Secrets of the Western Genre

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Do you want to write a story that evokes the feeling of a period of time lost forever, of a way of life dwindling faster than your protagonist can or will adjust? Does the idea of a creating a story set in the old American frontier rouse your imagination? Then come with me on a journey of learning about the Western. Let’s get to the lonely heart of the stories that combine Crime, the individual’s relationship to Society, and the Action of an old-time hero’s reluctant moral dilemma.

What is a Western?

I agree with Anne Hawley of the Editor’s Roundtable Podcast who said, “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…”

In Story Grid analysis, the Western isn’t just a story about cowboys and cowboys don’t only inhabit Westerns. The landscape of the old American West isn’t the only setting for the Western Genre. As Story Grid Editors, we’re trained to focus on the ideas behind the genre rather than a strict time period and aesthetic style.

Need to get familiar with the Story Grid’s categorization of genres first? They aren’t the same as those used by booksellers or libraries. A refresher is here.

According to Shawn Coyne, “The Western story concerns the role of the individual in a mass society. Is the self-reliant individual dangerous to order or necessary to defend the powerless?”

The Western is an arch plot (single protagonist) or mini-plot (multiple characters) external genre. It combines aspects of the Crime, Society, and Action Genres in which the protagonist is both condemned and exalted by society.

Will Wright elaborates, [The Western is a myth that addressing how self-reliant individuals, relate to a society centered around morality, love, and law. The Western demonstrates that society needs the help of an independent outsider that it can’t produce on its own. In the Western, society and the outsider are forced into a negotiation of values of independence vs. connection. The antagonist’s threat makes the negotiation possible and necessary.]

Confusing? Here’s how I see it:

The Western, as we know it, is about being resistant to change, decreasing governmental intervention in individual lives, increasing civil liberties, and opposing the aspects of socialism that require one for all and all for one. The Western arises from the ideal of individual sovereignty. And yet the Western protagonist often finds themself compelled to intervene on behalf of a victimized community. The protagonist is a reluctant hero of antiquated values who is thrust into a new world order. They aren’t going the be happy about it. Change is a bitch.

For the sake of further clarity, We’ll examine the films High Noon and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as we go along.

What are the Global Values?

The global value at stake describes the protagonist’s primary change from the beginning of the story to the end. In the Western, the protagonist’s arc moves along the values of subjugation perceived as freedom to freedom and autonomy.

WesternSpectrum.png

The protagonist doesn’t necessarily have to become subjugated, but it must be a possible outcome. In a Western, the “negation of the negation” is subjugation perceived as freedom. In other words, trying to convince oneself that one’s lack of freedom is actually freedom is a form of damnation.

In High Noon. Sheriff Kane wants to protect his wife and town. Absolute liberty is represented by the vengeful gang. Kane is law and order personified, and the whole escalating complication series in the middle build is about begging for help from placid townsfolk who refuse to support Kane in the role they need him for–essentially a badass killer. Kane is caught between the prosperity and civility the town wants and the freedom of anarchy. The Quaker wife (Amy) represents nonviolence as a moral stance, which can only be achieved by running away.

In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the protagonists would lead a life of damnation if they gave up their freedom and way of life to become workers or soldiers. Leading the life of the average citizen would be their version of subjugation perceived as freedom– a lie.

As we see in the Story Grid Gas Gauge of Need, a Western arises from our physiological needs for safety (life and beliefs).

What are the Controlling Ideas?

A controlling idea, also known as a theme, is a simple statement that combines the story value at stake with the cause of moving it from one state to another, often its opposite. It’s the lesson you want your reader to come away with, usually subconsciously.

If your Western is positive (a prescriptive tale), your controlling idea will be something like:

Positive: Justice prevails (and life is preserved) when an uncompromising individual fights villains for the good of all.

If your Western is negative (a cautionary tale), your controlling idea will be something like:

Negative: Tyranny reigns when the savior of society is betrayed by the very people he or she defends.

Editor Tip: Don’t worry if the controlling idea of your story is generic as well. Readers will never see this statement. The important thing is that you have a guide for your story. See Chapter 34 in The Story Grid book, or The Big Takeaway.

What are the Core Emotions?

The core emotions of a story are what a reader wants to feel–the reason they choose a particular type of story.

The Core Emotions of a Western are freedom, righteousness, and bravery.

Audiences choose Westerns to experience freedom, righteousness, and bravery without risking the loss of their lives or the ties that bind. Your job as a writer of the Western is making the audience feel for your protagonist who embodies bravery and righteousness and is the epitome of a free agent, someone with no ties binding them to land or communities.

What are the Obligatory Scenes?

1. An inciting attack by the antagonist. This obligatory scene is derived from both the Crime and Action Genres. The antagonist can be a traditional villain (High Noon), law enforcement (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), the environment, and more.

In High Noon, three members of Frank Miller’s gang enter town, along with news of his parole and impending arrival, inciting fear throughout the town.

In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a six-man posse emerges from a mysterious train, kills members of the Hole in the Wall Gang, and chases Butch and Sundance into the frontier. The protagonists represent more the “caper” or “heist” type of Crime story, where the criminals are the protagonists.

2. The protagonist discovers and understands the antagonist’s object of desire. Primarily derived from the Crime and Action Genres.

Editor Tip: There is often a high level of respect between the protagonist and antagonist.

In High Noon, Kane understands that Miller’s gang will exact revenge by either making him run away or killing him (or both) and assuming control of the town.

In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the protagonists learn who the infamous members of their pursuing posse are and that they were hired by the railroad owner to hunt and kill them.

3. Hero sidesteps responsibility to take action. Derived from the basic Hero’s Journey structure.

In High Noon, Sheriff Kane retires from law enforcement and leaves town with Amy for a pacifist life in another town.

In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the protagonists seek assistance from a sheriff ally in gaining amnesty from their crimes and joining the army.

4. Forced out of their status-quo, the protagonist lashes out. Hero’s Journey, primarily from the Society Genre.

In High Noon, Kane (unable to gain allies in the saloon) punches the bartender who is an ally of Miller’s gang.

In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the protagonists argue with one another over their approach to solving the problem.

5. The protagonist’s initial strategy to outmaneuver the antagonist fails. Basic Hero’s Journey found in the Crime, Action, and Society Genres.  

In High Noon, Kane fails to obtain assistance in fighting the gang from the men he thought were his allies.

In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the protagonists confront the reality that running from the posse isn’t going to work and they decide to go into hiding in Bolivia.

6. The protagonist reaches an “All Is Lost” moment and realizes they must change their approach to salvage some form of victory. Basic Hero’s Journey found in Action, Society, and Crime.

In High Noon, Kane loses his only ally (Herb) and sits down to write his will. He realizes he must fight alone and will likely die.

In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the protagonists realize they are also hunted in Bolivia and decide to deceive the posse by “going straight.”

7. The protagonist expresses their gift at the climactic moment of “Hero at the Mercy of the Villain.” This is the critical scene of the Western, primarily derived from the Action Genre.

In the big shoot-out of High Noon, Kane demonstrates his willingness to sacrifice himself for others when he offers his life in exchange for Amy’s.

In the climactic scene of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Sundance expresses his gift of shooting expertise, Butch expresses his cleverness, they both express their gifts of friendship, optimism, and an unwavering dedication to continue their way of life and not compromise.

8. The protagonist’s sacrifice is rewarded. This is the basic Hero’s Journey found in Crime, Action, and Society.

In High Noon, Kane is rewarded with the truth about the townspeople. He and Amy save their own lives and gain freedom. Amy gains honor and Kane maintains it.

In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, they lose their lives but they maintain their way of life until the end. They will live on in infamy. Their sacrifice to let Etta (their love interest) leave them in Bolivia is rewarded with her staying alive.

What are the Conventions?

  1. The protagonist is up against life and death stakes. Derived from the Action Genre.

In High Noon, Miller’s Gang intends to kill Kane and a big shoot-out is the climactic event.

In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the railroad posse intends to kill them rather than bring them to justice. The policia and Bolivian banditos also intend to kill them. There are multiple gun fights and death defying feats.

2. The harsh, hostile, and wide-open landscape is a character in the story. Derived from the Society Genre.

In High Noon, the town of Hadleyville is a character, isolated within the frontier in which there is nowhere to hide.

In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the frontier into which the city-slicker protagonists are chased is foreign to them. Like High Noon, there seems to be no place to hide as the posse and banditos have frontier skills they do not possess.

3. Hero, Victim, Villain: These three roles are clearly defined throughout the story. Derived from the Action Genre.

In High Noon, Kane and Amy are both heroes and victims. The Miller’s gang are the villains.

In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, our outlaw protagonists are the victims and villains we’re rooting for. The roles are flipped but clear. The antagonists are the the traditional heroes. In the first half of the film, the crimes perpetrated by the protagonists are made to appear victimless. By the second half of the film, we begin to see those robbed or killed as clear victims.  

4. The protagonist’s object of desire is to stop the antagonist and save the victim. Derived from the Action Genre.

In High Noon, Kane is initially fighting to save his own life and the “life” of the town. At the climax, he is also fighting for Amy’s life.

In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, they intend to save their own lives from the railroad posse, policia, and banditos.

5. The protagonist operates outside the law (selectively or as a matter of course). Derived from the Society Genre.

In High Noon, Kane reinstates himself as sheriff, rebukes the deputy who claims the role, and fights the antagonists despite the will of the townspeople.

In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, they rob banks and trains and frequent a brothel. They are intent on maintaining this lifestyle of freedom and indulgence.

6. The antagonist is far more powerful than the protagonist and the victim. The protagonist is more powerful than the victim.

In High Noon, Kane is outnumbered by skilled shooting outlaws and he is the only one willing to defend himself, the town, and (later) Amy.

In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the railroad owner is far more financially powerful than the protagonists. The posse members outnumber them three to one and have much higher frontier skills. The policia and Bolivian army far outnumber and outgun them.

7. There is a Speech in Praise of the Villain. This is primarily derived from the Action Genre and functions as way of increasing suspense and making the stakes clear.

In High Noon, the judge makes the speech about Miller’s power and horrific past as he packs to leave town. Multiple townspeople make smaller and frequent speeches as well.

In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Butch, Sundance,and the ally sheriff all proclaim the seemingly endless power and resources of the railroad owner and his posse.

8. There is a clock which limits the time for the protagonist or antagonist to act. This is primarily derived from the Action Genre to increase suspense.

In High Noon, the clock is practically a character. The audience and characters watch a literal clock in “real time.”

In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the railroad gang enforces the clock as we see them gaining on the protagonists throughout the middle build.

9. The antagonist makes the conflict personal to the protagonist.

In High Noon, the Miller Gang is seeking revenge upon Kane for putting Miller in jail.

In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the railroad owner creates the posse to specifically hunt and kill the protagonists, not just any train robbers.

Additional: There are subgenre specific conventions. They vary by subgenre. Check out TV Tropes for more ideas.

What are the Subgenres?

The “accepted” subgenres of Western are strictly historical. First there was the vengeance Western movie, then came a period where filmmakers brought in the Society element–High Noon being the big early example. Finally, when we ran out of new ways to tell those society-tinged westerns, up come the heist/caper type where the criminals are the heroes.

Vengeance

A stranger comes to town to right a wrong. Examples of this subgenre are: For a Few Dollars More, The Magnificent Seven, Unforgiven, Stagecoach, Winchester ‘73, The Naked Spur, Apache, The Man From Laramie, The Searchers, One-Eyed Jacks, Nevada Smith, and Hang ‘Em High.

Transition

The protagonist is part of society at the beginning of the story and exiled from society by the end (High Noon), or the protagonist represents the old ways that clash with new, more nuanced ways (Red River). Other examples of this subgenre are: Broken Arrow, and Johnny Guitar.

Professional

The protagonist lives outside the law by committing “victimless” crimes such as robbing banks and corporations (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), or the protagonist is a law-enforcement officer or mercenary “just doing a job” (True Grit, The Professionals, Red Dead Redemption II). Other examples of this subgenre are: Rio Bravo, The Alamo, North to Alaska, The Commancheros, Four for Texas, Sons of Katie Elder, The War Wagon, El Dorado, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, The Wild Bunch, Two Mules for Sister Sara, Cheyenne Social Club, Big Jake, and Rio Lobo.

Note on supporting genres:

Story Grid editors recommend you pair any primary external genre with a secondary internal genre. The Western is often paired with the internal genre of Morality. But your protagonist might have an internal Worldview Genre instead. If you are writing a Traditional Western, consider the Status Genre. Any of the three internal genres could be paired with any of the subgenres of the Western.

You can also add a Love Genre subplot to your story. Most Westerns weave in a supporting Love story.

How Do You Create a Western?

Since stringing together a bunch of cowboy shootouts won’t build a story, I offer some basic guidelines:

Beginning Hook

Here, you introduce the characters and setting of the story world. You set the plot in motion and create questions in the minds of the audience. You make them want to learn more.

Begin by introducing the protagonist doing something they consider normal (generally indifferent to a group of characters).

Editor Tip: Their normal doesn’t have to be what the average frontier character would consider normal. It’s relevant to the protagonist. The goal is to show their baseline, what they will change (or fail to change) from by the end and what it is that the inciting incident disrupts.

Demonstrate their flaw and/or fear to establish empathy in readers. Before the protagonist is in jeopardy or making tough choices, we need to want them to live and have a life worth living.

Demonstrate the protagonist’s want. This can be internal or external. Make the want blatantly clear to encourage empathy.

Introduce supporting characters as rich and interesting.

Editor Tip: Give them distinctive names, appearances, emotions, and actions. Use description to evoke a sense of their broader culture or background. Don’t create meaningless victims, flawless heroes, or solely evil antagonists. It’s imperative that every character have a clear and supporting role for your protagonist and that they operate as believable in the story world.

Grab your audience’s attention with a life-threatening and/or morality testing inciting incident that launches the global story as soon as possible. Put someone representing the antagonistic force in opposition to your protagonist with a universal threat all audiences can understand, condemn, and view as worth fighting.

Make the stakes clear. Stakes in Westerns aren’t for subtext. What can the protagonist gain or lose? What is the dichotomy between their way of life and the life the antagonist or community expects of them? Demonstrate who is accepted/rejected, good/bad, and powerful/subjugated.

After the initial problem, the protagonist registers this new information but chooses not to act (could delay making decision or be prevented from doing so).

If you are writing a traditional Western, the beginning hook is where the hero rides into an unknown community and demonstrates their special skill (usually shooting) by which they are elevated in status (but still distrusted) within the community. You will show a clear conflict between the protagonist’s new community and and a more powerful antagonist. The protagonist avoids getting involved in the conflict until the antagonist threatens someone the protagonist cares about (friend or love interest).

Middle Build

Create a scene where the protagonist is forced to accept the quest (even if just agreeing to remain in the community for a set period of time). Accepting the quest is what launches the middle build.  

The middle build belongs to the antagonist who is continually putting obstacles in the way of the protagonist. There is an extended tests, allies, and enemies phase in the Western.

Your goal here is to build tension and increase the stakes for the protagonist. You might answer some questions here but you’ll want to raise even more. The protagonist is confronting increasingly complicated challenges. Demonstrate how they are learning (possibly changing) and setting new goals or failing to do so.

At the midpoint of the story, the protagonist shifts from avoiding the problem (by relying on old patterns of behavior and thinking) to actively attacking the problem (with a new way of viewing the challenge).

Crossing Story Grid terminology with that of The Hero’s Journey, your story’s middle build will contain the second major progressive complication of your global story (crossing the threshold), the third progressive complication (test, allies, enemies), the turning point complication (the ordeal), and the crisis (apotheosis).

Editor Tip: You will slowly expose your protagonist to greater and greater danger due to the bad choices they make (and hate making) to create rising action. A central dilemma must be solved before the global story can move forward.

Ending Payoff

Here, you will include your climax (the resurrection, in Hero’s Journey terminology) and the resolution of the global story. The protagonist confronts their fear or flaw, rises to the challenge, and either survives and succeeds against the villain, or fails and dies.

The climax plunges the protagonist into a life and death battle of the big shoot out. The protagonist outsmarts the antagonist, rather than using their inferior brawn, and lives (prescriptive tale). Or the protagonist fails to outsmart the antagonist and dies (cautionary tale).

If you are writing a traditional Western, the protagonist fights the antagonist and wins. They bring safety to the community. When the community finally fully accepts the protagonist, the protagonist rejects their new status and leaves the community for their old way of life.

In the ending payoff you ramp down the tension and action with scenes that answer the primary story questions. How have the characters changed and learned or failed to change and learn?

If you’re writing a series, the resolution can foreshadow new adventures.

Final Thoughts?

When all’s said and done, I think the Western really turns on: “We” in the towns and cities and peaceful lifestyles depend on badass killers to do our dirty work for us the same way we depend on underpaid labor to harvest our food, and “we” don’t want to know them, or about them. They are not welcome inside the walls of polite society. This is what makes the Western an important genre for our time. You choose whether it is a precautionary or prescriptive tale. You choose the takeaway.

A Note on Socially Problematic Elements of the Western Genre:

The Western genre has tended to perpetuate racist and sexist stereotypes, perhaps more than any other genre. If you’re drawn to writing in this genre, check for the following Women on the frontier aren’t just school teachers or sex objects and they don’t fall in love with their rapists. Native Americans can be tragic victims and brave heroes of their own stories. Not all shopkeepers are greedy, Chinese, or Jewish. You get the idea. Avoid the stereotypes most Western writers fall prey to. These are efforts that every writer should be making, no matter their genre.

Your Next Steps:

Now you have the basics of the Western and are ready to finish that story. Read widely in your chosen genre and compare them against the ideas here. When you’re ready for an editor, please contact me (or any Certified Story Grid Editor) for a free 30-minute phone consultation on your work.

I wish you the best with your writing.

Suggested Resources:  

Story Grid Editors’ Roundtable Podcast discussion on True Grit and Yojimbo

How to Write Western Novels by Matt Braun

Six Guns and Society by Will Wright

Critical Social Research by Lee Harvey

Western Writers of America

Women and Persons of Color Writing Westerns that are Worth Checking Out:

Rudolfo Anaya, Milana Marsenich, Willa Cather, Mari Sandoz, Leslie Silko, Mary Austin, Dorothy Johnson

You can read more blog posts I’ve written at:

Secrets of the Performance Genre, Secrets of the Morality Genre, Secrets of the Status Genre, Secrets of the Society Genre, Secrets of Writing Memoir, Secrets of the Crime Genre, Secrets of the Worldview Genre, Secrets of the War Genre, Secrets of the Action Genre, Secrets of the Thriller, Part One and Two, and Secrets of the Horror Genre   LINK

About the Author

Rachelle Ramirez helps writers develop their stories and believes stories are our most important catalyst for change. She received an MA in psychology from Goddard College and attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago's Masters in Creative Writing Program on merit scholarship. Rachelle served as the executive director for a national writing community before becoming a Certified Story Grid Editor. She is honored to have edited the award winning fiction of some amazing authors but her favorite work is with first-time novelists and memoir writers. She is easily bribed with promises of iced coffee drinks, piles of puppies, and long walks in thunderstorms. She is currently on contract, writing a Story Grid guide to a masterwork. Her forthcoming novel is White Grrrl, Black Sheep. Contact Rachelle to schedule a free 30-minute consultation on your story at rachelleramirez.com.
Comments (2)
Author Rachelle Ramirez

2 Comments

Larry Pass says:

I believe that in many Westerns a (more or less) even-handed duel is substituted for the Hero at the Mercy of the Villain Scene.

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Rachelle Ramirez says:

Yes. It’s usually the big shoot out where the characters are well matched or the hero is underdog. You really don’t know who will win and the possibility of a serious loss must be there for the protagonist, usually his own death or death of a loved one or the good of humanity.

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