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It’s time for the Big Showdown in the Writers’ Room this week as we analyze the 1953 short story “3:10 to Yuma” by Elmore Leonard.
Genre and Three-Act Summary
The global genre of “3:10 to Yuma” is Western-Professional. Here’s a brief overview of the three-act summary.
Beginning Hook – Deputy Marshall Paul Scallen and convicted robber Jim Kidd arrive in Contention at midnight before Scallen is to transport Kidd to Yuma by train later in the day. They wait in a hotel after leaving strict instructions that no one be informed of their presence.
Middle Build – While waiting in the hotel, members of Kidd’s gang gather in Contention, and Kidd tells Scallen that he can let him go to save his own life, but when Timpey helps Bob Moons, a brother of the victim of the gang’s robbery, sneak into the hotel room intending to kill Jim, Scallen decides to save Kidd’s life.
Ending Payoff – Shortly before the train’s departure, Kidd renews his offer to walk away and save Scallen’s life, Scallen declines and with some fancy shooting gets Kidd and himself onto the train in the nick of time.
Analyzing the Scene
Scene Type: Big Showdown
What function does this scene serve in the story (Editor’s Scene Type)?
This is a short story so it contains all of the vital elements of the Western genre, including the big show down.
What kind of scene is this (Writer’s Scene Type)?
In trying to come up with the essence of this scene, we thought of lots of different descriptive phrases. We have evenly-matched characters (in terms of power in the scene) displaying their ability and authority (overtly or not) in order to gain an advantage or get the other to back down or bend to their will. Some of the beats we might describe this way:
- last chance to change your mind
- run/get out while you still can
- take the money and run
- testing the power of Scallen’s convictions
- Yes I can, no you can’t scene (testing – morality)
What does this scene type accomplish within the context of the novel as a whole?
Core event of a Western–Big Showdown, but it’s a verbal shootout (Scallen is a just lawman whou nderstands human nature), with no gunshots fired until the end.
How many people are in the scene?
Five major characters, but other minor characters mentioned.
- Paul Scallen (protagonist)
- Jim Kidd (antagonist)
- Mr. Timpey
- Bob Moons (brother of Dick Moons)
- Charlie Prince (and posse of 6 men)
Where does the scene take place (location)?
The town of Contention, primarily in room 207 of the Republic Hotel but also at the train station.
What is the power dynamic at play in this scene?
Power dynamic between Scallen and Kidd is quite even, which is what makes this story work so well. AND they each recognize the others’ power; there’s a respect for the others’ ability.
What is the point of conflict, and how does that relate to the characters’ objects of desire?
Scallen wants to deliver Kidd safely to Yuma (i.e., do his job) and Kidd wants to break free.
When we analyze a scene we need to answer four story event questions, and identify the five commandments of storytelling. These are covered in detail in Story Grid 101 which is available as a free download from the Story Grid website.
Story Event Questions
1. What are the characters literally doing—that is, what are their micro on-the-ground actions?
Scallen is escorting Kidd to prison at Yuma.
2. What is the essential tactic of the characters—that is, what macro behaviours are they employing that are linked to a universal human value?
Scallen and Kidd are evenly matched in terms of power. So, I think the essential action here is that each of them is trying to intimidate the other and get him to back down.
Scallen displays a sense of honour, duty and justice: he’s incorruptible, skilled at neutralizing a threat/danger, isn’t trigger-happy (he could have shot Bob Moons, but that wouldn’t have been just), upholds the jury’s ruling on Kidd, a family man.
Kidd displays confidence, control over self and intelligence: he’s not a hot-head, he recognizes Scallen’s talent and sense of justice, he tries to overpower Scallen through manipulation not physical strength, unphased when Moons enters the hotel room.
Click here for the Essential Tactic Cheat Sheet.
3. What universal human values have changed for one or more characters in the scene? Which one of those value changes is most important and should be included in the Story Grid Spreadsheet?
- Bob Moons: a threat to neutralized, conscious to unconscious
- Kidd: hopeful (that he’ll escape) to hopeless (he sees Scallen’s talent and knows he won’t get away)
- Scallen: Threatened to Safe, but mainly Freedom to Subjugation
- Charlie Prince (and posse): a threat to neutralized
The universal human value spectrum in a Western is Subjugation to Freedom. Here, Scallen moves from Freedom to Subjugation because he is constrained by his moral principles. But, there is a kind of victory because he’s pleased to be constrained and have the courage of his convictions.
4. What is the Story Event that sums up the scene’s on-the-ground actions, essential tactics, and value change? We will enter that event in the Story Grid Spreadsheet.
Deputy Scallen escorts Jim Kidd to prison at Yuma, despite attempts (by Bob Moons and Charlie Prince) to stop him.
Five Commandments of Storytelling
Inciting Incident: Scallen and Kidd arrive in Contention
Progressive Complications (and how they escalate the stakes):
- Timpey is not willing to help
- The hotel room faces the street and isn’t ideal
- Members of Kidd’s gang arrive in Contention
- Kidd offers to walk away and spare Scallen’s life
- Kidd informs Scallen that he makes a lot more money than he does
- With Timpey’s help, Bob Moons sneaks into the hotel room to shoot Kidd
Turning Point Progressive Complication: Kidd offers to pay Scallen to let him go.
Crisis: Does he take the offer or not?
Climax: No, Scallen prepares to get Kidd to the train on time.
Resolution: Kidd’s gang attacks as they make their way to the train, but Scallen and Kidd make it just in time.
What’s special about this scene?
Valerie: This is a classic showdown core event of a western. Paul Scallen is a classic western hero and Jim Kidd is a classic western outlaw. There’s never really any question about whether Scallen will be corrupted, or whether he’ll succeed in his mission. That said, there’s reference to him being afraid when he’s on the platform and he knows Charlie Prince and the others are hiding nearby. Interestingly though, the fear is an assumption on Jim Kidd’s part.
Honestly, I don’t really understand the appeal of westerns. Maybe it’s because I have limited exposure to them, maybe it’s because I don’t see myself represented in them (women in westerns are usually damsels in distress).
What I do appreciate about this story though, is that the protagonist and antagonist are evenly matched and they have a respect for one another. That aspect of their relationship doesn’t have room to develop here in 5,000 words, and it’s not the point of the story. But it’s an interesting dynamic that would make for a great read. There’s nothing personal here, each of them simply has a job to do, and their jobs are in conflict with one another.
Mostly, I’m wondering if the western could be reimagined for a contemporary audience.
Leslie: Definitely! And I’m seeing lots of interest in this, particularly within the Story Grid Guild. I see one big challenge when it comes to refreshing the genre that could be solved by a change in terminology and thinking about these stories in the abstract.
We really need to separate this genre from the sales category that has been dominated in the past by creators like Louis L’amour in novels and John Ford in film. These stories are set in the American West and have all sorts of baggage that we’re just not interested in these days and that aren’t part of the essence of the genre.
Content Genres in the Story Grid Universe arise from a particular core need (aligned with Maslow’s Hierarchy) and the core value that is derived from the need. So for what we’ve been calling the Western, the need is Individual Sovereignty (related to safety and security) and the value spectrum as I said is Subjugation to Freedom. When we think about this in the abstract, it is by no means limited to the American West in the nineteenth century. If we think about an arena that includes a boundary between “places” with relative differences in regulation. This friction, at a literal or metaphoric frontier, where competing interests breed conflict, still exists today. In fact, it’s hard to miss. For example, you have the dark web within the Internet and places where Covid-19 is still spreading quickly. Any arena where there is a conflict between the rights of the individual and those of the collective is ripe for stories of this kind.
Great examples of more recent Frontier-type stories include the TV series Firefly and the Wax and Wayne trilogy by Brandon Sanderson.
One thing in particular I like about this story is that the focus isn’t on the fancy shooting. What’s most interesting are the number of temptations that stand between Scallen and getting Kidd on the train. It demonstrates the idea that Westerns are about the line in the sand, having the courage of your convictions, and the willingness to sacrifice for what is right and just. Of course these stories also explore our willingness to release the shadow to avoid a worse situation–but also being able to come back from that and rejoin society. How to do that is a big question for people who do indescribably hard jobs, like people in the military, like first responders of all stripes, and certainly now if not before, essential workers on the frontline of battling Covid-19.
To windup the show, let’s touch on our key takeaway from this scene.
Valerie: The western is a genre I don’t fully appreciate. I can understand the theory of it and I could write a western that works, but as a reader it’s never really appealed to me.
- It’s a genre from a different era (popular with my father’s generation)
- in a very specific setting (which is a foreign country for me)
- in a different time (when there were frontiers to cross)
- and it’s male-dominated (female characters are difficult for me to connect with).
I do wonder though, whether it will be (or can be) reimagined somehow to make it relevant to modern audiences. It would certainly be an interesting experiment.
Leslie: This story helped me see the internal possibilities within the Western genre. But also, if you aren’t ready to fully embrace the Western or frontier type story, you can add elements of the conflict between the individual and collective to other genres as we see with Hardboiled Crime stories like Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels or the TV show Ripper Street.
Join us next time when we analyze the Hero at the Mercy of the Villain scene in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling.
Your Writers’ Room editors are Valerie Francis, specializing in stories by, for and about women, and Leslie Watts who helps fiction and nonfiction writers craft epic stories that matter.
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