behind, but she pursues them until they agree to let her join the hunt.

At a remote dugout cabin they find two horse thieves taking shelter. Rooster captures and interrogates them, and one of them reveals that Ned Pepper and his gang are planning a train robbery and will be there soon. The other thief kills him for snitching, and Rooster kills him.

Rooster and LaBoeuf set a trap for Pepper’s gang at a remote cabin, but the inexperienced LaBoeuf fires on them too soon and blows their cover. A gunfight ensues, killing two of the gang, while Pepper and two others escape.

Mattie, Rooster, and LaBoeuf carry the bodies to a settlement, where they get more information about the gang. Mattie refuses to stay behind, and the three resume their pursuit.

As they near Pepper’s hideout, Mattie finds herself face-to-face with Chaney. She shoots but doesn’t kill him, and before Rooster and LaBoeuf can help her, Pepper takes her hostage. He will kill her if the two lawmen don’t let them go free.

Pepper and rest of the gang depart, leaving Chaney behind to guard Mattie, who believes she’s been abandoned.

Rooster and LaBoeuf double back. La Boeuf rescues Mattie while Rooster charges the four escaping outlaws by himself, guns blazing. He kills two of them and mortally wounds Pepper, but Pepper shoots Rooster’s horse, trapping his leg underneath it. LaBoeuf makes a long shot from the hillside, killing Pepper before hte outlaw can kill Rooster.

Meanwhile, back at the camp, Chaney’s not down. He surprises LaBoeuf, striking him on the head with a rock, apparently fatally. Mattie shoots at Chaney again, but the recoil from her father’s oversized gun sends her tumbling into a snake pit, where she breaks her arm, becomes pinned, and is bitten by a rattlesnake.

Rooster appears, shoots Chaney dead, and descends into the pit to rescue Mattie. The mortally injured LaBoeuf revives long enough to help them out of the pit, saving their lives. He dies from the effort.

Rooster runs Mattie’s pony Little Blackie to death, racing to get her to medical help. He carries her across country, then steals a wagon, and finally gets her to a doctor.

Some time later, back in Fort Smith, Mattie’s lawyer comes to Rooster, pays him what Mattie owed him for the job, plus a reward, and says that Mattie is gravely ill.

In the epilogue, Mattie, back at home and recovering, shows Rooster her father’s headstone and offers him a place after death in the family burial plot. Rooster reluctantly agrees but makes no promises that it will happen anytime soon. He rides off, waving his cowboy hat and jumping his horse over a high fence.

The Six Core Questions

Read about an Editor’s Six Core Questions here.

1. What’s the Global Genre?

Western > Professional

Anne

True Grit’s Global Genre is external: Western > Professional. The Global Value is Freedom/Subjugation. The typical range of value is Freedom to Restraint to Subjugation to Subjugation Perceived as Freedom.

The Western genre is weird. I frankly struggle with whether it should be a genre at all, since the only thing that sets it apart consistently from other types of Action, Crime, and Society stories is the peculiarity of its setting—a harsh, hostile, or wide-open landscape, typically but not always in the United States and west of the Mississippi—usually but not always in the four decades following the American Civil War.

The “Professional” subgenre employs a protagonist  who is either a career criminal, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, or a law enforcement professional. Here we have both: Rooster, an outlaw at heart who happens to carry a badge, and LaBoeuf, a law-abiding but naive Texas Ranger.

The Life Value at Stake in the Western varies by subgenre (another difficulty in defining it), but it most often has to do with Freedom and Subjugation, usually from the perspective of a free-living man who clashes with civilized society.

Rooster Cogburn’s internal Morality Redemption arc plays off the unchanging prim uprightness and courage of Mattie Ross.

Additional Comments 

Valerie: The Western then is like the Thriller in that it is an amalgam of other genres. The Thriller is a combination of Action, Crime, and Horror, whereas the Western is a mix of Action, Crime, and Society.

Check out this post to learn more about Global Content Genres.

2. What are the Obligatory Scenes and Conventions?

Obligatory Scenes

Anne

  • An Inciting Attack by the Villain or Environment: Tom Chaney murders Frank Ross, Mattie’s father.
  • Hero sidesteps responsibility to take action: Rooster Cogburn initially refuses the job of hunting down Tom Chaney, then strings Mattie along, demanding double her initial payment offer, which he thinks will put her off.
  • Forced to leave the ordinary world, Hero lashes out: Rooster’s ordinary world is carefree and lawless. I think the lashing out is demonstrated by his “Writ on a Rat” scene. He’s begun to accept that this persistent girl isn’t going to go away, that he’ll probably accept the job. He gets very drunk and shoots a rat in Chen Lee’s house, in a parody of his own lawless behavior in dealing with criminals.
  • Discovering and understanding the Villain’s object of desire: During the initial ambush at the cabin, Moon discloses that Ned Pepper’s gang—which Chaney belongs to—is planning to rob a train.
  • Hero’s initial strategy to outmaneuver Villain fails: Pepper and some of his gang escape when LaBoeuf gets trigger happy and starts a gunfight. Note that we haven’t seen Mattie’s villain, Chaney, yet. Pepper is Rooster’s antagonist.
  • Hero, realizing they must change their approach to salvage some form of victory, reaches an All Is Lost moment: At  the end of the Middle Build Rooster, who’s been drunk all day after losing the battle to leave Mattie behinds, says no man will ever work for a woman. Mattie points out that he’s working for her. His old way is gone. He corks his whiskey bottle. He has thrown in with a girl.
  • The Hero at the Mercy of the Villain, the central event of the Western story and what the reader is waiting for. It’s the moment when the Hero’s gift is expressed: With Mattie held prisoner, Rooster appears to admit his defeat and abandon her. Paying off an earlier setup, he then rides alone directly at the four remaining gang members, guns blazing. He takes two down and wounds Lucky Ned Pepper, but Pepper shoots Rooster’s horse out from under him, pinning him. In a classic “sidekick makes good” moment, LaBoeuf gets one decent shot in and kills Pepper.
  • The Hero’s Sacrifice is Rewarded. Rooster sacrifices his own horse, Mattie’s horse Little Blackie, and almost his life to save Mattie, and is rewarded with money—always his main motivation—and a symbolic place in the Ross family when Mattie offers him a final resting place in the family plot.

Additional Comments

Valerie:  Not all stories use the hero’s journey, but for those that do, this is a useful way to approach obligatory scenes.

Leslie: The “lashes out” scene could be when Rooster tries to leave Mattie at the ferry. The “Sacrifice is Rewarded” scene is brilliant for Rooster because he is free to wander, knowing he has a place where he belongs when he’s ready. It’s the perfect reward (in addition to the money) for his sacrifice of freedom during the hunt for Chaney.

Click here to learn more about Obligatory Scenes and Conventions.

Conventions

Valerie

  • Harsh, hostile, wide-open landscape is a “character”: The scenery is absolutely breathtaking, but when Mattie, Rooster and LaBoeuf set out to find Chaney (and ultimately Pepper), the landscape factors into the story directly. They track the villains across the land, travelling through high grass, sleeping under the stars, shooting a turkey for food, and so on. (Rooster: “there’s no hot grub or warm bed out there,” “dinner time will come and go without notice on this trip”)
  • Hero, Victim, Villain: In Mattie’s story, Mattie is the hero for insisting that her father’s killer be brought to justice. Her father (Frank Ross) is the victim, and Tom Chaney is the villain. However, in the global story, the hero is US Marshal Rooster Cogburn (he defeats both villains), Mattie is the victim (she’s taken hostage and falls down a snake pit, plus Rooster saves her from being beaten by LaBoeuf), and Ned Pepper is the villain.
  • The Hero’s object of desire is to stop the villain and save the victim: Mattie is laser focused on finding Chaney. While Chaney’s victim (Frank Ross) is dead (and therefore beyond saving), Mattie can avenge her father’s death. Rooster wants to find Chaney for the reward money, and Pepper to settle a score. He wants to keep Mattie safe, and does so several times. (1) He doesn’t want her to go on the journey. (2) He tells her to stay at McAlester’s before he goes after Ned. (3) He saves Mattie from LaBoeuf’s beating. (4) He saves her from Ned once she’s been kidnapped. (5) After her snake bite, he brings her to the doctor (at great cost).
  • Hero operates outside the law (selectively or as a matter of course): Mattie takes the law into her own hands when she decides to hire Rooster to find Chaney. (The Sheriff in Fort Smith know next to nothing—they confuse Chaney’s name and call him Chambers, and say they have no authority since Chaney is now in “Indian Nation,” which is under federal jurisdiction.) In the trial scene, the defense attorney paints a very clear picture of Rooster as a man who operates outside the law (he’s killed twenty-three people in his four years as Marshal). The lawyer becomes so frustrated with Rooster’s disregard for the law, and the court of law, that he eventually stops questioning him. Throughout the film, there are other references to Rooster’s unconventional approach to his job. For example, he doesn’t buy his whiskey, he confiscates it.  Prior to becoming a marshal Rooster stole money from a federal pay master, but didn’t consider it stealing—he says it was more like a bank loan (money he needed for a fresh start). Rooster plans to shoot Ned’s gang without a call.
  • The power divide between the hero and the villain is very large: Mattie/Chaney —Mattie is a young girl, whereas Chaney is a murderer and wanted in two states. LaBoeuf says it will take two men to take Chaney alive. Rooster/Ned—It’s not that the power divide between the characters/personalities is very large, in fact they seem evenly matched. However, the odds are stacked against Rooster in this particular showdown. Pepper has already gotten away from Rooster once, although he was shot in the lower lip. So, we know Ned is capable of besting Rooster. Moreover, here Rooster is travelling with a child and Texas Ranger who isn’t a great shot, and isn’t at all concerned about Pepper. However, Pepper is travelling with five other people. When Mattie is taken hostage, it’s four against two, and then four against one—in favour of Pepper.
  • Speech in Praise of the Villain: There is no speech in praise of Chaney, only references to his being a murderer and “no-good.” Note, this is a secondary plot line, so it’s not as big a deal. The priority is to nail the global genre, which in this case is Rooster/Mattie/Ned. However, Rooster does give a speech in praise of Ned Pepper—or at least several comments in Pepper’s general favour.  (“If I have to go up against Ned Pepper it’ll cost $100, I figured that much out. And 50 in advance.” “It ain’t gonna be easy smokin’ old Ned out. He’ll be holed up in that Indian Nation.” “Short, feisty fella. Nervous and quick.”)
  • Western > Professional – law enforcement officers/mercenaries “just doing a job”: Rooster Cogburn is a US Marshal, LaBoeuf is a Texas Ranger. Although this is a job for LaBoeuf , he does have a personal stake in wanting to find Chaney—it will help him curry favour with a woman of high standing, one he wants to marry to improve his own status in society.

Additional Comments

Anne: The story takes place in Arkansas and Oklahoma—in the winter in the novel—so the choice to set the movie in the gorgeous bright sunlight of the Colorado Rockies in autumn, with a bunch of Day For Night shots, was one of the choices that actually decreased the sense of jeopardy from the original story.

3. What is the Point of View? What is the Narrative Device?

Jarie

Mostly Mattie’s perspective, but you get some third person scenes for background.

Additional Comment

Anne: The film does a pretty good job of capturing the extremely idiosyncratic POV of Mattie Ross, who in the novel really believes she’s the hero of her own story. The way all the characters speak—with fewer contractions and a more formal tone than you’d expect—exactly reflects the brilliant narrative voice in the novel.

Check out these posts to learn more about Point of View and Narrative Devices.

4. What are the Objects of Desire, in other words, wants and needs?

Jarie

Wants: Justice for the murder of her father.

Needs: To be respected as the person who can avenge her father’s death, even though she is a young girl.

Additional Comments

Valerie: Rooster and LaBoeuf also had very clear objects of desire. Rooster wanted (1) money for capturing Chaney and (2) to bring Pepper to justice at last. He needs a family—a true intimate (not sexual) connection with someone else. He gets this with Mattie. LaBoeuf wants to catch Chaney so that a certain woman “of high standing” will be impressed and will marry him, thereby elevating his social status. He needs to put others’ needs ahead of his own, which he does when he expresses concern for Mattie’s safety just before her encounter with Chaney and when he helps save Mattie from the snake pit.

Click here to learn more about Objects of Desire.

5. What is the Controlling Idea / Theme?

Jarie

The Hero can get what they want if they are confident in what they know and determined to get what they want.

Click here to learn more about Controlling Ideas and Themes.

What is the Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff?

Leslie

Beginning Hook

  1. Inciting incident: Rooster arrives in Fort Smith, and Mattie Ross wants to hire him to capture Tom Chaney and bring him to justice in Fort Smith. *Note that the Inciting Incident of the Beginning Hook is different from the Inciting Incident for the Global Story in this Story.
  2. Progressive Complication/Turning Point: Mattie gets the money to hire Rooster; LaBoeuf offers the opportunity for more money and doesn’t want Mattie along.
  3. Crisis Question: Allow Mattie to come along or leave her in Fort Smith?
  4. Climax: Rooster and LaBoeuf try to ditch Mattie at the ferry, but she reminds Rooster of himself when she swims her horse across the river, and he lets her stay.
  5. Resolution: They head to Rooster’s informant’s place.

Middle Build

  1. Inciting incident: Informant tells Rooster that Pepper (who was said to be with Chaney) had been seen at McAlester’s three days before.
  2. Progressive Complication/Turning Point: Pepper and others escape from the trap at the cabin. At McAlester’s, they learn that Pepper is at his hideout. 
  3. Crisis Question: Leave Mattie at McAlester’s or take her with them?
  4. Climax: Tries again to leave her, but LaBoeuf and Mattie argue that she has a right to go.
  5. Resolution: They ride on, and Rooster acts like a child who hasn’t gotten his way.

Ending Payoff:

  1. Inciting incident: Mattie encounters Chaney and shoots him at the stream near Pepper’s hideout.
  2. Progressive Complication & Turning Point: Pepper captures Mattie then tells Rooster he’ll keep her safe if Rooster leaves.
  3. Crisis Question: Leave Mattie or trick Pepper and go after her?
  4. Climax: He pretends to leave her, but comes back to fight Pepper and his men while LaBeouf helps Mattie and kills Pepper before he can kill Rooster.
  5. Resolution: Rooster saves Mattie from the hole where she fell and gets her to a doctor in time to save her.

Click here to learn more about the Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff.

7. Additional Story-Related Observations

Anne: The novel and movie both make great symbolic use of landscape. The story’s midpoint shift (a little early in the movie but right at the 50 percent mark of the novel) is marked by crossing a river. Mattie’s final descent into peril is marked by a steep descent down a hillside, then even further down, into a pit—with rattlesnakes and skeletons!

Valerie: Interplay between three characters. Shawn recommends scenes with three characters rather than two (even if one of them is offstage) because it’s much easier to write a scene that works and grabs the audience’s attention. Here we have lots of great scenes with Mattie, Rooster and LaBoeuf. Contrast this with The Bridges of Madison County, which was primarily two-person scenes (that benefited heavily from Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood).

Kim: Dialogue! It took me a few scenes to acclimate, but then I loved listening to characters’ exchanges. So many great lines, phrases, quips. These felt authentic to characters, time period, and also were just fun and humorous. I also enjoyed reading about the screenwriter, Marguerite Roberts, and how she had been blacklisted for nine years from Hollywood for refusing to testify for the House Un-American Activities Committee, which John Wayne was an advocate for … interesting bits of history.

Jarie: The dialogue was curt and did not mince words. I liked Rooster’s “dialogue” with the cat, General. It shows his odd need to connect with something, if not someone. The rest of it was functional with no spare words.

Leslie: Rooster’s testimony before Judge Parker in Fort Smith was reminiscent of Jack Nicholson’s character’s testimony in A Few Good Men. Men and women are hired do jobs that others don’t want to do that make it possible for others to live peaceful, productive lives. This includes people in the military, police officers, firefighters, and other first responders. They witness events and are called to do tasks that are hard to come back from, and society/civilization asks them to return and behave as if they haven’t seen and done those things. It’s a difficult balance, and I think it is part of what makes Westerns and War Stories worth exploring.

It’s interesting to note the differences in factual accuracy between today’s films and older ones. We have technology that makes it easier to fix goofs, but also audiences may demand that filmmakers be more careful because we can pause and rewatch movies easily to catch goofs. Regardless, as editors and writers, when reviewing masterworks, it’s useful to consider why the writer, screenwriter, or director made the choices they have.

Your Roundtable Story Grid Editors are Jarie Bolander, Valerie Francis, Anne Hawley, Kim Kessler, and Leslie Watts.

Join us again next time, when we’ll be taking on what we think will be the Worldview genre with Dead Poets Society. We encourage you to watch it this week and follow along with us. You can find it on iTunes or Amazon.

About the Author

Leslie Watts is a certified Story Grid editor, writer, and podcaster. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember: from her sixth-grade magazine about cats to writing practice while drafting opinions for an appellate court judge. When the dust settled after her children were born, she launched www.Writership.com to help writers unearth the treasure in their manuscripts. She believes writers become better storytellers through practice, and that editors owe a duty of care to help writers with specific and supportive guidance to meet reader expectations and express their unique gifts in the world.
Comments (2)
Author Leslie Watts

2 Comments

Nancy J Nagler says:

I remember seeing this “True Grit” in the movie theater. And enjoyed it. Yes, John Wayne played John Wayne, that’s the only way he played his roles.
You forgot to mention that LaBoeuf was played by Glen Campbell.
One thing that always irritated me was that Oklahoma does not look like the movie. I knew that instinctively back then but having lived there for seven years and traveled in each direction, there are no sharp pointed mountains there. The SE does have nice rolling mountains, much like the Appalachians.
I met this amazing WWII/Korean War veteran who had piloted boats for a big name Hollywood agent and he was able to meet many of the great actors and singers of that era. He didn’t have John Wayne aboard his boat because Wayne had his own. But not too many people liked Wayne. Also, Wayne did not fight in WWII. Both David Niven and Jimmy Stewart, both of whom Charlie had met, at the very least, did and ended up quite well up in rank.

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Ruth Nolan says:

I agree that Westerns seem tricky to put into genre, which makes them difficult to Story Grid. Thanks for saying it, I thought it was me not being able to do it properly on my western story I have written. Your breakdown will be very helpful. Thanks again.

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